“Journalism should be for everybody. [. . .] Mobile journalism is a [tool] to help us understand each other better,” said journalist Allissa V. Richardson, who is also a professor of Journalism at the University of Southern California. On Oct. 15 at 4:30 p.m., as part of Professor Kate Albers’ “History of Photography” course, the Art & Visual Studies Department hosted an event called Bearing Witness While Black: African Americans, Smartphones, and the New Protest #Journalism over Zoom. This presentation was about Richardson’s journey in writing her book, which this event is named after, that “explores the lives of 15 mobile journalist-activists who have documented the Black Lives Matter movement using only their smartphones and Twitter.”
To start her presentation, Richardson gave us a bit of background about what inspired her to get involved in mobile journalism, which was her pathway to writing her book. She saw so many people on the ground (directly involved in events, in other words), who were not journalists, being activists with just their iPhone in hand, and she strived to answer the question: “Why would anyone want to be a photojournalist in this dangerous environment, when you don’t have a press pass or the protection of seasoned journalists?”
Richardson is worried enough about her students, who know to expect this kind of violence in certain cases. In fact, many of her students who went out with fancy equipment for photography were getting robbed, even if the story they were chasing was not a dangerous one. To assure the safety of her students, Richardson started the “MOJO” (mobile journalism) project, figuring practically everyone has a smartphone now, so the interest in snatching someone’s phone would not be as high as stealing a lot of fancy-looking equipment. Richardson and her students even created a commercial for this project, shot entirely on an iPhone.
This project was very popular. Richardson was able to travel with her team to present this project to aspiring journalists and anyone else on the ground who was interested. She and her team taught these young women (as they were made up the participant group) how to do photojournalism, and they ended up trending on Twitter because, there they were, a group of 40 women out in the streets of Morocco — where women are not supposed to be out without male accompaniment. They did not receive backlash for this, though, and even had a father step out of his apartment, bring his six daughters downstairs, and ask if they were allowed to join. Richardson accepted them graciously.
She tried to find information pertaining to this question, and she was quite successful. She dove into the killing of Rodney King, the beginning of the Black Lives Matter movement (which was a response to the death of Treyvon Martin), and even researched Frederick Douglass, who is famous for his autobiographies about life as a slave, but also tried to humanize Black people through photography. Unfortunately, though, there was no cohesive collection of this information, and that is what she was really looking for. She followed a piece of advice she received: “If there is a book you want to read and no one has written it, you must write it.” She presented this idea as her dissertation to her professors, and, unknowingly, she had begun working on her book.
One key point she used to bounce off of was her fascination with the use of social media in news-driven storytelling. “Twitter is now a central place to organize and get one’s message out,” said Richardson. She herself followed updates of Emmanuel Freeman, who was posting about the social tension surrounding the shooting of Mike Brown in Ferguson, instead of turning to any news source. Freeman was the last big push of inspiration for Richardson to turn her write her book.
“Stories about systemic racism — I think they should be handled gracefully . . . in a humane way,” Richardson said, as a way of introducing her frustration and discomfort with how many graphic images of Black people being murdered or otherwise harmed are still going around, whether these events are recent or not. Richardson is very passionate about shifting the way media outlets have portrayed violence. She is of the opinion that graphic imagery should not make it onto the news channels or into any other forms of media, and she is happy that the amount of displayed violence has dwindled down over time, especially recently. She said, “Journalists are much more thoughtful of how much of the [violence] they are showing, and [it] is not the center of the story . . . People are not doing what they used to do,” which entails showing graphic imagery, especially of Black victimization.
She compared lynching photographs to what is going on now, posing the question, “Are cell phone videos now the new lynching photographs?” She shared a brief history of white allies who pretended to be interested in lynching photos and would buy them up to get them out of circulation. They would then publish these pictures once in The Crisis magazine, and allow them to fall out of circulation after that. She compared this to recent years: news outlets stopping videos before any graphic violence shows, magazines and newspapers cropping images to take out the most disturbing part. “I’m really happy that I’m seeing less and less gore-y footage of Black people dying on television. . . . The video may be very poignant, but it’s not the full story. . . . It’s lazy reporting to make the whole story about the video,” said Richardson.
Near the end of the presentation, Richardson posed a worry she has, and something that will make journalists stop and think for a second: so much of our history is being captured on social media, which is not much of a problem until you think about the fact that so many of these platforms are designed to self-destruct. “Tools,” as Richardson called social media apps, like Instagram live and Snapchat are disappear-after-24-hours kinds of platforms. Richardson used Former United States Representative John Lewis as an example to explain her fear of these kinds of apps. Any one of us “may become a John Lewis,” said Richardson, continuing to explain, “I worry about the fact that . . . somebody knew to save [documentation of John Lewis’s activism], but what about you guys? What if all your stuff lives in a place that is self-destructive?”
Currently, her team is making apps and other tools that will allow them, and other journalists, to capture videos, photographs, and other forms of media that would otherwise disappear on these ‘temporary-displays-of-media’ apps. “The cameras go where you point it to, and I think that’s a very powerful [tool] to have,” said Richardson. She even shared a very inspiring video that explained the importance and benefits of iPhone-shot documentation of things happening on the ground, even that which comes from people who are not accredited or seasoned journalists. It is history in the making, and she just wants to make sure that this is documented in a way that can be kept alive. Otherwise, we are losing essential pieces of history, and our stories will not make it past our generations.
To wrap up, Richardson showed us a picture of Dae’anna Reynolds, who she called “the littlest witness.” Dae’anna watched her father be murdered by police as she sat in the car; Richardson, finding this heart-breaking, of course, dedicated her presentation and her book to this little girl. She wants to keep pushing for this mix of activism and journalism, which she called “movement journalism,” where “the goal is transparency rather than objectivity,” that devices like the iPhone allow us to have, so we can show Dae’anna, and others who have been forced to witness brutal acts of violence, that their stories are being told, and that people are listening. She said, “So much of [Black people’s] history has been buried, or told by others, and for the first time ever we’re telling it.”
Richardson is always enthusiastic about talking to aspiring journalists and reaching a new audience. She left her email, firstname.lastname@example.org, and her Twitter, @DrAlliRich, for anyone who would like to talk to her or simply hear more about what she has to say.
Feature image: Brianna Wilson / Quaker Campus