Sunday, March 6, 2011

More on War Photography and iPhones

I sometimes worry that I have no opinions of my own, only those spoken by the last person I heard giving theirs. It happened to me again today.

I’m not sure what side I’m on in a debate raging among some photographers about the use of an iPhone app for the photo that won this year’s prestigious Picture of the Year International award in the Photojournalism category. The app in question uses various mechanisms, including filters, allowing you to take pictures that imitate vintage analog photos.

I wrote about this in a previous blog because I was fascinated by Damon Winter’s use of the Hipstamatic App to shoot U.S. soldiers in the field in Afghanistan. War photography with an iPhone as it were.

Everyone agrees the photos Winter took are great. No argument there. So why did critics pounce?

I’ll reduce the argument into a nutshell. According to fellow photojournalist Chip Litherland, a great admirer of Winter’s work, but a critic on this subject, “It’s now no longer photojournalism, but photography.”  Photography vs. photojournalism. Huh? Stay with me here.

According to Chip, this makes it a whole new ballgame.

“What we knew as photojournalism at its purest form is over and POYI {the organization that gives the award} just killed it. Well, they didn’t kill it so much as just dig another knife deeper into the back of its decaying corpse.”

I’m sympathetic to Litherland’s argument. I happen to have real interest in the issue because I’ve always been a fan of what’s called documentary photography. I learned about war, segregation in the southern U.S. and the beauty of faraway lands from the documentary photography and photojournalism in Life magazine. Photographs literally changed my life.

It did what it was supposed to do: chronicle significant and historical events. It provided a record of social and political situations. It conveyed information. “Provide a record” and “chronicle” are the key terms. And people like Mr. Litherland think Winter’s photos didn’t do that..

Documentary photographers (and thereby photojournalists) are purists. Probably considered boring purists by more adventuresome and “creative” photographers who use every technique possible, including Photoshop, to enhance pictures to get the best possible image.

Don’t get me wrong. There’s nothing wrong with doing that. I love Photoshop. I love filters, gadgets and gimmicks that allow me to make the best possible photo. I’ve turned day into night, used filters to intensify clouds. I’ve deepened my sky blues.

It’s just that by doing so, I’m no longer telling a story about what I actually saw. I’m not documenting what was in front of me. I’m playing with the image and my camera and my software and my apps to create art. I’m creating a facsimile of what I saw. And that’s fine. Makes for great photography. I’m an artist.

But that’s not the job of a photojournalist, according to some. They’re record keepers. Their job is to tell us a story. A real one. It’s history they’re recording.

Says Litherland:

“The fact it (Winter’s photo) was shot on a phone isn’t relevant at all and fair game,” says Literland,  “but what is relevant is the fact it was processed through an app that changes what was there when he shot it.  It’s now no longer photojournalism, but photography. That transition happens when images become more about what the photographer does and less about the subject of said photos.

 “It’s to a point now where the more proficient you at using Photoshop, the better you are at rising above the rest. Storytelling is about 4th or 5th down the list.”

Okay, so Litherland had me convinced. The rest of us can keep busy with our new state-of-the-art “stuff” to enhance our pictures. Not photojournalists, though.  But that’s not to say they’re not artists. Good photojournalists will capture reality in powerful, moving photos. Not everyone can do that. The good ones are making art with their very specific craft. And they accept their craft has certain limitations.

Then I read Winter’s response to the criticism and got all confused on where I stand on the issue. I’ll give you a few nuggets of Winter’s thoughts on the use of his app, and let you decide if you’re likeme,in that your opinions are those of the last person you heard giving theirs.

Winter says:

“At the heart of all of these photos is a moment or a detail or an expression that tells the story of these soldiers’ day-to-day lives while on a combat mission. Nothing can change that. No content has been added, taken away, obscured or altered. These are remarkably straightforward and simple images.

What has gotten people so worked up, I believe, falls under the heading of aesthetics. Some consider the use of the phone camera as a gimmick or as a way to aestheticize news photos. Those are fair arguments, but they have nothing to do with the content of the photos.

We are being na├»ve if we think aesthetics do not play an important role in the way photojournalists tell a story. We are not walking photocopiers. We are storytellers.  We observe, we chose moments, we frame little slices of our world with our viewfinders, we even decide how much or how little light will illuminate our subjects, and — yes — we choose what equipment to use. Through all of these decisions, we shape the way a story is told.

… The problem people have with an app, I believe, is that a computer program is imposing the parameters, not the photographer.

If I had had the choice at the time, I would have used a program that applied less of an effect. But this was all I had available to me. Without an Internet connection, I could not download a plug-in for the application with more subtle processing, as I would have preferred. This is what I had. And this is what I used. And that is that.”

That's all I needed. Winter had me in his clutches the second he said: “We are not walking photocopiers.”

It's best I don't know what Chip Litherland would say in response. 


  1. What is the fundamental difference between using an iphone app or using a filter. No one would say that a filter necessaryily distorts the editorial meaning of the image.

    It could be used to twist reality or it could be the only way to take the picture. What truly counts is whether or not the image fairly reflects the situation, not the specific mechanism used capture the image.

  2. Great argument. Important too, because photographers really do influence our view of the world. As do journalists, of course. And therein lies a clue to adjudication of this debate. We hope for objective reality from both photographers and reporters but understand that the news is filtered by their points of view and depend on them to tell the story as honestly as they can.
    Your friend, Bobby