Tuesday, October 6, 2009

The rise of the citizen-cameraman

Have you taken a news picture on your iPhone or cell and sent it to a newspaper? Maybe a TV station? Many folk have. It’s become the phenomena of modern news coverage. Within minutes of a big event the call goes out for citizen cameramen/women to submit their snaps.

It’s an obvious and sensible move by news departments to call in every source available. They already have contracted news feeds. Worldwide agencies for news, sports and feature material. So why do they want yours?

Because new technology allows it. Any cell phone has the ability to transmit a picture anywhere. With paparazzi and news agencies charging thousands per picture a punter on the spot, pinging in their offering for pennies, is good news coverage and good business. (If you take a news value picture, fix a fee before they use it. Afterwards you might find it hard to get the picture editor’s attention.)

Picture coverage wasn’t always this easy. At the close of World War ll millions of men returned from the war front. These winning heros could not be consigned to the unemployment scrapheap. The government of the time offered huge financial incentives to industry and to newspaper proprietors to ‘overman’ their offices and plants.  Some newspaper presses had ten men per single job to rake in the subsidies. Later this became the union wars of the ‘80’s, but the proprietors laid the foundation to soak up the government’s money.

After the austerity of the war years the public wanted entertainment. In the fifties the national papers and radio supplied it. The BBC was a static camera operation. Great for major events like the Coronation and royal weddings, especially with the incomparable Richard Dimbleby commentating. ITV had not yet arrived.

National newspapers had huge staffs of cameramen (and a few women).  With the new miniature cameras, Leicas and Pentaxes, shooting 35mm mono film, this allowed them to travel fast and light. (relatively, a mobile darkroom weighed 30 lbs.)

The Daily Express was the big seller at 5 million a day. Then a broadsheet, it had 51 photographers in London, 27 in Manchester and 31 in Glasgow. Plus staffmen all over the UK and Europe. I was its picture editor in the late '60's early '70's. One snapper’s sole job in Southampton was to meet the transatlantic liners arriving from New York. It was the Hollywood stars’ favourite form of travel. Liz Taylor arrived on the Queen Mary, a blushing first bride, with husband Nicky Hilton, causing panic in Fleet Street.

The problem was sending the pictures to Fleet Street. The legendary Express snapper, Bill Lovelace, explained that, for any foreign assignment, his preparations began at Heathrow. He would strew presents along his journey, deftly aimed at those who would become his return chain for news film. These would include air hostesses, pilots, (it was legal then) hotel receptionists, switchboard girls, taxi drivers, etc.  All would be recruited. Lovelace’s films rarely went astray and often beat his opposition cameramen to Fleet Street. It was all part of a photographer’s skills.

Where there was a Cable and Wireless office, Bill would hook up his Muirhead drum scanner to the local telephone system and ‘wire’ his print to London. This was a hit and miss affair with lots of swearing at both ends.

On one celebrated occasion in May 1972 the QE2 was threatened by a bomber. The man claimed to be dying of terminal cancer and wanted to take the old liner with him. He said six devices were aboard and wanted $350,000 to disclose their whereabouts. Bill had to be there. The liner was 1,000 miles out, having left New York full of rich American passengers. Only a 707 could make the return trip. Lovelace bought off the entire passengers aboard a BOAC Boeing 707, with Express gold. He commandeered it with a reporter to fly the Atlantic solo. They had six air hostesses for company.

The Special Boat Service flew a bomb disposal team in for a military drop. These brave men parachuted into the raging mid-Atlantic, splash landing beside the QE2 but the threat was declared a hoax. Lovelace had his exclusive. Captioned QE2 yesterday in the Atlantic. In those days national newspapers had a barrel of gold in the front hall for extravagances such as these.

Soon the world went digital and so did news photography. But not without a fight. In March 1986, Eddie Shah, launched the first true news colour paper, naming it TODAY. The paper was digital but not the cameras. Photographer, Tom Stoddard, dragged a machine the size of a small car from their Pimlico offices to Tokyo to transmit the first colour picture of Princess Diana in a kimono. The Scitex scanner he used cost £350,000.

So when you send your citizen-cameraman picture to the media, having taken it and sent it with your humble cell phone, a tiny handset worth a couple of hundred quid, spare a thought for Lovelace and hundreds like him who would have sold their grannies for such luxuries.

How the world changes.

Footnote: The Express now has one photographer – worldwide.

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