Regular Folks, Shooting History

Onlookers used camera phones to snap former Philippine first lady Imelda Marcos in Manila recently. Celebrities worldwide have been stung by the new technology.
Onlookers used camera phones to snap former Philippine first lady Imelda Marcos in Manila recently. Celebrities worldwide have been stung by the new technology. (By Bullit Marquez -- Associated Press)

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By Kevin Sullivan
Washington Post Foreign Service
Monday, December 18, 2006

GLASGOW, Scotland -- At 2:42 p.m. on Oct. 11, Dean Collins heard a thunderous explosion as he worked at his computer in his 30th-floor apartment in Manhattan.

Collins looked out his window and saw a small plane crashing into a building right in front of him -- the accident that killed New York Yankees pitcher Cory Lidle and his flight instructor. Instinctively, he recalled, he pulled his Fuji digital camera from a drawer and started shooting, thinking to himself, "This is going to be on the news."

Collins, a consultant for a software company, said he remembered reading about Scoopt, a year-old agency in Scotland that brokers photos for "citizen journalists." Within minutes, he had e-mailed his digital shots to Scoopt. Hours later, his picture of a smoking Manhattan high-rise was in three British newspapers, including a front-page splash in the Times of London. He earned $650 for his work.

The rapid rise of digital technology, which enables ordinary people almost anywhere to record images and post them quickly on the Internet, is changing the way the world witnesses history, not to mention the dependable misbehavior of celebrities. Events that once were recorded only by human memory may now endure in full, pixelated detail, available in seconds around the globe.

The trend is driven by the proliferation of camera-equipped cellphones, introduced in Japan in 2000. Worldwide sales topped 460 million this year and will reach 1 billion by 2010, according to industry analysts.

With the proliferation of images, prosecutors are increasingly relying on photos as evidence in cases against accused muggers, terrorists and other criminals. Insurance companies balance cellphone photos against recollection as they assess auto accidents.

And the presence of cellphone cameras in handbags and coat pockets means that for the famous, private space is shrinking fast. Scoopt has also sold cellphone photos of Michelle Rodriguez, star of the television show "Lost," drinking and partying wildly in a bar in New York, and shots of Paris Hilton dancing on a table in Las Vegas.

Celebrities everywhere have been stung by stealthy camera phones. Grainy photos of supermodel Kate Moss snorting what appeared to be cocaine, apparently shot with a camera phone, appeared in newspapers worldwide last year. Britain's Prince Harry was forced to apologize last year when a fellow reveler at a costume party used a camera phone to snap the prince wearing a Nazi uniform -- then sold the photos to tabloids for thousands of dollars.

Forty-three years ago, a single person with a home movie camera captured the only detailed images of the assassination of President John F. Kennedy. If today's technology had existed then, dozens or even hundreds of people with cellphones and pocket-size digital cameras probably would have recorded the shooting from every possible angle.

"We might actually know if there was somebody on the grassy knoll," said Dan Gillmor, a California-based journalist and author who has written extensively about what he calls "grass-roots journalism."

Governments have always controlled information, from the Nazis to South American dictators hiding evidence of their "disappeared" enemies, said David Friend, an editor at Vanity Fair. "But now the photograph has suddenly changed the equation -- the power is in the hands of the average citizen," said Friend, whose 2006 book, "Watching the World Change," explores the rising power of images. "Whatever you do now, you will be held accountable. You will be seen."

Friend noted that camera-equipped cellphones were not common in the United States at the time of the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks. The historical record of events would have been richer if people in the twin towers or on the hijacked planes had been able to send out photos and video of their ordeal.


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© 2006 The Washington Post Company

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