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Camera phones turn bystanders into chroniclers of catastrophe
Sacramento Bee


July 08, 2005

Shortly after the London bombings, photographs of the carnage began to appear on television sets and computer screens worldwide. However, the images were not captured by professionals but taken by ordinary citizens with camera phones.

In the days after the Sept. 11, 2001, terror attacks, cell phones were heralded for keeping people in touch during a time of chaotic disaster. Now, nearly four years later, phones equipped with cameras have put a sharp focus on the melding of technology and tragedy once again.

"This is the first time in my memory as a journalist that cell phones and video phones were used (to document) such a major news event," said Jon Klein, president of CNN-U.S. "But it won't be the last."

Although the technical merits of the photos and videos are, at best, poor, Klein added, CNN's decision to air the images came down to a case of immediacy trumping quality.

"As we know from home video, the quality is going to be hit or miss, but that's offset by the (picture's) proximity to the story," said Klein. "Technology is metastasizing with the general public. This will demystify the process of news gathering."

Of course, the technology is not yet fail-safe. Some survivors of the bombings at the three subway stations and on a bus reported that their cell phones were inoperable after the attacks.

But what is certain is that what images were captured brought a stunned audience together in a new and different way.

One blurred, green-tinted photo - taken by British commuter Alexander Chadwick - was widely shown and was compelling in its depiction of passengers as they were being evacuated from a subway near London's King's Cross station.

Michael Zey, the author of several books on the future and technology, including "The Future Factor," noticed that the Fox network asked viewers to e-mail photographs from the scene, although it's unclear whether all were taken by cell phones.

"They were basically asking the entire public to become their reporters," Zey said from his home in Morristown, N.J.

Whereas television brought the Vietnam War into living rooms, and color photography made it vivid, now the public can almost instantly see raw and uncensored photographs, Zey added.

"There's no controlling this," he said. "In the long run, it is healthy for society to have the ability to access this information. You can always turn it off."

Although you won't be able to necessarily ignore it.

As camera phones have evolved from being toys for the techno-elite into inexpensive gadgets, they have become fairly ubiquitous, said Kent German, associate editor for CNET, a San Francisco-based Web magazine that reviews new technologies and trends.

Travis Holmquist, a sales representative for T-Mobile at Sacramento's Downtown Plaza mall, said sales of camera phones have been growing steadily in recent years.

He estimates that 60 percent or more of his store's customers have phones that can take and transmit pictures. Some buy them to document information, such as damage to a car after an accident for insurance purposes.

But many, like Lorrinda Shimizu of Sacramento, just consider the phones a fun novelty and rarely use them for serious purposes.

"My kids love it," Shimizu said. "I take pictures of them making silly faces - things like that."

Her sister Pattey Fong, a visitor from Philadelphia, said news of the amateur images from London took her back to the Loma Prieta earthquake in 1989.

"I remember seeing the video images taken by people who were driving across the Bay Bridge, and how the bridge collapsed and the car disappeared," she said. "It was history, and I guess people used their cell phones that way in London."

Still, German predicts it will be a while before camera phones truly redefine how history is chronicled. Before that can happen, he said, there must be improvements made to the phones' standard functions.

They are not "designed to replace a regular digital camera," he said. But perhaps more importantly, more people need to learn how to use the phones effectively.

"Most people don't even know how to get the photos off their cameras," German said. "Taking a picture is one thing; doing something with it is another."

At CNN, the only internal question that arose on Thursday was whether the source of the images could be authenticated, Klein said.

"There was hesitation to use material that we did not personally generate, (so) we didn't rush to put it on the air," Klein said. "But once we ran them through our own vetting process, we were satisfied."



Distributed by Scripps Howard News Service,

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