Bull (2009:120) in discussing citizen photojournalism relates the dissipation among the mass media of images captured by Alexander Chadwick, a victim of the 7 July 2005 terrorist attacks on London, as he was evacuated from a train. Bull cites opinion that ‘a distrust of a mass media based on staged ‘photo opportunity’ has made amateur photographs all the more convincing’. Yet there remains an ambiguity to what any such (perhaps less dramatic) photograph shows as is acutely illustrated by the story of the policeman in New York city who in December 2012 was photographed by a tourist giving a pair of boots and socks to a homeless man (Jeffrey Hillman) on the street; the image went viral and in the end did ‘something terrible and cruel to Jeffrey Hillman’, and ‘is an object lesson in the complexity an apparently simple image can conceal’ (Jones, 2012).
As Jones (2012) relates, the New York Times tracked down Jeffrey Hillman and this celebrity made him the target of aggressive scrutiny to the extent that, absurdly, a picture that started as a seasonal heartwarmer became a reason not to feel sorry for the homeless as Hillman was painted as a wilful eccentric. The fact that the image was generated by citizen photojournalism does not exempt it from the same criticism levelled at much documentary photography i.e. it ‘carries (old) information about a group of powerless people to another group addressed as socially powerful’ (Rosler 1981:306). Jones (2012) remarks on the image of Hillman that it ‘glorifies the giver, and defines the recipient as a passive, helpless victim. It makes poverty look simple and kindness seem a substitute for larger social change’. This echoes much of the recent criticism of such nineteenth century social reformer photographers as Jacob Riis (b.1849) and Lewis Hind (b.1874) by for example Martha Rosler (1981:304).
The story of happened to Jeffrey Hillman does not dispute the statement that ‘most commentators on documentary photography see it as being in a constant state of flux as its aesthetics change and it moves from the newspaper …’(Bull, 2009:122), it nevertheless shows that some constants do remain.
Bull, S (2009) Photography. London: Routledge
Jones, J (2012) The homeless man and the NYPD cop’s boots: how a warm tale turns cold [Online]. Guardian Newspaper website. Available from: http://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2012/dec/04/homeless-man-nypd-cop-boots (Accessed 30 August 2014)
Rosler, M (1981) ‘In, Around and Afterthoughts (on documentary photography)’ In: Bolton, R. (ed.) The Contest of Meaning: Critical Histories of Photography. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press pp. 303-340