iPhone Photojournalism Causes Aesthetic Controversy

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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