Faculty of Social Sciences

The rise of the selfie journalist

Selfie journalist and social media influencer Yusuf Omar inspired the audience at the Mobile spotting in the media-conference in Bergen.

Social media influencer Yusuf Omar and Professor Astrid Gynnild from the University of Bergen at the Mobile spotting in the media conference in Bergen on 12 January 2017.
INSPIRATIONAL VISIT: The social media influencer Yusuf Omar was invited to Bergen by Professor Astrid Gynnild to talk about his ground-breaking work, and gave an inspiring speech to students and media professionals.
Sverre Ole Drønen, University of Bergen

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“What is selfie journalism, or mobile journalism,” asked Yusuf Omar, the mobile editor of the Hindustan Times, who visited the conference arranged by the VISmedia group at the University of Bergen (UiB) and NCE Media, a Norwegian Centre of Expertise, before replying:

“I believe it’s our closest version of the news. Selfie journalism is a democratisation of the world. I even like to call myself a jeans journalist, because everything I need should fit into the pocket of my jeans.”

He was invited to attend the conference by Professor Astrid Gynnild from UiB’s Department of Information Science and Media Studies.

Mobile describes the world

He put the change in the way we see the world to the terrorism acts of 9/11 and the arrival of smart phones, when we “started documenting our lives”. According to Omar, mobile phones now describe the world, pointing to examples and showing video clips – both his own and others – from war zones in Africa and Syria.

Some critics have argued that selfie journalism isn’t news, and that journalism is about finding things out.

“This may not be journalism in a conventional way, but this doesn’t mean that it’s not relevant,” he argued in his defence of mobile journalism, which has become the modern and accessible way to do what would once have been called citizen journalism.

Mobile journalism is revolutionising the way we see the world. A movement of citizen journalists.

“I understand that there are around three million Facebook users in Norway. If we could curate just one per cent of those users, there would be 30,000 new journalists,” he said pointing out that this type of bottom-up journalism could bring attention to stories of sexual abuse or migration.

Stories of sexual abuse

In his native India, Omar has been the force behind major journalistic scoops, both through the “Ugly Indian” awareness campaign and his ground-breaking Snapchat-reports of sexual abuse, that have been copied by media outlets as far afield as Germany.

“Many think of Snapchat as just being childish and frivolous pictures”, he said whilst showing images of himself on the conference screen, with the silly pictures that Snapchat is known for.

“But used in a different way, it’s about empowering people to tell stories,” he said and talked about how on his travels in India he was talking to girls, “who have been sexually abused. and disowned by their parents.”

Controlling the narrative

Marginalised by society, these girls have found it hard to channel their despair and their stories. Until Snapchat.

“Mainstream media would blur out faces or only show the victim’s hands. But this would only be a sound bite. No real detail, no real story.  Snapchat does justice to these young girls’ stories,” said Omar.

When getting the girls to tell their stories, they would use Omar’s phone as a mirror.

“They could choose their own representation. They got to see their own faces being hidden. They were empowered to choose their own narrative. Yet we can still see eyes, ears, mouth. This gives us a sense of purpose,” he said about how the images created a connection between the girls and their Snapchat audience.

Using the same method, Indian women trafficked as sex labour to Abu Dhabi have told their story.

“This is about empowering people to tell their own stories,” he argued, “it is about looking beyond the gimmicks of social media, the ephemeral messages and tell the stories.”