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iPhone Photojournalism Causes Aesthetic Controversy

by Kyle Chayka on February 15, 2011

Images from Damon Winter's “A Grunt's Life” (from nytimes.com)

That New York Times staff photographer Damon Winter won third place in Pictures of the Year International’s Feature Picture Story competition for his photo essay A Grunt’s Life isn’t surprising. The series of images shows an eloquent portrayal of daily life in a war zone for US troops in and out of action. But where the images came from is pretty unorthodox for mainstream photojournalism: Winter shot the photos on his iPhone, using the Hipstamatic application as a faux-polaroid filter.

The award-winning photos have provoked controversy not just because of their non-traditional source, more than a few serious photojournalism projects have been carried out through iPhones, but for their aesthetic decisions. The photos document a charged atmosphere and a political event using a visual language and medium usually reserved for party snaps with friends. War photography is something of a sacred cow in the world of photojournalism; it seems that the informality of the medium Winter chose has come into conflict with the prevailing “unmediated” “realistic” aesthetic of most war photography, often characterized by high-drama, wide angle shots of fighting in action.

Photographer Chip Litherland, also a contributor to the New York Times, notes that it’s irrelevant that Winter used a phone to shoot his photos, rather, it’s the app that makes the difference:

…what is relevant is the fact [that the images were] processed through an app that changes what was there when [Winter] shot them.  It’s now no longer photojournalism, but photography. That transition happens when images become more about the photographer and less about the subject of said photos.

A 2006 photo from Afghanistan by Tyler Hicks might be a more traditional version of war photography (image from nytimes.com)

Litherland’s problem is that the visual filters of the Hipstamatic app interfere with the pure view through the lens that provides the truth of the moment. In fact, the New York Times‘ own photography policy is seemingly against Hipstamatic’s color-shifting and distortion [via Gizmodo]:

Images in our pages, in the paper or on the Web, that purport to depict reality must be genuine in every way. No people or objects may be added, rearranged, reversed, distorted or removed from a scene (except for the recognized practice of cropping to omit extraneous outer portions).

The truth, though, is that all photojournalism is altered. No image can ever to be trusted as a pure document of an event. In his New York Times response to the controversy, Winter notes that other photographs in the competition, notably the first place winner, employ distortions similar to those of Hipstamatic:

It is black and white, shot with an extremely shallow depth of field to focus attention on the intended subject and blur other distractions and to give it a certain feel. It features a very heavy use of vignetting.

Much of the information in the image has been obscured in the interest of aesthetics. We humans do not see in black and white. And we do not see the world at f/1.2. These are aesthetic choices that do not contribute to the accuracy of the image. They are ways that the scene has been enhanced aesthetically.

Images from Damon Winter's “A Grunt's Life” (from nytimes.com)

Winter explains that it wasn’t the Hipstamatic-induced visual distortions that he was after in his decision to use the iPhone, it was actually the camera’s informality and lack of presence. Soldiers were used to taking phone photos of themselves and their friends, so when Winter started doing the same, no one batted an eye. The informality gave Winter a level of access and improvisation impossible with a larger, bulkier camera.

iPhone photography is a challenge to traditional photojournalism, but it’s also an innovation. I don’t think Hipstamatic’s color distortions are really any different from photoshop filters that are already common practice in photojournalism editing. Would Winter’s photos have been just as good without the visual filter? Yes, because it’s the photographer’s hand that makes the photos, not the camera’s eye. iPhone photography is probably the most prevalent form of photo documentation in the world today, so why shouldn’t documentary photographers use such a tool at their disposal?

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  • Victor

    There’s a big difference between working an image that is less than ideally captured vs an image that is worked to be idealized. In the former, you may be compensating for bad lighting and inaccurate color, contrast etc…ie moving it towards what you saw to be true, that the camera did not catch at the time. In the latter, you are taking an image that might be fine and imbuing it with effects that take it away from this attempt at truth and instead have an editorial effect such as to date it as coming from another period, with another technology that is more about nostalgia and a different set of cultural parameters.
    Talking about black and white in this context is a false argument of sorts. It can be argued that black and white image is truer than a color image because it declares clearly that it is not trying to mimic truth, but to report it.

    • http://twitter.com/chaykak Kyle Chayka

      You’re not actually talking about ‘truth’ at all, you’re only talking about signifiers of ‘truth’. Black and white is no more ‘true’ than anything else, the visual style just communicates to you that it is “true”. You’re accepting black and white as more true because we’re conditioned that way by photographic and artistic history.

      The idealization argument I don’t really buy either, since in either case you are editing away from the “truth”. Is the “truth” just what is purely captured by the camera? In that case every camera captures a different “truth”. The difference between working a less than ideally captured image and “imbuing it with effects that take it away from” the truth is purely taste, it has nothing to do with actual truth.

  • Jane

    Great piece, but the conclusion is a bit weird. The crux of the debate is the use of the Hipstamatic app, not the iPhone, so arguing for the iPhone’s acceptance is a moot point …I think it will be accepted, eventually, no matter what.

    “Would Winter’s photos have been just as good without the visual filter?”

    Why ask this question? For one thing, when talking about aesthetics, it’s pretty hard to define what qualifies as “good.” Obviously those who value “authenticity” (or visual signifiers thereof) would have liked them better without the app. But they would be different photos entirely and we wouldn’t be having this particular debate.

    • http://twitter.com/chaykak Kyle Chayka

      “Good” probably isn’t the best word to use there. In his response, Winter says that he’d rather have had the photos without the visual filter, so I thought that was significant. Given that at the time, the photography app and the phone-camera itself were inseparable, I think it’s worth discussing that as well. You can’t really separate the fact of the iPhone out of his decision to use Hipstamatic.

      • Jane

        You go to war with the apps you have, not the apps you wish you had? ;)

  • http://www.chiplitherland.com/blog Chip Litherland

    My name has one “p.”

    • http://twitter.com/chaykak Kyle Chayka

      Updated, thanks for the correction.

  • Atlanta

    Hello hyperallergic! Thank you for your take on things and the turf you cover, so delighted to find your site. Damon Winter’s photographs are beautiful, so glad he placed.

    B/W actually more accurate recording of a moment than color (how we all perceive color, different for everyone, for array of reasons, and how color processed, etc, some of the many reasons that color is subjective and inaccurate record), but color the way of the world, and my I love color. Moving from analog to digital the big clinker, and once we accept digital as acceptably accurate recording of moment, then iphone even with app is as good as any other. Remember Mathew Brady civil war photos? That the sun touched those people and then the film to record that moment, that touches my soul. I love real film. And I love Walker Evans, who took those subway shots, with hidden camera (my clunky nikon don’t hide so well). Real life, real moments, recorded. Well, in 2011, that kind of magic happens with an iphone (“the camera’s informality and lack of presence”), and I am grateful Winter was there to record these moments of our history for us.

    Winter inspires me to put my droid to good use, and if I can find a good vignetting filter, I won’t hesitate to use it (art’s about emoting, baby, and the evocative effect is, for now at least, still an emotive visual cue for us).

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  • Joe

    The hipstamatic filter conceptually muddies the imagery, it is cheesy. It is a filter that is designed to look ‘hip’ster and is just misplaced in war photojournalism.

    • Malevich

      Yeah yeah yeah. Opinions. We love them. Care elaborating on your opinion as to why it’s ‘misplaced?’ Simply because it breaks from convention?

    • http://www.facebook.com/people/Alexander-David-Schremser/100001048092203 Alexander David Schremser

      So a Polaroid-cam would be misplaced because she makes the pictures look the same as this filter?

      Nice to know who is the international judge about what is the right camera and technique for taking photos as a journalist.

  • Fazzaz31

    There are no colorblind soldiers.

    Any camera is just a box with a lens, but this “app” gives a false view of the world the photographer is alleged to be reporting on. You see, when the photographer manipulates film outside the bounds of accepted photojournalist policy, it is called editorializing. In the civilian world, that practice is accepted as “art,” but in the world of journalism, it’s called making the photographs all about you, the photographer. The photographer has already admitted that he had no idea what he was reporting (in the reporting biz, that’s called “having no hook”), so he offered us this art school project. He may as well have presented us with a portfolio of Pet Dogs of Afghanistan.

    • Malevich

      Hey cool story bro. Are you lost though? Did you actually look at the work the dude produced? What he wrote?

      Thought so.

      Everyone’s crying foul only because he won something. All the envious little worms start coming out of the woodwork. If the issue is the integrity of photojournalism, why not pounce when the essay was published? Why not attack the publisher? Seriously. Read. The lens is a filter, film is a filter, print is a filter. The photographer is a filter. Don’t put your profession on that morally infallible pedestal.

    • http://twitter.com/chaykak Kyle Chayka

      I would love to see Pet Dogs of Afghanistan, hipstamatic or not. I don’t really see how Winter’s modifications are any different than white balance editing and contrast control in Aperture or Photoshop. How do you determine truth to “film” when it’s all digital and nothing is “pure”?

    • http://www.facebook.com/people/Alexander-David-Schremser/100001048092203 Alexander David Schremser

      A) He could have taken a box with a lens (namely a Polaroid-Cam). The outcome would be the same – so where’s the problem?

      B) No journalist takes a box with a lens anymore. Every digital camera processes the pictures in some way – so there are no true photos out there anymore (by your definition).

      C) Not knowing what’s happening in the big picture does not mean not knowing what happens before your nose – and that is what he portraied.

  • dave o.

    Infusing images with nostalgia as they are created (as this app does) has the unintended consequence of trivializing its subjects for the sake of style. If that is the intention of one’s art, fine but this is murky ethical territory because the images are being used as reportage, thus distorting history. One can make the long-view argument that all reportage distorts history, but I think that this kind of insta-nostalgia has potentially dangerous consequences such as to serve jingoism or war-mongering.

    • Malevich

      And you don’t bother defining the parameters of ‘nostalgia.’ Just what makes you think that everyone would perceive the image in the way that you do? Do you not think that your own feeling of nostalgia that developed from viewing Winter’s photos is shaped by your own experiences of viewing photos? You, sir, are in murky territory yourself.

    • http://www.facebook.com/people/Alexander-David-Schremser/100001048092203 Alexander David Schremser

      So if he had taken an actual Polaroid-cam (what’s actually possible, I posess one and film is produced again by a little viennese firm…) it would have been more realistic than using an app that make the outcome look the same?

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  • Jonnynav

    I sense a lot of envy due to the fact that Winter used a simple low pixel iPhone camera to take great pictures. If he used an app or not is irrelevant and the discussion of photographic “ethics” laughable. We have always been developing techniques with the camera and darkroom, which now have become electronic due to all the technological advances. I presume that a “real” photograph involves film, which means that we should condemn digital cameras as well?

  • Lillian_bradley

    Bet he could work for Reuter’s.

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Alexander-David-Schremser/100001048092203 Alexander David Schremser

    So if he had taken an actual Polaroid-cam (what’s actually possible, I posess one and film is produced again by a little viennese firm…) it would have been more realistic than using an app that make the outcome look the same?

    That’s just hysterical blabla… – Jealousy i call that, Sirs!

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