Photojournalism in 2012: A year of excellence, ethical challenges and errors

As 2012 nears its end, we look back at the major trends and memorable events that defined photography and photojournalism this year.

Photo-sharing battle heats up

Instagram exploded into the mainstream in 2012, capitalizing on three cultural trends: The widespread adoption of smartphone cameras, people's desire to quickly make their amateur photos look good, and the need for an easy way to share photos with friends.

Others took notice. Facebook snatched up Instagram for $1 billion. Twitter built its own photo filters, and Yahoo relaunched the Flickr mobile app with filters as well.

This photography boom wasn't all brunch plates and landscapes either. Instagram had a breakout moment during Hurricane Sandy, with more than 800,000 photos of the storm and its aftermath.

Time Magazine sent five professional photojournalists out to document the storm, using Instagram, and the resulting photo gallery was one of the most-viewed ever.

One of the Instagram photos shot for Time Magazine by Ben Lowy, who has a Hipstamatic lens named for him.

This trend was not without controversy.

Some wondered if these apps were dumbing down photography and whether it's appropriate for journalists to use them. (More reading: The benefits, drawbacks of using camera phones as a photojournalist)

Just this week Instagram changed its terms of service to lay groundwork for advertising that may incorporate users' names and photos. There has been a backlash, with many users threatening to delete their accounts. But it remains to be seen what will actually happen when the rules take effect in January.

Either way, the trend of mobile photography is here to stay. A recent survey found that more than two-thirds of Americans with smartphones use them to take pictures and video, up from 57 percent a year earlier.

Slippery ethics

2012 also saw several photojournalists in ethical controversies.

Likely the most memorable is the New York Post's front-page photo of a man "about to die" after being pushed onto a subway track. The freelance photographer who got the photo said he was trying to help, but Post editors were in a less defensible position.

One Instagram user captured this up-close photo of a dead body, which we've blocked out the worst of.

A couple months earlier in New York City, a deadly shooting at the Empire State Building led to gruesome eyewitness photos posted on Twitter and Instagram, and left news organizations scrambling to curate, verify and decide how to display them.

Then there were the manipulated or fabricated images.

A photojournalist for Sun-Times Media in Chicago was fired for fabricating at least 43 photos and captions in a regularly recurring newspaper feature.

The Sacramento Bee fired photographer Bryan Patrick after it found three cases since 2009 in which he digitally manipulated photographs. Patrick used composite images, removed shadows or enlarged flames in various images.

An Austrian newspaper, Kronen Zeitung, was caught printing this fake photo of a family fleeing Aleppo, Syria. The image is a composite, superimposing the family onto the rubble background from another photo.

Other news orgs had problems stemming from photos that were used without permission.

The Portland Press Herald in Maine paid a woman $400 after initially using her Flickr photo without permission, defending its decision in a story posted online, then deleting the story.

And BuzzFeed has come under scrutiny for its photo-filled posts that reuse photos without permission and often without attribution. One particular post ripped off New York Magazine for eight out of 11 of its hypothetical New York Post headlines and drew widespread rebukes.

Iconic images

One of the biggest news events of the year, the presidential election, was capped off by a tweeted photo of the Obamas that became the most-retweeted ever.

Another huge story, the destruction and flooding caused by Hurricane Sandy, was told through photos like Iwan Baan's cover shot for New York Magazine:

New York Magazine cover

The NFL's replacement referees had fans pulling their hair out for weeks, but one moment captured by Getty photographer Otto Greule told it all perfectly and may have been the catalyst that forced the NFL to bring back the regular refs.

Different calls

On the brighter side of sports, AP photographer Greg Bull captured a breathtaking photo of Olympic gymnast Gabby Douglas in mid-flight above the balance beam. "I was thinking, I’m just going to set a stage and let her do it right in the middle of the frame," Bull told Poynter's Steve Myers.

Gabby Douglas

Those pictures were all obvious hits. But sometimes, an image's fame comes as a surprise.

A photo by Reuters photographer Kevin Lamarque, of Hillary Clinton wearing sunglasses on a plane while checking her BlackBerry, inspired a "Texts From Hillary" meme that lit up the Internet for days. Eventually, Clinton herself even joined the fun.

Hillary on the plane

Mistakes and hoaxes

Hurricane Sandy brought several visual hoaxes.

A great photo of soldiers standing guard in the rain at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier went viral.

soldiers in the rain

Trouble was, it was shot in September, more than a month before the storm.

Fake photos purported to show sharks swimming the flooded streets of New Jersey.

Fake shark photo

Fortunately, debunkers like Tom Phillips and Alexis Madrigal were on the case.

Earlier in the year there was the viral photo of the Obama-hating Alabama sorority girl, who turned out to be none of those things.

She actually had just dressed up as a tea party protestor for a costume party, but the Internet mistook her intended irony for hypocrisy.

Then there were the really unfortunate cases of mistaken identity.

While reporting a story about alleged kidnappers accused of holding a man at gunpoint, WTAE-TV in Pittsburgh ran a photo of an uninvolved 49-year-old woman who had the same name as the 21-year-old kidnapper. The woman is suing the Hearst-owned station for defamation and invasion of privacy.

And in Framingham, Mass., the MetroWest Daily News ran a front-page story and photo about an alleged child rapist. The photo, again, was of a different man who happened to have the same name as the accused. The misidentified man sued the newspaper for the mistake, and for an "inadequate" correction that was "buried" on page 2 with small type and no photo. (More reading: 5 tips for getting photo IDs right)

Were there other unforgettable moments in photography and photojournalism that you'll be remembering long after 2012 is gone? Leave your comments below.

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    Jeff Sonderman

    Jeff Sonderman is the deputy director of the American Press Institute, helping to lead its use of research, tools, events, and strategic insights to advance and sustain journalism.


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