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Say Cheese! Brazil's FotoReporter
The marketing initiative that became a citizen journalism concept
Ana Maria Brambilla (brambilla)     Print Article 
Published 2007-04-28 11:28 (KST)   
Juca Varella has worked as a photographer for more than 20 years.
©2007 Juca Varella

Since 2005, FotoReporter has come to be the biggest and most successful instance of citizen journalism in Brazil. With more than 8,000 contributors, the project asks people from all over the world to take and send in photographs by camera or cellphone. These "photoreporters" have been answering the call, sending in more than 1,300 photos each month.

We talked with Juca Varella, coordinator of FotoReporter, who explained some details of the project.

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How did the FotoReporter idea appear? What were its main initial goals?

The idea appeared in early 2005, after Antonio Hercules, a colleague from our marketing department, returned from a congress in South Korea, where he'd also gotten acquainted with the OhmyNews initiative. Look at this! He said -- what can we do in the same direction?

In Brazil, FotoReporter is pioneering bringing citizen content to a very traditional medium. In fact, citizen participation in radio, TV and the printed media is quite longstanding. When I worked at Folha de Sao Paulo I received a photo taken by a man who lived in the countryside of a jaca (a kind of Brazilian fruit) weighing 60 kg (132 pounds). We accepted it for publication in what was to become a participatory process, one that had never been tried with breaking news.

Immediately thereafter we started a team to brainstorm the new project, and now FotoReporter has turned into a marketing strategy. This group was formed by myself (from the photo department) and representatives of the legal department, the Estado Agency, the tech department and the business area (to establish contact with cell phone companies) to study how citizen input could be accommodated by our system.

A newsroom representative participated in the dialog to vet proposals -- something like a "big boss." We met about once a week the first month for support from these several areas of the company. For us in photography it was a challenge, because we would be consumed by planning and carrying out the project. We also needed to devise an editorial policy for dealing with citizen photos.

What is the process?

It's very simple. We store and display photos received by mail or cellphone on-screen where they all undergo editing, even if some will not see publication. This process goes from 8 a.m. to 0 a.m [midnight].

No one team is dedicated exclusively to processing these photos. The same team of Estado professionals from the photo department edits FotoReporter for content, because any photo is considered as professional material -- there's no distinction.

We encourage citizens to accompany the pictures with text, which we then must edit according to IPTC standards. The IPTC provides an internationally-accepted model for classifying information in text and image form that any newspaper system around the world can read. The photo is kept online for three days for viewing by the entire newsroom and then is sent to our "Doc Center" for permanent archiving, out of respect for our "photoreporters," so that each will be associated with some human interest.

Barely 25 percent of pictures submitted by photoreporters are accepted for publication.

What are the criteria?

It's very common for a photoreporter to send us a series on the same topic, which lets us chose the best. There are some that aren't technically up to scratch, although the tradition in journalism is for the message to trump technical quality. To be selected, a photo must have journalistic interest. We make space for curious trivia, such as a little horse resting in a square in a country village. It can be exotic as well as show a strike by teachers or garbage in the streets.

What kinds of photos are most likely to be published?

There is no fixed category -- anything from a bee gathering nectar from a flower to a (commuter) helicopter coming down on a Sao Paulo neighborhood -- wherever there happens to be a photoreporter at the opportune time. During torrential rains, when some Sao Paulo streets are flooded, we get hundreds of images.

It's a phenomenon that deals in ephemera. By the time we would get our own photographers on site the street would already be dry! But in these cases there will have been a photoreporter on the spot to document the flooding and send us his/her photograph(s). We've already had a contributor who photographed a house being constructed on a very narrow parcel of land -- just a meter (39.4 inches) wide -- at Bahia, which was incorporated into an article published in O Estado de Sao Paulo and sold by the Estado Agency to architectural magazines in Mexico and the U.S.

So a photoreporter can effectively decide the subject for an article through his photos?

Yes, in this case he identified the subject, and the article made the newspaper's front page. We published his material and sent a professional reporter on site to take photos from inside the building.

What are some profiles of photoreporters?

They can be retirees, children registered on their parents' IDs, journalism students and even professional reporters from the provinces who perceive FotoReporter as an opportunity to publish their photos in the mainstream media.
I remember one old man in particular, who "incarnated" the reportorial spirit and asked us for credentials to cover the U2 show in Brazil, but we can't credential collaborators since they're not employees.

Another went to Brasilia, when Hugo Chavez was visiting Lula, who wanted to take photos to send us. There he presented himself as an "Estado photographer" but couldn't prove it. So, security banished this man from the Palacio da Alvorada (the official presidential residence).

On the other hand, we had a contributor who was able to photograph President Lula from a distance of only a meter. It's unheard of for anyone, either press teams or security men, to take photos of the president at such close range -- but he could.

There's another photoreporter who lives next to where stolen cars are stripped. The gang removes all fencible items and then pushes the cars down the slope below where they set them on fire to remove any evidence. This photoreporter, a journalism student, has taken lots of photos that will be incorporated in articles in the print edition of the newspaper.

But wouldn't he have been risking his life, not being protected by a union or publishing company?

Yes, there is the possibility that he could be threatened by this gang, but when he takes these photos and sends them to us for publication he is assuming these risks.

How many photos do you receive each day?

From 60 to 200 photos, depending on the news of the day. We did thematic editions on the [450th] anniversary of Sao Paulo and the World Cup Tournament in Germany. During the World Cup, some Brazilians sent us photos from Germany. Now, we routinely get photoreporters' contributions from abroad. FotoReporter is available in all Brazilian States and in nearly 80 countries.

What's FotoReporter's business model?

FotoReporter exists on a Web portal and in printed form as a mix of citizen and professional journalism, so the portal for FotoReporter is part of the portal for Estado and is funded by advertising revenues, but when a photo is published in print form or sold by the Estado Agency its author is paid anywhere from BRL 50 to 120 (US$24.70 to $59.30). These are the same fees paid to professional photographers and freelancers. Fifty percent is paid to the author of the accompanying article, the remainder going to Estado.

What about feedback? Do you always let photoreporters know what happens with their submissions?

We haven't been providing them the personal feedback they deserve. Although the project is doing quite well, we need to develop a protocol for traffic in information, a culture in which a closer relationship between the public and newsrooms can be established. We see the need for it now to get us on course for the near future -- the necessity either to call or send an email, but this is still something we do only if we entertain doubts, in which case we will publish the photo. Sometimes we make a special call to praise a submission.

Do you suggest subjects?

No, since that would change the relationship between the newspaper and its photoreporters.

Nowadays, FotoReporter is present in 80 countries and in all Brazil
©2007 Ana Brambilla

What made you think of encouraging people to take photos for submission to FotoReporter?

After the July 2005 terrorist attack against the London Underground we analyzed lots of print edition newspapers, from The New York Times to the Taubate Daily (from the Sao Paulo countryside). All of these used photos taken by subway passengers as photoreporters. There's a tsunami coming! Well, lots of people have a camera on hand but don't know exactly what to do with it -- with the technology. But they want to do something! So when you open a channel like FotoReporter, you get people's attention. Initially in our project we got 250 new registrations each day. Everyone is something of a journalist or soccer coach in embryo (laughs).

People are no longer satisfied just showing pictures they've taken to relatives, friends or neighbors. Now with the Internet they can send them as attachments to a big list. When citizen journalism was launched, this desire increased. "I want to cry out," a citizen shouted, who was faced with a sinkhole in his front yard that City Hall never attended to. The press can amplify citizen power appreciably in pursuit of its mission as a social agency.

I remember the case of a town square where a truck used to dump tons of garbage. A citizen who lived nearby took some photos and sent them to us. We made it into an article, and as of now I don't think there is any garbage in that square. A camera and pen can be very powerful instruments of exposure and denunciation.

Do you admit first-person content?

Sometimes, yes. But everything must undergo editing for the IPTC database, which now means that all texts in the first person cannot stay in that form. Sometimes headings and legends have as many as 20 lines.

That shows that people want to write?

Sure! There are plans along these lines to expand FotoReporter, not only with text but also with video and audio. Maybe we'll have a VideoReporter.

Do you think Brazilian journalism has changed since FotoReporter began?

FotoReporter faced a lot of resistance when it was created. Even from me! When I got familiar with the idea, I still looked askance. I have more than a 20-year professional background and would not like do be part of any action, pioneering or otherwise, that would threaten my profile as photojournalist, something that could displace my colleagues and me. My team was the first one consulted about the FotoReporter project. Some adopted a contrary position, saying it was a dam that could burst at any moment. So, isn't it better to organize and do it right?

Today we're an example for other collaborative journalism initiatives in Brazil. Of course, we didn't invent anything, but we did carefully plan the project from the outset. Conservative reaction, however, will always make itself heard.

Initially, the president of ARFOC (Photographic and Cinematographic Reporters Association) viewed the project unfavorably, claiming I wanted to destroy our profession, that Estado wanted to fire all photojournalists. I offered to meet and explain to all the reporters of Sao Paulo what the plans were for FotoReporter, but he didn't agree to meet until very recently. Of course, there are those who want us to falter or publish faked photos. Everything is fallible, even radio, TV and traditional journalism, including ourselves. But we've been online now for 18 months without a hitch.

Do you agree that collaborative journalism's future could be with mobile phones?

Sure! In a way, it's already happening. Mobile's quality improves daily, despite difficult negotiations with cellphone firms. But since the 2005 London terrorist attack some operators are looking for media companies to develop process like this.
Ana Brambilla is Brazilian journalist, and works in collaborative journalism projects.
©2007 OhmyNews
Other articles by reporter Ana Maria Brambilla

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