Why Cell Phone Photojournalism is Here to Stay
‘At the end of the day, our responsibility as photojournalists is to efficiently connect with our audience and communicate an idea.’ Ben Lowy
As cell phone photography has developed, it has encroached more and more on ‘professional’ photography. This has caused a lot of backlash from the purist photographers, but there is no denial that cell phones are making a name for themselves within the industry. Photojournalism is one outlet that the cellphone has taken by storm.
Credit: Ben Lowy
One man at the forefront of this is Benjamin Lowy, a photojournalist from New York who has been shaking things up with the use of his iPhone. Lowy began his career using DSLRs, with his first assignment sending him straight into the middle of the Iraq War in 2003 at just twenty-three years old. Since then he has worked in many conflict zones in countries such as Libya, Afghanistan and Palestine. His images of Iraq were chosen by Photo District News 30 as some of the most iconic of the 21st century, and his career has awarded him numerous prizes from institutions such as World Press Photo, International Center of Photography (ICP) and Pictures of the Year International.
In 2010 Lowy used his iPhone for the first time on an assignment, documenting the abandoned town of Uruvan, Colorado for The New Yorker. The assignment required him to use film, however it had been so long since he had shot with an analogue camera so decided to also use his iPhone to capture the images. The application Hipstamatic had just come out, so with the use of that, Lowy captured and sent The New Yorker 8x8 printed photographs shot on his iPhone, while he waited for the films to develop. The magazine loved the photos and that was the start of Lowy’s career as a cell phone photographer and vocal proponent of the medium.
Credit: Ben Lowy
In 2012 his image of Hurricane Sandy made the front cover of Time, becoming the first photograph shot with a phone to be featured on the cover of a major magazine. Through this achievement, Lowy gave the cell phone a legitimate position in photojournalism. However, with almost a decade using a phone as well as a DSLR in assignments, Lowy still receives negative reactions and even earns less for those that only require his iPhone. Due to its accessibility and user friendly features, the purists out there argue that the phone camera is inferior to the SLR. While the latter takes skill to use, taking a photo with a cell phone can be done by anyone with just one tap of a finger. On the other hand, it’s for these exact reasons that the cell phone is flourishing in the world of photojournalism and why Lowy claims it to be the future.
Lowy regularly speaks out about smartphone photography and insists the phone camera is ideal for the medium of photojournalism. In contrast to the ‘black box’ DSLR, smartphones are more approachable, allowing Lowy to gain more intimacy with his subjects. In conflict environments where tensions are high, being able to connect with victims is vital in order to capture images that are real but non-invasive.
Professional cameras not only put up a wall between the photographer and the subject, but also force the photographer to stand out from the crowd. Using a cell phone however allows the photographer to obtain a sense of anonymity, blending into the situation they find themselves in.
We now live in a world where almost every individual owns a phone with a camera, therefore a photographer with one doesn’t distance him or her from the crowd like a DSLR does.
Credit: Ben Lowy
Because of this intimacy, Lowy has been able to capture candid - in both terms of the word - images that set his work apart from other photographers’, such as his work iLibya: Uprising by iPhone. These photos really capture the feel of living and fighting in a war zone, taken right in the midst of the struggle.
On a practical level, phones are lightweight and their ease of use makes them perfect in high intensity fast changing environments such as conflict zones. Lowy is able to communicate these fleeting moments to his audience even more so through his regular use of social media.
He takes advantage of the smartphone’s ability to connect instantly with the rest of the world by uploading his photos directly as he takes them onto platforms such as Instagram, Tumblr and Storyboard.
Credit: Ben Lowy
While capturing images of Floyd Mayweather for ESPN, Lowy was updating the fight live as it played out. Lowy reveals a shift in photojournalism here, which only the cell phone can apprehend due to its accessibility to the internet. Not only is the content important, but the time in which it occurs.
Since the prevalence of the internet, the media demands news and conflict live as it unravels and the cell phone is designed in a way that can document exactly that.
Some criticism the cell phone camera for not being real, where the photos captured create a different look that doesn’t exist in reality.
However, with this viewpoint, black and white images can be seen to embellish what is ‘real’ as much as the filters you find on Hipstamatic. Lowy agrees that the phone, especially through photography applications, doesn’t depict what the eye sees. However, perhaps that isn’t what is needed when documenting war. As stated in the quote above, what is most important in photojournalism is to connect with your audience. And if you can do that by creating a new aesthetic that catches people’s attention, then you have succeeded.
Lowy’s first cell phone project used Hipstamatic therefore producing images with a visual style that set them apart from other photographers’ documenting the same conflict. The cell phone camera dominates every corner of the media these days and because of this, photojournalists need to find a way to be unique.
The life of a photojournalist is notoriously challenging.
Lowy himself has been open about his struggles with PTSD, admitting that making a living off death and destruction doesn’t rest easy with his moral compass. Yet, the cell phone and internet era allows conflict to be documented and shared instantly all around the world. Lowy, well aware of this, takes full advantage in order to educate others about the injustice that he witnesses first hand.
Where cell phones will take us next regarding photojournalism is uncertain. They still have their limitations such as issues with low light situations, and arguably the success of ‘iPhoneographers’ is restricted due to the fact that anyone can take a photo and upload it. However, Lowy argues that there is a difference between taking and making photos.
Yes, the number of amateur photographers will continue to increase, but there will always be a distinction between a snap and a thought out image. With a cell phone, composition and timing is still as important as with an SLR. If anything, the competition will force photojournalists who use phones to think further outside the box in order to the catch the eye of their audience.
Lowy’s love for cell phone photography really seems to rest on this idea of connection and the unique aesthetics that appeal to his audience. Some may still see iPhone photojournalism as cheating, but if it achieves a sense of ‘intimacy’ within the photo that a DLR cannot achieve, then surely this is the main objective when documenting moments of war and horror.
With cell phone photography comes citizen journalists such as in Syria where the majority of photos are taken by people living and working there. For Lowy, this is the future of information sharing and communication through the means of the cell phone and perhaps he is right.