A New Visual Democracy
In the space of three years, iPhone applications like Instagram and Hipstamatic have become favorites among amateur and professional photographers alike. First seen as merely a retro fad, the saturated and high-contrast images produced by the apps soon began appearing in the pages of the world’s biggest newspapers. What do media professionals think of these developments? How have they altered our perception of images and information? And what have they changed about the way we take pictures?
Last November, TIME magazine became the first major publication to transmit images from a current event in almost real-time as part of its coverage. To document the effects of Hurricane Sandy on the East Coast, the American weekly sent five photographers into the field: Michael Christopher Brown, Benjamin Lowy, Ed Kashi, Andrew Quilty and Stephen Wilkes. They were directed to use only the cameras of their mobile phones, as it happens, Apple’s iPhone.
The photos were published on TIME’s Instagram page, drawing 12,000 visitors within the first 48 hours, and on their photo blog, LightBox, accounting for 13% of the site’s web traffic. “We just thought this was going to be the fastest way we could cover this and it’s the most direct route,” says TIME photo director Kira Pollack. “It’s wasn’t like, ‘Oh, this is a trend, let’s assign this on Instagram.’ It was about how quickly can we get pictures to our readers.” The decision at the magazine was not unanimous, an echo of feelings about the practice in the larger world of photography.
The images showed the hurricane’s destruction of the coastline, and the men and measures put in place to counter the effects of the strong winds and rising waters, as in the cover photograph by Benjamin Lowy. Michael Christopher Brown, assigned to cover the island of Manhattan, considers Instagram an asset to photojournalism. Brown is an admitted adept of the genre, gladly swapping out his camera for his mobile phone, even in conflict zones. “In terms of speed, from when the photo is taken to when it is available to be seen by the public, perhaps no news organization has ever transmitted professional still images as quickly, almost in real-time, to a mobile public,” says Brown. “As TIME exists to serve an audience, largely one that has access to modern technology, and in a world where more and more of their subscribers and viewers are online, using mobile phones, iPads, etc, covering Sandy with mobile phones and Instagram was simply the fastest and most effective way to serve that audience. There was no need for justification.”
A Rapid Evolution
We have to go back a bit to find the first instances of mobile phone photographs published by the press. According to David Friend, the editor of creative development at Vanity Fair, the first real breakthrough in terms of the acceptance of these images in major newspapers came during the 2005 terrorist attacks in London. “Photojournalists could not get underground to make pictures,” says Friend. “So, instead, the British papers and the wire services relied on images hurriedly snatched by worried passengers using their camera-equipped cell phones. Ever since that time, there has been an impulse on the part of certain art directors and picture editors to consider using civilian cell phone images, with their raw spontaneity—and, closer to today, professional photographers, utilizing iPhones and the like—if those photographs are appropriate for the subject at hand.”
In the United States, the phenomenon wasn’t “official” until Damon Winter’s war photographs appeared in The New York Times in 2010, including one on its front page. It was only then that the debate came to the fore, with questions not only of the new technology’s legitimacy, but also of its performance; Winter had to wait ten seconds between each image taken with his phone. James Estrin, editor-in-chief of the Times photoblog, LENS, cut the argument short, asking: “Does it really matter what camera Damon Winter used to make these beautifully composed images? I don’t think so. It’s the images that are important. Whenever possible, I avoid writing about camera gear. The photographer takes the picture, not the equipment. Few people care what kind of typewriter Hemingway used.” The French media also published its share of mobile phone photographs, notably in Le Monde’s weekend magazine, M, in September 2011, for Clémence de Limburg’s feature on the tenth anniversary of 9/11, and a few weeks later for a story by Julie Balague about sharing culinary photography on social networks. “I liked the idea of a professional photographer mimicking an amateur’s work,” says Lucy Conticello, photo director of M magazine.
Emulating the Analog Past
Do Instagram photos and their kind represent anything more than a retro fad? Their success certainly owes itself in part to their appearance: high contrast, saturated and desaturated colors, square formats reminiscent of the analog Rolleiflex and Instamatic cameras from which the developers took inspiration. With the range of filters they offer, the digital enhancement and retouching once reserved for experts is now accessible to all. “I guess part of the appeal of iPhone apps like Instagram, Cross Process, Hipstamatic, etc., is the fact it gives the user a ‘vintage’ aesthetic, a nostalgic-looking picture,” says Lucy Conticello. “Today’s 40-somethings have a modern day version of the bygone polaroid of their childhood. They have an emotional attachment to this type of image and I guess since the app cleans up the frame by scratching the objects and dimming the colors you can be fooled into thinking you snapped a perfectly minted, tiny little picture of an otherwise mundane and banal situation.” Just like a photograph itself, in its most basic form, these images and the technical process that produces them trigger feelings of nostalgia. Kathy Ryan mentions a similar phenomenon in the 1990s, when the vintage, toy-like Diana and Holga cameras experienced a surge of popularity, especially in the artistic community. “The toy camera pictures all looked like they were done with a toy camera,” she says.” I feel with the iPhone, all kind of pictures can be made. It is a more expansive medium to work with it, and will get more so in the future. So, I don’t think it would be as trendy as the toy camera. The toy camera was a camera, the iPhone is a bit more, light, portable, really into all of our lives. There’s something very intimate.”
“It has just made it easier for a photographer and the average person to make a professional-looking picture,” says Michael Christopher Brown. “It is not necessarily better than more traditional ways of retouching, just faster, easier and more democratic. Photography does not have to be difficult, especially for those like myself who are more interested in making pictures than in the technical aspects. I choose applications with filters that generate a look similar to transparency or color negative film, the color palette I grew up with. What the filters do is not much different than what any film or digital camera does: manipulate life to create a certain look. Some more than others, but as a professor of mine once said: ‘A photograph that is a little unsharp is like a woman that is a little pregnant, there is no such thing.’ A little manipulation is still manipulation, and so what: It is about the strength of the message. Many have called these filters and apps a gimmick, but whether or not say Hipstamatic is a gimmick is irrelevant. If Jimi Hendrix (a self-confessed musician of gimmicks) was correct by saying that everything is a gimmick, then photography is also a gimmick, a device intended to attract attention.”
Something few people realize is that the size of these images, in terms of resolution, is such that they can be used for double-page spreads in magazines, or even on their cover, as TIME has shown. However, many photographs taken with mobile phones appear in their filtered, retouched or cropped version when being published. Les in their more raw version, when they’re taken with the basic camera tool of a phone, which usually uses rectangular and horizontal formats. These have less power.
A Tool for Proximity
Cameras in mobile phones are now widely used on a daily basis. Recent studies estimate that half the people in Western countries check their phones as soon as they wake up. Now everyone who carries a phone also carries a camera, a fact whose implications have gone largely unnoticed, although their effect on our relationship with the image has been profound. We are becoming increasingly free to intrude on the privacy of others, to share our photos and comment on them in real-time, either physically or virtually through social networks. The modern camera is not only a means to record. It is a means to communicate. “As a photographer, it was an incredibly empowering feeling as I was also editor, deciding which images needed to be seen,” says Michael Christopher Brown of his work for TIME. “I was assigned to cover Manhattan exclusively and was not only able to instantly transmit pictures to an audience of two hundred thousand followers but to have a real-time dialogue with them. Viewers would comment on the pictures seconds after they were posted and I would discover new things to photograph based on those comments, making the coverage more effective.”
Some, like Lucy Conticello, are drawing comparisons between the camera phone with another discreet and lightweight tool from the history of photojournalism: “The very fact that a phone can be held in one hand makes it the perfect tool to capture something that is immediate. I’d say it’s what Leica’s 35mm format was in the 1920s. Early photojournalism and street photography was made possible by the lightweight Leica camera. Think of the birth of photojournalism and war photography, Cartier Bresson’s decisive moment or Capa’s assertion ‘If your pictures are not good enough, you’re not close enough’ would not have been possible without the small Leica. David Douglas Duncan could not have shot ‘This is war’ without a small unobtrusive camera. Once the quality gets much better, the phone can be one way of accessing places, countries situations that today are off-limits, a means of getting closer.”
A Visual Democracy
Publishing, sharing, commenting: what was reserved half a century ago to an elite comprised of journalists, editors, intellectuals and artists has become accessible to all thanks to internet, Facebook and now Instagram. Today it’s rare to see a publication without a tool to interact with its readers, like the option to comment on an article.
Where photography is concerned, newspapers like Libération and Le Monde have invited their readers to submit their personal photographs, either for pleasure or to supplement their reports on current events. This is proof that the press is paying more attention to, and even benefiting from, outside perspectives on its content. There’s a thin line between what they do and so-called citizen journalism. “In my opinion photojournalism and participative journalism are two very different approaches,” says Lucy Conticello. “Photojournalists are trained to interpret very complicated situations in a fraction of a second, make decisions and process information and crunch this all up into a perfect shot or series of pictures that tell a precise story they witnessed. Participatory journalism can be extremely effective and, more importantly, necessary in situations, as in the current Syrian war where access is virtually impossible and the media are therefore dependent on a collective of people witnessing events and streaming them out of the country.”
Imagine what would happen if the attacks of September 11, 2001, were to happen in 2013, and that no professional journalist were present in the immediate aftermath, as was the case in 2001. Images from the event would flood social networks like Instagram. In the interest of speed and providing information, would the world’s newspapers rely on their reports? “For a major news event,” says Kathy Ryan, “if it gives you a speed advantage, I would say ‘Sure, why not’. Here, there are two things going on simultaneously. One, seeing these thousands of pictures that people are instagramming each other, which is interesting for the historical record. Two, therefore if there’s thousands of images, we, as a magazine have the responsibility to take the dialog beyond that. And that’s the reason why you should send a photographer with a special eye. I would say these thousands of images couldn’t replace the traditional way to cover news event, it would be an added material. But when it’s the only way to get pictures from a scene where no professional photographer was present, you’d be crazy to reject this material because it was made with an iPhone.If it offers an on-the-ground point of view and fills a hole in the coverage. It’s problematic. The minute I say that, I know as a journalist that the fact checking responsibilities go up dramatically. If you’re getting in images from citizen journalists, from people who have no training, no understanding of the larger rules and context of what we do, then an editor has to determine and prove that this is what we think it is. The land mine might be there. But it can possibly be done.”
As far as the press is concerned, this is undoubtedly one of the fundamental issues related to the phenomenon of Instagram. Can we trust in images we see in real-time, to the point where we offer them as credible news? (That’s often the case on social networks.) Images from citizen journalists have proven to be as informative as those taken by professional photojournalists. Professor Fred Ritchin, the author of several books, including After Photography (2008), has this to say about the evolution of the way we process and treat images: “The issue here is: how do we filter all that? Who is going to look at 10,000 images and pick up 50? We have to change the way we function. I always say to my students, it’s good to become a photographer but we also need people to filter the numerous images that exist. You can also study this part and try to know how to help us. We don’t have these mechanisms yet but we need them badly. We get just too many images; it’s kind of inhuman sometimes.”
Instagram surely represents a technological step forward in photography. But here we are faced with an existential question. How does one define progress? Is progress quantitative, as Instagram suggests? Is there value in sheer numbers? Or should it be qualitative? Ritchin sees a direct link between progress and the current crisis in journalism: “Part of the problem in photojournalism is that there’s a lack of confidence now. People don’t really know what they’re doing, why they’re doing it, or if anybody cares. For example, recently I saw an exhibition of images from Egypt, mostly captured by Egyptians. Sometimes, it can happen that phone pictures from citizens tell you more. We, journalists, could be trusted but if you’re a European photographer landing in the Middle East and you don’t really know the region, why would I trust you? Before, the New York Times used to be the frontpage to read about everything you should know. Now, with social media, like Instagram, anybody’s opinion tends to be as important as that of major journalists and newspapers. It’s like consumer capitalism: if you go to a supermarket and want breakfast cereal, you have dozens of choices. They might be all bad for your health but at least you have the choice. Journalism is more and more like that: you have the choice, but you don’t have the same standards. So we get more and more lost.”
Some professional photographers are certainly feeling somewhat lost faced with the magnitude of the phenomenon. They fear losing their jobs to people who only take pictures recreationally. “In terms of informational images,” says Ritchin, “if you ask a professional photographer what he does better than an amateur would do, what would he say? To me, that’s the most important question photojournalists have trouble answering now.” According to Michael Christopher Brown, “Theoretically, it is possible for anyone to become a professional photographer using any type of camera. Whether they make any money or not is a different question.”
What is Instagram’s place in the history of photography
Given their increased acceptance in other parts of the photography world, it seems like only a matter of time before pictures taken with mobile phones infiltrate the art world. They have already been exhibited at certain galleries and museums, and even more predominantly on web platforms devoted to artistic projects, like Eyeem.com. It might take time for them to be accepted universally, but Kathy Ryan is optimistic: “Soon, I think some great artist is going to do a big and special exhibition, which will make iPhone pictures accepted by the art world. I haven’t seen it yet but I’ll be happy to curate one. The potential is there.”
Note: The photographs used for this article come from a recent and original series by Michael Christopher Brown, shot in an airplane boneyard in the Congo.