Gestures of Seeing: Amateur Photographers in the News

Becker, Karin., 2015. Gestures of seeing: Amateur photographers in the news. Journalism 16, 451–469. doi:10.1177/1464884913511566


Over the past decade, the camera in the hands of the amateur has become a common attribute of the news photograph.

The gestures associated with amateur digital photography have in turn gained meaning that alter the situations, places and settings where they are used.


Immediately identifiable and easy to identify with, the gesture of the raised camera freezing the historical moment frames the event and provides the viewer entry into the event as participant.

Understanding photography as a cultural performance is critical to the ways the image of the non-professional photographer signifies in a photograph of a news event.

[Becker uses the concept of performance following Geertz (1973), Hughes-Freeland (1998, 2001).]

Photography is, the, not only a technology of visual representation, but more profoundly, following Frosh (2001: 43), a ‘constitutive type of (visible action) within the social world.’


Taking pictures becomes a ‘performance of representation’, an enactment of social knowledge of photographic practices and of the networks of power and play that arise within the nexus of photographers, viewers, and those who are photographed. Photography is in this sense ‘a manifest performance of the power to make visible’. (Frosh, 2001:43)


The image of the amateur draws on meanings that are embedded in the cultural knowledge of private domestic photography and its rituals.


The gesture of the raised camera has become universally recognised as a signifier, an annunciation of the event’s significance.

The gesture of holding up a digital device to take a group self-portrait in enacted and recognised all across the world. The same is true of raising the camera to take a picture of a screen, now common during historic ceremonies and sporting events that are broadcast the public viewing areas.

With the widespread use of digital imagery, these performances of photography – photographing the self, the event, and the event on screen – have become central to commemorative and celebrate media events.

Examining these gestures as they appear in news stories is consistent with moves in performance studies toward analysis of cultural ‘enactments’ and ‘speech events’, a term applied to different modes of communication, and the emergent dimensions of their multi-semiotic modes of meaning.

The performance can thus be seen as a bounded arena where the participants’ relations to each other and to the performance involve a qualitative assessment that takes into account previous performances.

Compared with the discourses and material practices that compose everyday life, performances are stylised and self-reflexive enactments, commenting on and transforming that which is taken for granted, and making it visible and available for reflection.


The performance of photography is not in the first instance visual, but physical and multi-sensory, as a way of situating one’s self in the world. Photography here is not about looking. Rather it provides haptic connection to another space.

[when these images are published:]

The audience or viewer, in turn, is being asked to acknowledge and reflect upon these gestures as part of the news.


[…] who holds the camera also has a bearing on how we interpret the photographic act.


The amateur becomes a figure in the news in the decade of digital photography’s breakthrough, a period that coincides with key historical events where professional’s access was inadequate to the task of reporting them.

[reference to 9/11 – see Hirsch, 2002.]


The media’s ritualisation of the amateur as witness builds in turn on two distinct yet interrelated additional forms of ritual practice: on the one hand, the rituals of domestic photography as private yet culturally shared practice and, on the other, public occasions of celebrations, commemoration and trauma where photography is interwoven into the rituals of observing, interpreting and giving meaning to these events.