Among the more striking photos appearing online after Thursday's coordinated London explosions was one of a double-decker bus, its front intact but its sides and top ripped open. The image, on the BBC's Web site, came not from a staff photographer but from an amateur who happened on the scene with a digital camera.
With inexpensive cameras everywhere, including increasingly in cell phones, we're seeing more searing images than ever of human drama. The chances of getting poignant amateur video, meanwhile, are improving radically.
Following Thursday's morning rush hour blasts on the bus and at three subway stations, amateurs snapped shots before professional journalists could get to the scene.
The BBC posted one reader-contributed image showing subway passengers being led through tunnels and another of smoke filling another photographer's subway car.
It also posted camera phone video including an 18-second clip of a passenger evacuating the subway. The image was dark and jerky but gave a sense of crisis.
"What you're doing is gathering material you never could have possibly got unless your reporter happened by chance to be caught up in this," said Vicky Taylor, interactivity editor for BBC News' Web sites.
Many amateur photos are mundane yet gripping, said Steve Jones, professor of communications at the University of Illinois at Chicago.
Visitors Thursday to the photo site Flickr, for instance, saw one sign at one station that simply stated, "Tube network closed."
While journalists descend on the stations where the explosions took place, an amateur might snap shots from "a train station that wasn't bombed but that has a lot of security, and you sort of immediately compare that to your own experience," said Jones.
Adam Tinworth, a London magazine editor and freelance writer, posted several shots from his digital camera on the Internet. Among them: images of blockaded streets and of professionals "trying to do the same thing I was except with a much different camera."
"I was grabbing photos to give people a feel of what it's like to be an ordinary person," Tinworth said.
Of course the use of amateur photographs by professional news organizations is not new. The Associated Press and others routinely buy rights to photos produced by eyewitnesses.
But digital cameras and phones make more such images possible, and the Internet makes distribution easy. Many Web journal services and Flickr let you post directly from a cell phone, while the BBC had a dedicated e-mail address for such photos.
Taylor said reader-submitted accounts from the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks were mostly text while the BBC received several hundred photographs Thursday and used about 70 on its Web site and TV.
She said amateurs submitted photos to the BBC for free, but then some sold rights to other news organization.
Jones said the quality has improved since the Sept. 11 attacks. As well, eyewitnesses in London were more selective in what they posted online. The captions they wrote were more descriptive and professional-sounding this time around.
Nonetheless, user-generated digital imagery does create new challenges for news sites, which has to make sure a photo isn't already owned by someone else and that it's wasn't digitally manipulated.
The BBC compared the bus image with shots its crews took from the rear, matching landmarks in both pictures to make sure it wasn't digitally doctored, Taylor said. For other pictures, BBC staffers contacted the photographers for verification.
There's also the task of sifting through all the images.
A half-day after the explosions, Flickr had 150 photos marked "explosions," 111 for "blasts" and 219 under "terrorism." More than 325 fell under "London Bomb Blasts."
Many were simply television screen grabs.
With "the ability for so many people to take so many photos, the real challenge will be to find the most remarkable, the most interesting, the most moving, the most striking," said Flickr co-founder Caterina Fake, adding that engineers were working on software to help that.
It remains to be seen whether the best images were even on the Internet yet. Many of the best photos and video from the Asian tsunami disaster came days or weeks later.
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