Eyewitness Journalism

Camera Phones Lend Immediacy to Images of Disaster

People caught up in the London terrorist attacks on July 7 used cell-phone cameras to record their experiences in the aftermath. (AP)
People caught up in the London terrorist attacks on July 7 used cell-phone cameras to record their experiences in the aftermath. (AP)
By Yuki Noguchi
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, July 8, 2005

Some of the most intimate images of yesterday's bomb blasts in London came from cell phones equipped with cameras and video recorders, demonstrating how a technology originally marketed as entertainment has come to play a significant role in up-to-the-minute news.

The availability of the cameras, combined with the ability to transmit pictures and text instantaneously, is enabling the world to view news with nearly the immediacy of a victim or eyewitness.

One blurry, poorly lighted image was captured yesterday by the phone of a subway passenger trapped underground along with dozens of others following the series of lethal explosions that crippled London during its morning commute. The door of the subway car, stopped in a tunnel at King's Cross, is pried open to give passengers air, which hangs thick with smoke.

Within hours, the image made its way onto television screens and Web sites, prompting one online respondent to post the message: "watching this on the news in the US., praying for you all."

On a Web log hosted by the Guardian newspaper, a woman wrote about being shepherded out of the subway station: "As I was going towards the exit there was this smell. Like burning hair. And then the people starting walking out, soot and blood on their faces. And then this woman's face. Half of it covered in blood."

Other witnesses posted photos of a double-decker bus that had been torn to pieces. Yet another blogger posted a photo later in the day of Londoners trudging home on foot, with the headline, "London in chaos this evening."

Camera phones, once a novelty, now outsell digital cameras by about 4 to 1, according to analyst data. As more sophisticated phones and higher-speed networks have become available, wireless companies have recently started offering video camcorders on their phones that can nearly instantly transmit moving pictures over e-mail or onto the Internet. Dozens of personal blog sites and news organizations' Web sites, including those of the BBC, CNN, London's the Sun and the World Picture Network, solicited pictures and video from bystanders caught in the carnage.

It was similar to the way Web sites clamored last December for home videos of the devastating tsunami that washed over Southeast Asia. The personal, visceral feel of those pictures inspired well-wishers to open their checkbooks to support philanthropy in unprecedented numbers.

In China, cellular phones are eroding the Communist Party's ability to control opposing political groups' communications with the outside world, in part because of the ability to transmit images of protests.

History is full of accidental journalism using portable devices, from the famous Abraham Zapruder film capturing President John F. Kennedy's assassination to the videotape of Rodney King being beaten by Los Angeles police and the incriminating snapshots taken at the Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq.

That tradition accelerates with the widespread use of new recording devices, said Kenny Irby, visual journalism leader at the Poynter Institute, a Florida-based school for journalists.

"The proliferation of cell phones and digital cameras . . . have led to a great deal more documentation added to the news stream," he said. Digital cell images provide a "unique voyeurism," he said. "The intimacy comes out of the spontaneity."

Now wireless companies are partnering with news organizations to integrate themselves in the news process.

During the presidential inauguration ceremonies, Sprint Corp. lent video and camera phones to 20 parade-watchers, whose images in turn were used by ABC News to augment the network's on-air coverage of the event.

Similarly, Cingular Wireless LLC ventured into its own version of the news business, sponsoring a blog at the political conventions last year where some of the company's customers could post their camera phone images.

There are, of course, downsides to relying on amateur news gathering. News organizations can't verify the origin or reliability of an image taken and sent on the fly.

Moreover, many callers said they could not get through on their mobile phones yesterday after the attacks because wireless towers were jammed with traffic from callers trying to reach their loved ones.

© 2005 The Washington Post Company