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Witnesses Post Instant Photos on the Web to Capture Drama

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Cian O'Donovan is not a photojournalist, but when he heard about the subway bombings not far from his home in London, he decided to try to photograph them.

By the end of the day, Mr. O'Donovan had taken about 40 photos, most with his Nokia cellphone.

Mr. O'Donovan posted 17 of his photos online at flickr.com, where they joined hundreds of photos of the aftermath of the bombings by nonprofessional photographers.

Online photo-sharing sites and Web blogs began chronicling the attacks soon after they occurred, posting material often gathered before professional news organizations arrived on the scenes.

The BBC posted photographs and videos taken by witnesses, and The Guardian posted experiences that readers submitted on a running Web log.

The attacks were not the first recorded by witnesses with cellphone and other digital cameras. Online experts like operators of photography sites and photography agencies said the pictures of the explosions were posted in greater numbers and with greater speed than they had seen in other major events.

Not only has the technology for taking the photographs become more widespread in the last few years, the experts said, but posting photographs has also become easier.

Flickr.com, a site owned by Yahoo that lets people post photographs free, had more than 300 bombing photos posted within eight hours after the attacks.

The site had 7,000 photos from the intercontinental Live 8 concerts on Saturday, and the co-founder of the site, Caterina Fake, said it expected many more from the London attacks in a few days. "These are people who are in the crowds being rushed out of the train station," Ms. Fake said. "All of these sort of like man-in-the-street experiences are very compelling, and they're very moving."

One frequently posted image was of a young man who covered his mouth with a cloth after his train had stopped and filled with smoke. Wikipedia, the online encyclopedia, one of the sites that posted the photo, identified the photographer as Adam Stacey and said he and others in the subway had escaped by smashing train windows. Mr. Stacey, the Web site said, was fine other than suffering smoke inhalation.

Moblog.co.uk, which also posted the photo, said that as of 6:20 p.m. yesterday it had been viewed 36,300 times.

Photos posted by witnesses of disasters and important events proliferated last year after the Asian tsunami disaster, said Kurt Pitzer, a spokesman for World Picture News, which represents professional and amateur photographers. It posted about 40 messages by 11 a.m. yesterday offering to represent photographers with London photos. Within two hours, World Picture News had heard from 10 to 15 photographers, Mr. Pitzer said.

Images captured by witnesses have been a growing phenomenon since a bystander videotaped a black man, Rodney King, being beaten by police officers in 1991 in Los Angeles. The photos have begun spreading much faster as high-bandwidth Internet connections have become more common, Mr. Pitzer said.

Tim Bradshaw, who posted photos from around London on flickr.com, said in an e-mail message he was not sure at first whether he would post them.

"It seemed kind of wrong," Mr. Bradshaw wrote. "The BBC and other news Web sites were so overwhelmed it was almost like an alternative source of news.

"I think it's really interesting how many camera-phone pictures made it onto the national news."

Dan Gillmor, founder of Grassroots Media, which promotes what it calls "citizen journalism," said witnesses' photos and online accounts would reshape the role of traditional news media over time. As more and more photographs and blogs go online with major events, Mr. Gillmor said, the mainstream news media should search those postings and point their readers to the best ones.

"A lot of what's being done by the citizen-journalist will be most useful as people start pulling together the best images and stories," he said. "There was a cliché that journalists write the first draft of history. Now I think these people are writing the first draft of history at some level, and that's an important shift."

By LOUISE STORY
The New York Times

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