Seeing is believing

Photo by Joseph Galanakis

By Harry van Versendaal

When Thimios Gourgouris first caught the news of furious rioting in downtown Athens in December 2008, he reached for his Nikon camera. As the Greek capital surrendered to an orgy of violence and looting sparked by the fatal shooting of a teenager by police, the curious young man from the suburbs took to the debris-strewn streets to document the mayhem.

Three years later, the number of people like Gourgouris have skyrocketed. As public rallies against the Socialist government’s austerity measures — sanctioned by the European Union and the International Monetary Fund, the debt-choked country’s foreign creditors — keep coming, more people seem to have set aside the traditional flag and banner for a more versatile medium: the digital camera. Just type “Greek protests 2011” into Google Images and you’ll get more than 5 million results.

This burst of interest in user-generated content is propelled by more than one reason. But, like elsewhere around the world, it is principally born out of public skepticism toward conventional media.

“I want to see with my own eyes what is happening out there. I stopped relying just on the stuff I was being fed by television,” Gourgouris, a tall man with a dark beard and expressive eyes, said in a recent interview.

Greece’s mainstream media have not escaped unscathed from popular criticism of the country’s institutions. Television channels and newspapers — traditionally associated with the nation’s political parties — are seen as pandering to political and business interests.

“I only trust what I see,” Gourgouris said.

Born in 1980, Gourgouris has never belonged to a political party. A former graphic designer who now works as a commercial representative in Elefsina, a small town west of Athens, he dreams of one day becoming a war photographer. The streets around Syntagma Square make good training ground, he jokes. When venturing into the urban scuffles, he wears gloves, body armor and a green Brainsaver helmet equipped with a built-in camera. “Last time a piece of marble hit me on the right shoulder,” he said.

Gourgouris makes a point of sharing all of his pictures on Flickr, the image- and video-hosting website. All his photographs are free to download in high resolution. One of his shots from the latest riots shows a riot policeman trying to snatch an SLR camera from a man standing in Syntagma Square. A woman reacts to the scene while trying to protect a fellow demonstrator who appears to be in a state of shock.

“If I had to keep a single image from the protest, it would have to be that one,” he said.

Protest 3.0

Around the globe, protests are reshaped by technology. Ever-cheaper digital gadgets and the Internet are transforming the means and the motives of the people involved in ways we are only starting to witness.

Last spring, the twitterati hailed the “social media revolutions” in Tunisia and Egypt as protesters made extensive use of social networks to bring down their despotic presidents. Facebook and Twitter played a key role in fomenting public unrest following Iran’s disputed election in 2009. Like Iran, Libya showed the same media are available to the autarchic regimes.

Greece is not immune to social and technological forces. In May, thousands of people responded to a Facebook call by the so-called Indignant movement to join an anti-austerity rally at Syntagma and other public squares across the country. Demonstrators, who have since camped in front of the Greek Parliament, use laptops to organize and promote their campaign through the Net.

When individuals’ behavior changes, mass protests also change. Gourgouris says that whenever he sees the police arresting a demonstrator, he feels that by running to the scene an officer will think twice before exerting unnecessary physical force.

“When everybody is filming with their cell phones, you’re not going to beat the hell out of that person,” he said.

Switching places

Technology is also transforming the news business, as ordinary folk get involved in the gathering, filtering and dissemination of information.

“It’s evolution,” said Pavlos Fysakis, a professional photographer in his early 40s. He says that this type of guerrilla journalism may not guarantee quality, but it is certainly a force for pluralism.

“The news now belongs to everyone. It comes from many different sources, and it is open to many different interpretations,” said Fysakis, who is one of the 14 photojournalists to have worked on The Prism GR2010 multimedia project, a collective documentation of Greece during last winter that is available on the Internet.

If there is one problem will all this input, Fysakis says, it has to do with the diminishing shock factor. With all the imagery out there, he warns, audiences as well as photographers risk getting a bit too accustomed to graphic images.

“Violence is demystified. We almost think it’s normal to see a cop beating up a person on the street. The image is everywhere, as if [the event] is occurring all the time,” Fysakis said.

User-generated footage of the June 29 demonstrations depicted riot police firing huge amounts of tear gas and physically abusing protesters, including elderly men and women.

The apparently excessive use of force by police is the subject of a parliamentary investigation. Meanwhile, a prosecutor has brought charges against the police for excessive use of chemicals and for causing bodily harm to citizens. Amnesty International has also condemned the police tactics.

Exposed

For Liza Tsaliki, a communications and media expert at the University of Athens, crowdsourced content “is laden with democratic potential.”

“Civilian footage of the riots has widened our perspective and understanding of what actually happened,” she said of the June demonstrations.

A few hours after the protests, the Internet was churning with footage apparently showing riot squad officers escorting three men who had covered their faces and appeared to be wielding iron bars, prompting suggestions that the police had either placed provocateurs within the protesting crowds or that the force was offering protection to extreme right-wing protesters who were battling leftists.

However, an official reaction (a statement by the minister for citizens’ protection that left a lot to be desired) only came after television channels had aired the controversial video.

Trust them not

To be sure, citizen journalism is far from perfect. A lot of the rigor and accuracy associated with traditional news organizations inevitably flies out the window. Ordinary people cannot perform, or are insensitive to, the (meticulous but costly and time-consuming) fact-based reporting, cross-checking, sourcing and editing of newsrooms proper.

A survey conducted in the UK a few years ago found that 99 percent of people do not trust content on blogs and forums uploaded by their friends and the rest of the public.

Lack of verification and eponymity is not the only problem, as input from non-journalists is not necessarily synonymous with objectivity.

Writing in Kathimerini about the controversial video, liberal commentator Paschos Mandravelis criticized social media users for unquestioningly embracing what seems to confirm the views they already hold.

“The T-shirt he was wearing to cover his face, which is usually offered by every protester as a sign of innocence (‘I was wearing it to protect myself from the tear gas’) was, in this case, used as a sign of guilt (‘It’s obvious. These are the hooded troublemakers’),” Mandravelis wrote.

Tsaliki agrees that not everything captured by amateur journalists is necessarily benign.

“Even in these latter cases, a certain alternative reality can be constructed under the guise of the non-mediated experience,” Tsaliki said.

“All you need is a certain choreography, some volunteers and a smartphone,” she said.

But the speed and diversity of social media is hard to beat. After all, it was a Pakistani Twitterer grumbling about the noise from a helicopter that gave the world live coverage of the American raid that resulted in the killing of Osama bin Laden in May.

Before that, it was some blurry footage of Alexandros Grigoropoulos’s murder in Exarchia, captured with a phone camera by a resident standing on a nearby balcony, that fanned Greece’s 2008 riots.

Traditional media have tried to take advantage of the trend, launching citizen journalism platforms of their own — CNN’s “iReport” or Al Jazeera’s “Sharek,” for example. And as suggested by Al Jazeera’s mining of the social media during the Middle East uprisings, the use of citizen-produced material can help commercial networks come across as the “voice of the people.”

“They overtly take the side of the protesters against these regimes. And their use of social media and citizen generated content gives them the ammunition and credibility in that campaign,” blogged Charlie Beckett, founding director of Polis, a journalism and society think-tank at the London School of Economics.

Preaching to the converted?

The Internet has changed the way people organize themselves and protest, but has it really helped expand the reservoirs of activists on the ground? Experts are divided on the issue.

For one thing, cyber-pessimists are right that support-a-cause-with-a-click attitudes produce great numbers but little commitment. Web-powered activism, Tsaliki adds, is still a lot about preaching to the converted.

“The Internet will chiefly serve those activists and groups that are already active, thus reinforcing existing patterns of political participation in society,” she said.

But Gourgouris is confident that simply by recording and sharing the message of a demonstration, you are increasing its impact.

“The world isn’t beautiful. I record the ugliness so I can put it out there and — to the extent that I can — fix it. I am trying to raise awareness. I am saying, ‘Here’s the violence of the people behind masks’,” he said.

As always, some people out there prefer more direct forms of engagement. As photographers zigzagged through the infuriated crowds at a recent demo, one hooded youth shouted at them to “put down the cameras and grab a stone.”

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