Brian McDermott's Top Five Photojournalism Stories Of 2012

By Brian McDermott

According to statistics from a 1000 Memories blog post, about 10 percent of all the photographs ever taken – all 3.875 trillion of them – were shot in 2012. Most photojournalists would agree that it’s been a busy year.

With a new year about to begin, this is a subjective look back at what we believe were the top five photojournalism stories of 2012. 

• All Eyes on Instagram

In March 2012, when Instagram had 13 full-time employees and around 35 million users, Atlanta photojournalist Kendrick Brinson decided to sign up. She saw the App as a way to share her personal photography.

By the end of the year, Facebook had shelled out $735 million to buy the company, the ethics of Instagram filters became fodder for panel discussions at journalism conferences, and a December change to the Terms of Use had to be cancelled less than a week later to prevent a user exodus. Meanwhile, Brinson had 17,000 followers, had taken over The New Yorker’s Instagram feed for a week, and had gotten a commercial commission involving the service from a “a high end retailer that most people would know.”

Instagram has inspired an unusual passion from both professionals and amateurs. When that passion was positive, it led to a mobile usership larger than Twitter and a creative stream of amateur and professional work. 

“There’s this whole community of photographers, and I might not know them, but I know their work,” Brinson said. “I basically get to go on assignments with people.”

But that passion can be negative, too. When the company proposed changes to the Terms of Use a week before Christmas, including a clause asserting commercial control over user images, people got angry. The company couldn’t put a rosy filter on the backlash, and backtracked a few days later. 

The new year begins with commercial questions hanging over the App. How will Instagram make money? And will photographers continue to use the service as enthusiastically? 

• “Doomed”

What hasn’t already been said about New York Post freelancer R. Umar Abbasi’s cover photograph of a man about to be killed by a New York subway train?

"Where is the line between journalism and exploitation?"  asked Mary Elizabeth Williams in Salon. "What would you do?" asked David Schoetz on "Why are images of death so fraught in the public imagination?" asked J. Bryan Lowder in Slate. Gossip blog Perez Hilton was talking about the photograph, and so was the Oxford University Press

Put simply, the photograph raised some of the toughest questions in visual ethics. But the conversation wasn’t cloistered among visual professionals – everybody was talking about it. The debate was mainstream, and that’s why this story was so important, especially for a culture that doesn’t always respond in a reflective way to the images that surround it.

“The discussion [of Abbasi’s photograph] has prompted is not a public policy discussion. It has prompted a huge outswelling of emotion,” said Slate editor David Plotz during that site’s Political Gabfest on December 7. “It’s not like it’s an emotion that’s going to create change in society, but I don’t think anyone comes away from seeing this photograph a lesser person. It has created a huge amount of thought in us.”

• Courts Affirm the Constitutional Right to Record Police Officers

“A citizen's right to film government officials, including law enforcement officers, in the discharge of their duties in a public space is a basic, vital, and well-established liberty safeguarded by the First Amendment.”

Those aren’t the words of NPPA general counsel Mickey H. Osterreicher, or your Introduction to Photojournalism professor. They were written by federal judge Kermit Lipez of the 1st Circuit of the United States Court of Appeals in the 2011 decision in the case of Glik v. Cunniffe. The case was settled in 2012, and it marks an important affirmation of the constitutional right of anyone to photograph and record the police in public.

Photography is Not a Crime, says the axiomatic blog title of multimedia journalist Carlos Miller. But loitering, disorderly conduct, wiretapping and disturbing the peace are, as some professional and amateur photographers and videographers have found out in incidents around the United States. 

One of those occurred in 2007, when attorney Simon Glik (at left) saw three police officers arresting a man on the Boston Common. Standing about 10 feet away, he started recording video with his cell phone because he was worried the officers were using excessive force. After asking if he was recording audio too, the officers arrested him, saying he violated Massachusetts’s wiretapping law by taping the incident.

A court eventually threw out that charge and several others. Glik sued, saying his civil rights were violated and he had been wrongfully arrested. He won, and accepted a $170,000 settlement in 2012. But the case continues to reverberate into 2013.

“The fact that they were were willing to go beyond the questions presented in that case and really elaborate on many of the issues of the day was very helpful,” attorney Osterreicher told me. In December, he used the First Circuit’s opinion in his defense of a photographer charged with disorderly conduct.

“There are so many things that the First Circuit really put into words – the rights of the press and the public to be co-expansive, the fact that they recognized the proliferation of cell phones, that they recognized the fact that the nature of journalism is changing,” Osterreicher said.

Combined with a Christmas Eve injunction in U.S. District Court that permanently stops Cook County, Illinois, from arresting ACLU staff from recording police officers on the job in a public place (the Seventh Circuit ruled on the case in ACLU v. Alvarez), 2012 was a good year for the legal rights of photojournalists and the public to photograph and record the police in public.

 “Certainly the police should not have any special privilege beyond anybody else, especially when they’re performing their official duties in a public place,” said Osterreicher. 

The eventual way to settle the patchwork nature of the appeals rulings is for the Supreme Court to weigh in, but “it has to be the right case,” NPPA's lawyer said. 

• Crowd Funding and Publishing Attracts a Bigger Crowd

To a certain generation, the idea of crowd funded journalism would have started and stopped with the NPR announcer’s, “... and thanks to listeners like you.” Today crowd funding sites like Kickstarter (founded in 2009) and the photojournalism-focused (founded in 2011) are matching more and more photographers to a paying audience. Individual photographers and agencies are experimenting with new crowd funding and publishing models to make money and build a community for their work.

“2012 has been a very good year,” co-founder Karim Ben Khelifa told me. “We have more people coming to the platform and we have more projects coming to the platform. Also, in 2012, we decided to become a publisher.”

That decision has so far been a success. Ben Khelifa said every book they put on the site for pre-order has raised enough money to print the book, with pre-sales of about 2,500 copies. Book topics range from Sámi reindeer herders to the Arab Spring. 

For Magnum member and Minnesotan Alec Soth, it’s also been another year of economic experimentation. Soth was part of an April project where 11 Magnum photographers went on a roadtrip to photograph in Rochester, NY. They posted their images in real time on a Tumblr feed and in The New Yorker, and sold books and prints directly to viewers. Grants and sponsorships were also part of the funding equation.

“Magnum is trying to find its way in this new world, and it can’t function on the old distribution model and the overhead of all these offices and so forth,” Soth said. “So we’ve done these experiments.”

Soth has his own laboratory, a small publishing house he started in 2008 called Little Brown Mushroom. In 2012 he sold subscriptions and mailed newsprint dispatches of work from Ohio and Michigan, as well as copies of books.

“I consider Little Brown Mushroom more of a hobby than a real business, and as such I try to keep the stakes a bit lower and just try to break even,” he said. “It allows me to play and experiment and try different things. I feel like I don’t have the burden of satisfying the needs of the industry.”

“Because it has that experimental quality I think there’s a potential for stuff to be fresher and more exciting.” 

• Documentary Photographers Branch Out

Lauren Greenfield (pictured below) is a household name to most photojournalists. By knotting a blunt visual style with the sociology of what’s often right under our noses, she produced an important body of still work with books like “Girl Culture” and “Fast Forward.”

Then, she took her talents to Orlando to make a movie.

“The Queen of Versailles” is a documentary released in 2012 that follows Florida millionaires David and Jackie Siegel. It is Greenfield’s first theatrical release and a nuanced metaphor for a United States walloped by the financial collapse. Reviewers swooned. Eric Limer of Gizmodo called it “probably the best thing to come out of the financial crisis.

“It's a delicious tale of poetic justice in which palaces crumble and the maws of gluttony run dry,” writes Rafer Guzmán in Newsday. “By extension, however, it's a tale about all of us.” 

Greenfield, of course, is not the first photojournalist to work in film. Stanley Kubrick and Gordon Parks started as photojournalists before settling into the director’s chair. But it’s notable that Greenfield was able to translate her distinct photojournalistic style so successfully to the big screen.

Greenfield’s jump to video hasn’t been the only fruitful change of scenery for a documentary photographers in 2012. Photographer Taryn Simon, who published several books and has photographed for outlets like The New York Times magazine, gave a TED talk and headlined a successful solo show of her project on bloodlines at the Museum of Modern Art in New York City.

Two examples of documentary photographers jumping genres don’t make a trend. But these success stories – combined with 2012’s crowd publishing experiments, the public’s engagement with photo ethics, the popularity of photography on social media and legal rulings affirming the right to visual access – bode well for a 2013 full of visual opportunity.


Brian McDermott teaches photojournalism, Web design, and video at the University of Massachusetts Amherst