Cameras get smaller and more widespread each year, as Cologne's Photokina trade fair shows. But the digital proliferation doesn't just affect social networking websites - it also raises questions for law enforcement.
Photokina set a record with its 'photo globe' of user-submitted pictures
As more and more cameras land in people's pockets, the number of images and videos captured - and disseminated to the public through public platforms like Facebook, Myspace and YouTube - is on the rise. An average of 1,000 pictures are taken each second today in Germany, experts say - at least ten times as many as in the 1950s.
This week Photokina, the world's biggest photography trade fair, is underway in Cologne. More than 1,000 vendors from 45 countries are showcasing the latest in picture making - from ultra-thin cameras featuring GPS that identify the location of each snapshot, to one of the most talked-about items: 3-D cameras. And the question of photography's impact on the social fabric is being examined anew.
Amid all the sleek new gadgets, an established trend continues. For amateur users, cameras increasingly come bundled with other devices.
Major manufacturers like Sony, Panasonic and Kodak are featuring pocket-size cameras that combine high-quality video and photo shooting for around 250 euros ($330). They offer features where users can then upload their content directly to YouTube or other social networking sites with the touch of a button.
With one click, Kodak lets users upload content to social networks
From cameras to court
What happens to the thousands of images that once would have been relegated to the yellowing pages of photo albums or to home-movie collections, but are now found on sites like Facebook and Youtube? They are more than just memories - they're part of the public record. And sometimes they wind up playing a role for police and other authorities, like after the Duisburg Love Parade tragedy earlier this year, which left 21 people dead and hundreds injured.
"We received many hours of personal footage taken at the Love Parade and are using it to try and put together a timeline of what happened," said Cologne police officer Wolfgang Baldes. He is involved in investigating the multiple terabytes of data submitted as a way to learn more about the cause of the tragedy.
"This is the first time we've dealt with people submitting such a large quantity of data for a single incident," Baldes told Deutsche Welle. "Having so much material is both a blessing and a curse, but I expect we'll see many similar investigations in years ahead."
But Guenther Feld, a senior prosecutor in Cologne, is skeptical that shifts in digital technology mean big changes in the courtroom. Despite the exploding number of cell phone cameras and other handheld ways to document crime, "I've seen no change whatsoever in the last ten years in the amount of private photos being brought as evidence in court," he said.
"It does happen occasionally that private photos or videos will be used, but I don't notice a trend in that direction," Feld added.
The chaos at Duisburg's Love Parade was recorded by many in the stampede
When private images or videos do land in the police station or as evidence in a trial, questions about image manipulation and reliability can emerge. A cell phone video documenting an assault, for instance, might be missing scenes that incriminate a certain party.
The police employ no standard procedure to check whether digital materials submitted by private citizens are authentic, said Stephan Hausch of the police force in Duisburg, which helped collect evidence in the Love Parade case.
"We can only ensure that they haven't been manipulated after we receive them," Hausch said.
Public incidents like the Duisburg tragedy make it easy to measure the reliability of submitted evidence, said Baldes, since the large quantity of material allows investigators to verify the accuracy of one item against another.
But when dealing with an isolated picture or recording, attorneys generally use strategies to qualify the reliability of the item, Baldes noted.
"The person who submitted it will generally be asked to explain what the evidence shows under oath. The images don't just stand alone. In that sense, they don't differ from any other witness account," Baldes explained.
Prosecutor Guenther Feld said that the private images he has seen used in trial haven't raised concerns about authenticity, even if they may not tell the whole story.
Author: Greg Wiser
Editor: Jennifer Abramsohn