Camera Phone Images: How The London Bombings in 2005 Shaped the Form of News

Posted in 2009 Journal


The London bombings in July of 2005 signaled a turning point in global news coverage. Survivors on the ground transmitted mobile phone images to social networks, family and friends, as well as news desks such as the BBC. Featured on the front pages was an iconic image by Alexander Chadwick, a survivor who photographed the chaotic scene in the London underground. How did Chadwick’s image become a global phenomenon? What were the conditions that gave rise to a new form of news — the camera phone image? By surveying news articles in the popular press, one can discover the implicit application of social theories by journalists, such as Actor-Network Theory and Social Construction of Technology. These theories help to unpack the drivers of change to the news paper image: online platforms, ubiquitous camera phones, and changing social norms.


On July 7, 2005 terrorists bombed targets across London, including passenger buses and subway trains.  Trapped deep inside the underground tunnels, stranded victims turned to their camera phones and recorded the horrific scene — chaos, wreckage, survival — and in moments the images arrived at photo-sharing websites, personal e-mail addresses, and eventually, the front page of the BBC News website and The New York Times.1 Tragedy had given way to a new form of news: camera phone images.

The media reported on the event using all possible information sources, including eyewitnesses and survivors. Unable to deploy professional photographers to the bombsites, the news outlets relied on user-generated content to tell the story and make sense of the bombings. Flickr received hundreds of images from the attacks within hours, and the BBC news website flooded with uploaded content.2 As the story unfolded, professional journalists and survivors on the ground converged to tell a tragic story of enormous political consequence.  Images of burned out buses and darkened subways, taken by those directly affected by the bombs, were prominently displayed online and in print publications.  Alexander Chadwick is one survivor whose iconic camera phone image became a headline story in the days following the London bombings.  His image, selected among thousands, was published in popular news outlets including The Times and the BBC.  The outgrowth of user-generated content made the London Bombing a historic turning point in the news industry.

To put the London bombing in context of other recent tragedies, the BBC received 35,000 e-mails in the aftermath of September 11th, but few photographs.3 During the London bombing over 1,000 images and 20 videos were sent into the newsroom on the first day.4 The London bombings happened in a converging world where online networks, changing social norms, and ubiquitous mobile devices upended traditional news gathering techniques.  As a result, passive victims of a terrorist tragedy became active participants in the news- making process.

A watershed moment had occurred in the journalism industry when the BBC and The New York Times published Chadwick’s image on the front pages and on global websites.  The pale yellow light that engulfed Chadwick deep inside the London Tube was reproduced and transmitted in the form of a digital photograph.  The one-way interaction between readers and newsmakers had ruptured, the lines blurred.  Readers witnessed a crude but striking representation of what life was like moments after the explosion in the tube — its rawness unmatched by professional images, its authenticity compounded by Chadwick ‘having-been-there.’  His image and mobile photography became news stories in the days and weeks following the bombing.  Four years later the mass media incorporates camera phone technology and citizen participation to break news every day.  Who and what constitutes the news would never be the same after the London bombings.

Theoretical Frameworks

In the selected data, news articles describe camera phone technology and the impact it had on the journalism industry.  The authors write with an implicit mix of academic theories, including technological determinism, Social Construction of Technology [SCOT], and Actor Network Theory [ANT].  Technological determinism argues that technology determines or drives our history, innovation and cultural values.  SCOT takes a less rigid approach by incorporating the societal and contextual factors surrounding a technological change or device.  For example, the theory derives meaning from people’s interpretations or behaviors.5 ANT ignores social context in its analysis and explores technology as a means of connecting actors, both human and non-human.6 Yochai Benkler, author of The Wealth of Networks observes:

“Neither deterministic nor wholly malleable, technology sets some parameters of individual and social action.  It can make some actions, relationships, organizations, and institutions easier to pursue, and others harder.  In a challenging environment — be it the challenge natural or human — …it can result in very different social relations that emerge around a technology.”7

As humans adapt their behaviors to objects such as the camera phone, the news media is thrust into its swirling nexus of societal change.  In today’s network information economy, the form of news is undergoing a transformation.  Who and what constitutes news will no longer be static.  “The future is here now,” wrote Dennis Dunleavy in the aftermath of July 7, an author for Digital Journalist.  “Photojournalism made history last week…the digital camera phone is the future and we have much to learn from this emerging technology.”8 By exploring the form of news with an integrative approach, one can unpack the complex societal and technological factors that allowed an average citizen such as Alexander Chadwick to create a digital photograph that made global headlines.

In “Crossing Boundaries: An Integrative Framework for Studying Technological Change,” authors Henrik Bruun and Janne Hukkinen suggest, “The production and diffusion of new technologies require new ways of doing things, new routines for action and interaction.”9 Academic tools from SCOT and ANT can deconstruct the news making system.  For example, both theories seek to identify the change agents in a network or system, such as newspaper editors, camera phone users, or the object being constructed – the digital image.  Before undergoing an analysis, Bruun and Hukkinen suggest asking four questions prior to devising an integrative framework: “What changes in technological change?; What is the driver of change?;  What is the process of change?; What delimits change?”.10 Each question can be explored independently of one another or in groups.

Drawing upon Bruun’s second question one can ask, “What drives change in the newspaper image and camera phone usage?” In this analysis, change comes from multiple sources:  A synergy is born out of citizens, camera phone technologies, and the natural world – a digital image is created by new user behaviors.  Society reinterprets the image as a respectable and desirable object: the phone and its image become a news-making tool. Citizen journalists now help to produce the newspaper image – a task once restricted to professional photographers and their syndicate agencies.  In the aftermath of the London bombings, the image had freed itself from the small, tightly connected network of editors and photographers and became a democratized object that has the potential to reach a global audience. In the network information economy, wireless data transfers at megabit per second speeds, camera phones record the natural world in high-resolution, and people enact the hybrid role of citizen journalists.  On that tragic day in July 2005, the forces converged so that Alexander Chadwick’s grainy image made history and signaled a major turning point in journalism.

London Bombing Media Coverage

In the old industrial information economy, the media cultivates technology to produce and sell a product that meets our need for social connection.  It maintains a monopoly because capital investment to reach a large audience is substantial.11 However, in today’s network information economy, the monopoly on effective communication has eroded and individual voices can be heard in print publications and the Internet.  Citizens find innovative ways to reach out and connect. “Like the crow in Aesop’s story,” writes George Basalla, “[we] use technology to satisfy a pressing and immediate need.”12 In the case of the London bombings, the survivors’ camera phones chronicled a tragic experience and the images shared the story with the world.   Under duress in a smoked filled London subway car, a few survivors snapped photographs with their camera phones and transmitted the images across the Internet to viewers’ screens.  Images like Alexander Chadwick’s arrived on news editor’s desk and within an hour or two his pictures appeared on the BBC homepage.13

“It was a disaster like no other,” wrote Anthony Barnes in his piece “Attack on London; How 3G phone technology created instant history.”14 He interviewed Helen Boaden, BBC Director of news and reported that “people were sending us [BBC] images within minutes of the first problems, before we even knew there was a bomb.”15 She recounted how the BBC received more than 1,000 pictures, 20 pieces of amateur video, 4,000 text messages and around 20,000 emails by Friday afternoon, approximately one day after the attacks.16 Barnes claimed “digital technology brought the full impact of the horror on London transport to millions in graphic detail within minutes of the explosions.”17 His rhetoric exemplifies technological determinism, a theory that discounts complexity and social choice in the evolution of a technology, or technology in practice.  A SCOT or ANT analysis would examine the conditions under a given scenario – the images produced from the London bombing – and consider the various actors and socially constructed mechanisms in its creation.  For example, the BBC set up online galleries to accept user-generated content. Cell phone carriers promoted camera phones and 3G networks, while citizens adapted the tools to suit their needs, including the transmission of news worthy events.  The 3G network did not make history like Barnes claimed – it was a complex story, with people such as Chadwick playing a specific role.

Despite the overt and determinist headline that claims 3G Phone Technology created instant history, Barnes’s piece highlighted three main influencers: the news image, camera phone users, and online networks.  The synergy between the three created an outpouring of user-generated content after the bombing, including Chadwick’s photograph.  His image was part of a vast history-making network.  The survivors reached out to the public and kept in contact with loved ones, via the Internet and mobile images.  In other words, all the pieces were in place for Chadwick’s image to make history.  And it did.

Chadwick likely stood inside a subway car during the “disaster like no other.”  He would have heard metal crashing into metal, glass breaking, and seen emergency lights turn on, directing passengers to safe exit points.  He also carried a camera phone, a relatively common piece of technology in 2005 when approximately 300 million were sold worldwide.18 After impact, one can only speculate about the events that took place, but from the image it appeared to be a dark and frightening place inside that tunnel.  Why did Chadwick send the image across the Internet? What were his intentions in doing so?  Actor Network Theory brings awareness to actors “impulses to grow; to transform themselves from micro-actors to macro-actors,” or put simply, to gain influence or status.19 Intention is a central but not all encompassing feature of ANT.  In his piece, Barnes neglected the question of intentionality. One could argue that Chadwick and others wanted to document the historic moment and share it with the world through the BBC website, but there was no certainty their images would be published.  The changing social norms, namely the accepted use of camera phones as news making devices, allowed Chadwick to act as both survivor and citizen journalist.  By establishing an online platform that allowed for user-generated content to be submitted through phones or the Internet, the BBC played a central role in the London bombing coverage and the evolution of news images.

Thousands of submissions traveled through Internet, from Flickr to private e-mails, and the BBC news desk.  The full impact of the July 7 bombings reached the world as digital transmissions, images and personal accounts.  Without clear economic incentives, Chadwick and others told the story in a visual form.  What Barnes failed to describe in his article is the power gained by news organizations. Professional journalists and syndicate agencies such as Getty Images and the Associated Press now compete with citizens to cover the news, giving media outlets greater choice in the content they distribute.  When disaster strikes and only citizen journalists record the event, professional photographers face challenges in a hyper connected world where news strikes anytime.  Getting the image, from a citizen journalist or professional photographer, trumps credentials.  Citizens with camera phones can temporarily displace professionals in the network information economy.  “We’ve found that many of the amateur shots have been better than those supplied by the photographic agencies,’ said Ms Boaden of the BBC.”20 The marginalizing of professionals is one unintended consequence of ubiquitous mobile devices and an issue that deserves further exploration.

How did the BBC, a conservative news organization, decide to make public an unverifiable, grainy, dark, and abstract image of the London bombings? It was the human need to make sense and connect.  On July 7, a moment conspired when the camera phone images satisfied a need – to chronicle a decisive moment and share it with the world.  “The success of a technology is not something that is necessarily obvious,”21 writes John Law, a SCOT scholar.  In the case of the camera phone, a technology adapted to its users needs, not passively by society.  After the bombings, the BBC updated its web server capacity to meet incredible viewer demand of its galleries and news stories.  Pete Clifton, the editor of BBC news interactive said of July 7, ‘We know it will be, without question, our busiest day in history.”22 Record level demand suggests that the public wanted to interact with images on a massive scale, an outcome partly made possible by camera phone images and the willingness of citizen journalists to contribute for free.

To fully explore what drives the change in newspaper images and camera phone technology one must take an integrated approach. For example, Social Construction of Technology theory argues “technological artifacts are culturally constructed and interpreted.”23 Camera phones capture breaking news events, transmit digital replications to online networks, and produce images that can reach the cover of The New York Times. The designers of camera phones and 3G networks could not have anticipated these uses.  Nevertheless, anyone with a camera phone can now be a news maker.  In the world of citizen news gathering, “where technology and the age-old desire to communicate hot information…are converging and forcing traditional news organizations to dramatically change the way they cover big news events.”24 The news industry relies on images from citizens, made possible by the ubiquitous mobiles, changing social norms, and online news platforms.

Camera Phones Matter in Today’s News Cycle

Dennis Dunleavy published an article in July 2005, which drew longer conclusions about camera phones and network technologies.  In reaction to the camera phone’s ubiquity, Dunleavy wrote “What this means potentially is that everyone is a visual communicator with a camera phone – everyone has the potential of contributing to shaping our perceptions of major and minor events happening around the world.”25 The average phone owner can now engage with a global audience by capturing a digital photograph, transmitting it across online networks, and receive attribution or even payment in exchange for the image.  The emergent system, with the citizens at its core, is born out of a human need for connection. Camera phone technology is one tool that has enabled millions to communicate and stay in touch with images.   Even though Flickr and news websites receive millions of user-generated submissions per year, occasionally a historical moment arrives and an image such as Chadwick’s gets published in a high-profile outlet like The Times.  Despite the surging popularity in camera phone usage and online photo sharing networks, not every writer believes in the power of user generated content.

Sarah Boxer, writing for The Times, reacted critically to citizen journalism and offered a counterpoint to Dunleavey’s enthusiasm.  She argued that the images constructed from the new interpretation of camera phones and online networks including Flickr are superfluous, and by and large, uneventful. “The Web is supposed to be a great place for people to get their information firsthand,” she wrote, “before it is processed.”26 But in reality, we discover processing in user-generated images.  People stare at the camera, banal and conventional compositions of non-notable events after the fact.  They lack poignancy. In evolutionary terms, we are now witnessing the amplified noise, the rejects and unfit images worthy for destruction.  However, the one-of-a-kind gems, the decisive moments fit for reproduction exist in the same places as the throwaways.  Editors must now wade through the noise to find the spark, the best image to tell the story.  The proliferation of images available online makes for a richer news experience, but to curate digital images takes time and new skill sets.  Citizen generated content has been a part of the news industry before the Internet’s arrival, but it is the low production costs and ease of access that foster its explosive growth.

Before the London bombings, citizen journalists have shaped the news, from the Rodney King assault in 1991 to the Twin Towers attack on September 11, 2001, and the countless stories in regional papers that never made national headlines.  The synergy among camera phones, active citizens, and online networks changed the news gathering paradigm.  By publishing camera phone images, institutions like the BBC and The New York Times leveled the barriers to entry and allowed Alexander Chadwick and millions of others to participate in consumption and production of the news.  To understand this shift on a broader historical scale, one could use theories like SCOT and ANT to unpack the evolution from professional news gathering to citizen generated content and the hybrid form of news.  Based on the articles published in the aftermath of July 7 and the ongoing surge in citizen news-gathering, the drivers of change to the newspaper image are the ubiquitous camera phones, the changing social norms, and the convergence of online networks to fuel the demand for breaking news and on-the-ground coverage.

For those who watched the London bombings unfold that fateful day in July 2005, “The interlinked, constantly updating world of the web provided a faster, more detailed picture of what was happening on July 7th than could be gained by passively watching TV’s rolling news coverage.”27 Among the coverage was Alexander Chadwick’s historic photograph, a split-second moment published around the world in the form of a camera phone image.  It was recorded by a tiny piece of technology in the depths of a bombed out subway car and transmitted to news editors instantaneously with high-speed wireless technology. An incredible feat that has by now been routinized and refined by better equipment and an evolving news industry.  In our quest to connect and make sense of the world, the camera phone matters more than ever and will continue to drive, but not determine, the news.



Works Cited

Barnes, Anthony. “Attack on London; How 3G phone technology created instant history,” July 10, 2005.

Basalla, George, and George Basalla, Owen Hannaway. The Evolution of Technology, 1989.

Benkler, Yochai. The Wealth of Networks, 2007.

Boxer, Sarah. “On the Web, Photos Strain to Connect 7/7 and 9/11.” The New York Times, July 9, 2005, sec. Arts.

Bruun, Henrik, and Janne Hukkinen. “Crossing Boundaries: An Integrative Framework for Studying Technological Change.” Social Studies of Science 33, no. 1 (February 2003): 95-116.

Derbyshire, David. “Mobiles Captured First Images,” The Daily Telegraph, July 12, 2005. P.04

Hard, Mikael. “Beyond Harmony and Consensus: A Social Conflict Approach to Technology.” Science, Technology, & Human Values 18, no. 4 (Autumn 1993): 408-432.

The Irish Times, “Everyone’s a Journalist Now,” July 16, 2005.

Law, John. “On the Social Explanation of Technical Change: The Case of the Portuguese Maritime Expansion.” Technology and Culture 28, no. 2 (April 1987): 227-252.

Pinch, Trevor J., and Wiebe E. Bijker. “The Social Construction of Facts and Artefacts: Or How the Sociology of Science and the Sociology of Technology Might Benefit Each Other.” Social Studies of Science 14, no. 3 (August 1984): 399-441.

Shapin, Steven. “Review: Following Scientists Around.” Social Studies of Science 18, no. 3 (August 1988): 533-550.

Winner, L. “Upon Opening the Black Box and Finding It Empty: Social Constructivism and the Philosophy of Technology.” Science, Technology, & Human Values 18, no. 3 (1993): 362-378.

Alexander Chadwick’s Camera Phone Image, London Subway, July 7th, 2005.,





1 Anthony Barnes, “Attack on London: How 3G Phone Technology Created Instant

History,” The Independent, July 10, 2005, Sunday Edition, Lexis-Nexis.

2 The Irish Times, “Everyone’s a Journalist Now,” July 16, 2005., News Features, p. 3,

3 David Derbyshire, “Mobiles Captured First Images,” The Daily Telegraph, July 12,

2005, p. 004

4 Ibid.

5 Langdon Winner, “Upon Opening the Black Box and Finding It Empty: Social

Constructivism and the Philosophy of Technology.” Science, Technology, & Human Values 18, no. 3 (1993): 366.

6 Henrik Bruun, and Janne Hukkinen. “Crossing Boundaries: An Integrative Framework

for Studying Technological Change.” Social Studies of Science 33, no. 1 (February 2003): 106.

7 Yochai Benkler, The Wealth of Networks: How Social Production Transforms Markets

and Freedom. Yale University Press, 2006., 17.

8 Dennis Dunleavey, “Camera Phones Prevail: Citizen Shutterbugs and the London

Bombings,” The Digital Journalist, July 2005.

9 Bruun, 98.

10 Ibid, 111.

11 Benkler, 2.

12 George Basalla,, Owen Hannaway. The Evolution of Technology, 1989., 6.

13 See Bibliography

14 Barnes, 2005.

15 Ibid.

16 Ibid.

17 Ibid.

18 The Irish Times, 2005.

19 Steven Shapin, “Review: Following Scientists Around.” Social Studies of Science 18,

no. 3 (August 1988): 534.

20 Barnes, 2005.

21 Law, 251.

22 Barnes, 2005.

23 Trevor J. Pinch, and Wiebe E. Bijker. “The Social Construction of Facts and Artefacts:

Or How the Sociology of Science and the Sociology of Technology Might Benefit

Each Other.” Social Studies of Science 14, no. 3 (August 1984): 399.

24 Mike Hughlett, “Cell phones send early photos, video,” The Baltimore Sun, July 8,


25 Dunleavy, 2005.

26 Sarah Boxer, “On the Web, Photos Strain to Connect 7/7 and 9/11.” The New York

Times, July 9, 2005, sec. Arts.

27 The Irish Times, 2005.