It seems like cell phones can do everything these days. Before I’ve even rolled out of bed, I can check the weather, update my planner, and even buy plane tickets. We’re only beginning to see how the people who create our phones are affecting so many aspects of our lives. Perhaps nowhere is this topic more heavily debated than in the photography industry, where the picture-taking capabilities of cell phones are championed by some and loathed by many; for journalists, cell phones are a double-edged sword — an incredibly handy tool that has the ability to distort factual images through apps and filters. But for the average joe, the smartphone is a gateway to individual expression. With the ever-evolving uses of camera phones, are the images we document safe in the hands of those who make our cell phones?
The controversy over mobile phone photography hit a high note earlier this year when Damon Winter, a New York Times photographer, won third place in a national photography competition for his photo essay, A Grunt’s Life, that appeared on The Times’s front page. No one objected to his use of an iPhone to document the war in Afghanistan — the size and portability of the phone makes it the least invasive camera Winter could take onto the battlefield. The issue was that he used the Hipstamatic app, a program that applies Polarioid and Holga-imitating filters to a digital image. Fellow New York Times photographer Chip Litherland explained in his reaction to Winter’s images, “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.” Cell phone photography and apps still cause a rift in the field of journalism, where policies toward the practice are murky. “War photos move us by depicting human drama taken to its extreme, and these images, shot with a smartphone and ‘filtered’ to look old, create a sense of simulated nostalgia, further tugging at our collective heart strings,” wrote Nathan Jurgenson in an essay that responded to Damon Winter’s photographs. “We like faux-vintage photographs because they provide a ‘nostalgia for the present.’”
The debate surrounding cell phone photography will continue in journalism, where factual documentation is of paramount concern. Yet in the hands of the ordinary citizen, the smartphone is a tool that gives way to untapped creativity. In her research about images and mobile communication, Anne Jarrigeon noted the case study of 28-year-old Emmanuel: “He had never really done any photography before… One day, I even found him lying on the floor in the stairway of his apartment building. He was trying out different methods to capture the play of light and shadow.” Jarrigeon goes on to say that, “Mobile phone photography and video belong to the category of pictorial or abstract images, and not that of ‘bad photographs.’” For Knox Bronson, founder of Pixels at an Exhibition, this isn’t just a new tool for aspiring photographers, it’s an entire movement. ”I can tell you that iphonography will explode into the Zeitgeist this coming year,” he told Cult of Mac in an interview.
Lisa Bettany, creator of the Camera+ app, recently posted a study that compares the cameras across every generation of iPhone. The results are staggering — not only does it show the leaps and bounds we’ve made in technology but it gives hard evidence of the impact cell phones are making on photography. The limitations of smartphones may be dictating the aesthetics of our digital photos, but, for many, it is an opportunity to explore a medium that otherwise would’ve evaded their daily lives. Though the place of cell phones in photography will always be up for debate, any accessible tool that encourages the practice of art is worth the fight.
Chappell Ellison is a designer, writer and design writer. She currently lives in Brooklyn, New York where she serves as a contributor for The Etsy Blog and design columnist for GOOD.