Candid Conversations With Anton Kawasaki and Sion Fullana. Everything You Ever Wanted To Know About Them, But Never Dared Ask! by Dilshad C
Do you have your popcorn ready? Are you comfortable enough? Well sit back, relax and enjoy this great interview with Anton Kawasaki and Sion Fullana. There is very little need to introduce them, for they have been around for a very long time, and can easily be considered the two giants of mobile photography. They are the masters of composition, and yet, when looking at their photos one can straight away notice the simple editing style, however, their photographs are full of depth, and most importantly the incredible stories that each of their images can convey is truly extraordinary! So if you want to know how they do it, and find out more about them and how you can join their workshop, well wait no more and keep reading.
DC: Dilshad Corleone AK: Anton Kawasaki SF: Sion Fullana
©Sion Fullana Stopping At Obstacles Is For Losers
DC: I remember reading of you guys a while back — this was on Theappwhisperer.com — the article was about your workshop. That got me interested, and I still remember being late to sign up — and when I wrote you guys for the very first time it was to get some more information about the workshop, but your answer was that it was already full. I still remember thinking, “Oh they are just saying this, but I will convince them, it’s just an online workshop they can’t say no”… and yet you still said no, even after my ten, twelve e-mails. You guys must have been thinking “Who is this crazy dude, what is wrong with him!”
I was really impressed, and really couldn’t wait for the next opportunity, which I took as soon you opened the gates! I think this was the best decision I took for a very long time — that of signing up for your workshop — and we will talk about this more in depth in a bit, but to start with… I would love to know more about you both, so… who are Sion Fullana and Anton Kawasaki?
AK: Hah! We definitely remember you writing us so many e-mails trying to get into the Workshop. We limit them to only 12 people maximum, because we really want to ensure that we have the proper amount of time to devote to each student over the course of the ten days. To let more people in after that would have been unfair. As you found out later when you joined our next round, they are really intensive workshops that are heavy on the critiques. They are NOT the typical online courses where you just get some pre-recorded videos and absolutely no interaction, where you’re left to fend for yourself. We are interacting with our students throughout the entire course — giving them tips, guidance, inspirations, 1-on-1 video chats, and more importantly really constructive feedback on all of their work.
As for who am I? I’m just a guy who grew up mostly in Los Angeles, but who has been living in New York City (my favorite city in the world) for the past 17 years. I grew up surrounded by the film industry (my father, sister, ex-boyfriend, and tons of friends are all in the biz), I studied journalism and theatre in high school and college (directing, writing and acting in plays), and ended up working in the comic-book industry for over a dozen years. So I feel like I’ve been a kind of storyteller all of my life — especially a visual one.
SF: In Spain (where I’m from) we have a saying that goes “all good things make themselves be worth a wait.” So I hope it was the case for you in the end regarding finally doing the workshop when the time came! 🙂
As for a quick biography, I’m a man who grew up in an island (Majorca, Spain) and set himself the goal to go explore the world and tell some stories about it. Along the way, I learned different tools needed to do so while living in different cities: Barcelona, where I studied journalism, Cuba where I graduated in film directing, and eventually New York City, that brought the passion of photography into my life. As a side note, my second vocation path before choosing a degree in college had always been Psychology. So I guess it was fitting that I would end up turning my lens in my work towards observing human behavior, in street photography, portraits or documentary work.
©Sion Fullana The Rites Of Ink
DC: How did you two meet? Was it love at first sight?
AK: We met in this total serendipitous way when I was traveling to Barcelona, Spain. It was the first time I’d traveled to Europe all by myself, and everyone was telling me that Barcelona was a great city to go to because everyone spoke English. That wasn’t true at all! I was having a really hard time finding anyone I could talk to. I was there for a couple of days in this beautiful city, but feeling kind of all alone. Sion was the first person I found (outside of hotel staff) that spoke English to me.
We spent a magical 6 hours together, had dinner and a drink together, and then…he had to leave the city for the next day.
SF: We often joke that our personal story was a bit like the movie “Before Sunrise” (that we both loved). We even joked that night that we wouldn’t be like the characters in the film and exchanged contact info right away. So we stayed in touch, starting talking and video chatting for over four hours a day sometimes, through the six hour time difference across the ocean, and three months after that first night, I visited Anton in New York for 6 days (yes, number six was always magic with us) and we decided to give it a try, long distance and all. Fourteen months later and many visits across the ocean, I eventually moved to New York. And here we are, seven years later, and even legally married in New York State!
DC: You both are professional photographers, right? How long have you been doing Photography?
SF: I may go and say something here now I have never said before, but I think the ideal definition would be to say “I’m a professional photographer in the making,” constantly learning something new, opening new and bigger doors and dealing with the punches and the ropes of the profession as a freelancer. I know for a fact that I’m a 100% professional Visual Storyteller, that I say without any doubt, and when I set my head to something, I know I can deliver. But I also acknowledge there are certain sides of the photography business I’m still on my path to master. I’ve been doing it for the past five years, and I have to say I’ve had some incredible experiences, working with entrepreneurs, models, politicians (General Colin Powell), musicians or even some Hollywood celebrities (as the official photographer of the 24 Hour Broadway Plays the last three years in NYC). I’ve photographed two same sex marriages (which made me really proud) and collaborated with a few big brands (Macy’s, Tory Burch, Panasonic, HP, etc.).
AK: Sion’s had more “pro” photography work than I, but I have joined him when shooting events (mega conferences that involve a lot of immediate sharing of images — which makes using an iPhone ideal), weddings, and of course we do the Mobile Photo Workshops together. I have also done stuff related to mobile photography, including writing about it for Digital Photography Review CONNECT and other places, as well as doing social media and consulting for some photo apps.
©Anton Kawasaki Well Hello There
DC: How did you both get into mobile-photography?
SF: The first time I saw some of our friends with a first generation iPhone, I was set on having one some day and using it for photos. In 2007 I was already experimenting sometimes with taking some images with my (back then) crappy phone camera. So when Anton got me an iPhone 3G as a birthday gift a year later, I immediately started using it, incorporating it as a new tool to capture life moments in the streets of New York. Soon enough, I was interviewed in a few blogs, got approached by Time Out New York to do some collaborations with them and ended up in the first big ever article on the possibilities of mobile photography that American Photo Magazine published in 2009, alongside Chase Jarvis, Greg Schmigel and Lisa Wiseman. That made me realize this was something that was meant to thrive and stay, and I was always happy and proud I was among the first to start evangelizing it.
AK: And *I* got into it because Sion was shooting so much that it started to get irritating! I figured I’d either have to kill him…or join him! [Laughs]
It was great because walking with crutches for so long, I assumed something like Street Photography would be closed off to me. How could I use a regular camera to shoot candidly, that wasn’t completely awkward and obvious? But the discretion and easiness of the iPhone (I could shoot with one hand) opened up a whole new world to me. I jumped into it with a huge passion.
DC: Do you predominantly shoot with a mobile nowadays? Or, when is it that you say “OK, for this project I am going to go back to my big camera”?
SF: I’ve had a bit of everything happening with me. An example: when I worked with the brand BAR III for Macy’s shooting backstage and portraits with my phone to use in the look book, I was also hired to take some photos of the press presentation parties. The first time I showed up with my camera and they said “No, iPhone as well” so it would go with the “vibe” from the previous shots. I got some cool stuff. But obviously, a night time event with the phone is still a no-no, as is anything where you need some distance between the lens and the action. So for certain types of photos shoots I do (portraits/head shots sessions, corporate event photography, etc.) I obviously unpack the DSLR and its set of tools.
But even in a portrait session I will always try to squeeze in a few iPhone shots there. Provided that there’s good natural light (or I may have a portable LED light device) I know I can get good quality.
On the other hand, when it comes to my street photography work and even the journalistic coverage of some local outdoor events, I have increasingly started using the phone in 90% of the cases. Firstly, for the obvious reasons (lightness, discretion, always with me, etc.) but also because once I learned to master the technical aspects of what the phone’s tools can do, I know I can get the job done way more easily and quickly. Then there’s been many days where I’d go to an event like Gay Pride or Fleet Week with a micro four thirds camera around my neck and the iPhone in my hand, and I would go home and realize once I started shooting with the phone I hadn’t even touched the camera. They are two different mind settings, the way you compose, approach the scene, the subjects, etc. when shooting with the different tools. And I really enjoy the way I work with the phone. It’s become organic, second nature.
©Sion Fullana The Joys Of Photography
AK: And I ONLY shoot with my iPhone. The reasons of which were mostly explained in an article I wrote entitled “What ‘Mobile’ Means To Me.” It’s mostly because the types of shots I’m most interested (candid street shots) aren’t possible for me with other cameras. And I wouldn’t want to carry around the extra bulk of a DSLR anyway.
When we shot the wedding of a gay couple we knew, I was forced to use a regular camera, as the lighting at the venue just wasn’t optimal for the iPhone. I’m still using an iPhone 4, actually! I’m waiting for the 5S to come this year, and hoping for a bigger leap in quality of images. I don’t give a crap about megapixels (some of my best images were taken on a 1st generation iPhone), but I DO wish the iPhone was better in low light.
DC: Mobile photography has changed the life of many and in many different ways, has it changed yours?
AK: It’s given me a completely new way of expressing my creativity. There was a time in my life that I thought I would be in the world of comic books until I was old enough to retire, but when that world started to disappoint me and fall apart, mobile photography was there to swoop me up and give me a real purpose again.
It’s been a really wonderful ride ever since. It’s been exhilarating having my photos appear in multiple magazines, or exhibits all over the world. Having a solo show at the Haus of Hipstamatic, or being a featured guest at Apple Stores twice, was something I never would have dreamed of just a few years ago.
©Anton Kawasaki The Pain of Thousands of Innocent Souls
SF: To me it’s been a complete life change in many ways. My work in mobile photography was what brought the first attention to my images and provided the first big opportunities that turned me into a photographer or visual artist today. It opened a door and I followed through and never looked back, and it rewarded me with so many beautiful things and accolades that it even allowed me to qualify for my current O-1 visa in the US (the so-called visa of extraordinary ability). So yes, it’s definitely shaped my present and hope it will still continue to trail my future.
DC: How was it back in the early days of mobile photography? What do you think is the state of mobile photography NOW? And where do you think is it heading?
AK: The early days were amazing. We met so many creative individuals of all ages and backgrounds who truly saw devices like the iPhone as extraordinary new tools to take pictures. It was especially groundbreaking for genres like Street Photography, because it allowed you to get up REALLY close to the action and truly BE a part of the scene. It added a whole new dimension and intimacy to street shots.
As mobile photography has grown over the years, it’s been wonderful to see the “democratization” of photography give birth to so many talented individuals out there who might not have ever had an opportunity to express their creativity before. So in that way, it’s been great.
On the other hand, since almost EVERYONE now has the ability to take photos and make them seen, it’s made a lot of people believe that simply possessing the tool automatically means they can take quality photographs and become artists or pro photographers. It’s just not so. Unfortunately it’s created not only a glut of “so-so” images out there, it’s also created a ton of fame-seeking individuals who will do anything just to get more followers on Instagram. It’s changed the state of mobile photography in a profound way, because less people care about the “artistry” involved, and care more about how to increase their numbers.
It’s affected the photography industry as a whole, actually — as you see more and more companies, news agencies, and so forth let go of their photo staff because there’s so many of “Joe Public” out there willing to give away their photos for free simply for bragging rights. As much as we’re mobile photo evangelists, we don’t see this as a good thing at all. We don’t want the mobile revolution to be about watered-down, amateurish images. We want to see “mobile” revolutionize and open up photography, but not at the expense of quality. And we want to see amazing images rewarded in the same way professional photography has been rewarded over the years. It’s just a different tool.
©Anton Kawasaki Reaching Out
SF: I was honored to be involved in the field since the very early days. I was one of the leading judges of the first ever international mobile photo competition in early 2010 (the EYE’EM Awards), got one of my iPhone images sold for usage as the cover in a UK book, another one was acquired for the permanent collection of the High Museum of Art in Atlanta, and got to work with a fashion brand way before Instagram became popular and many brands started working with mobile shooters.
Along the way, I’ve seen many things come and go, I’ve met many incredible people in the community, but I’ve also seen things water down: first with the shift from creative photography to social photography, where it all became more about followers, apps, contests, and — in all honesty — many ego fights all over, and the focus on purpose (creative, communication, emotion, story) became secondary. Also, when it was all a novelty, people and community makers were on their toes, trying to be their best and open doors. With the adoration of many thousands praising them whatever they share (the good, the bad and the worst, equally) and the proliferation of so many players (new creators, new apps/communities/platforms, etc.) I’ll go as far as to say that some people have become a bit complacent or lazy. And at least to me, entering Instagram for example and seeing the same, has got a bit boring today.
DC: I consider myself more of a people’s photographer. Street-candid-photography is the one I love, and when I saw your photos I was just blown away — the composition, the simplicity and yet the depth of the photographs you take, the light and most importantly the incredible stories that you manage to tell with that single shot, how do you it? What is street-photography for you, and how different is it to capture those moments with a mobile rather than a big camera?
SF: Well, everyone has its own definition for what constitutes the concept of Street Photography, that it may include images without people, all sorts of posed shots, etc. I may be a bit narrow minded on that, but to me and my own work, I only call “street photography” the slices of life, fragments of story or emotion involving people (one subject, several or many) captured on the fly, not intrusively, as an invisible witness who frames and capture that instant for posterity. So images of signs or graffiti or architecture without a single person on them I would call them myself “urban photography” and portraits of strangers whom you’ve interacted with and asked specific permission to photograph “Street Portraits.”
©Sion Fullana The Imaginary Princess
AK: We BOTH agree on that, and we’ve had a couple of students here and there who wanted their street photography to include literally ANYTHING on the street. That’s fine, and we appreciate those kinds of photos — but for us there’s a special skill required in taking candids of street life with people, and that’s what we teach specifically in our “Storytelling: Street Photography” workshop. Now in our “Storytelling: Documentary/Journalism” course, we open it up to non-people shots too. We don’t want people to limit their creativity, but we also want them to understand the differences in types of photography, and the different skills needed for each, and to hone their skills accordingly.
SF: Don’t get me wrong, I’ve done examples of all of it, but my favorite Street Photography remains that style — the quiet witness pointing your lens in front of life and framing it.
To do that, the cellphone is obviously a great discreet tool, often not even seen by your subjects. It’s a “language” we all speak, using phones, so even if people see you they won’t think directly you are taking a photograph. But shooting with the phone also requires you to get bolder, closer, and become part of the scene, to almost “feel” the moment — that’s how close you get. There’s nothing I find more boring than what I call “street safari,” where people capture “stolen” shots of strangers with a big tele-zoom lens from the opposite sidewalk and think they’re being super brave. That, to me, alongside the –aesthetically pleasing but morally questionable — style of “in your face flash,” is sneakier and is what sometimes gives what we do a bad rep.
Finally, as for how to do it… probably the simple answer is put passion into it, respect your subjects, learn patience, learn to observe more and shoot less, and seek visual inspiration from many sources (not only other photographers, but cinema, television, comics, painting, etc.) and then bring it all to your OWN voice. Don’t copy other people just because you’ve seen their style works for them. If you’re trying to imitate, you’re not actually CREATING.
©Sion Fullana The Frustrated Hunters
AK: The “respect” thing is one of the biggest things we hammer into our students who are trying Street for the first time. It not only helps you if you are feeling a bit scared taking a stranger’s photo (“Just smile,” we say — if someone make eye contact with you), but also it helps you get a more honest and satisfying slice of life that you can feel good about. We like to think that if the people in our pics would see them at some point in the future, they’d be ok with them.
DC: Your photographs are all about those candid moments that you, so masterfully, manage to capture. I know there are so many different opinions both in favor and against shooting like this, and you both have some very strong views on this matters, can you give me the gist of what you think?
SF: Well, I actually wrote recently a photo essay exactly about this subject, called “The Ethics of Being Invisible.” It discusses the ethical dilemmas and why I think that street photography is important and should be protected. But also, perhaps controversial, that not everyone is prepared to be a street photographer in a human level. So if you all have a free minute, I hope can take a look at that essay and let me know what’s your take on the matter.
DC: As I mentioned before, when you told me the first time that your workshop was full I was truly gutted — and by not accepting my many request of signing up anyway, it made me believe in you guys. I felt I could trust you both and that you weren’t just doing it for the sake of money, but you really cared about your students. However, to be absolutely honest, I was still quite skeptic. I really thought that I would not get much out of an online workshop, that you guys would just give me some few comments, a hint here and there and off I would have gone back to my normal shooting… God how wrong I was! I still remember sending you my very first photo of those two guys staring at me in the tube, with “some” editing and a “bit”… ehm… of blurring, thinking you would come back with an Instagram-style comment: “oh lovely, great edit.” To the contrary that was one of the very first beatings I had received, and not the last one either…
[SION & ANTON both laugh]
AK: Just a “bit” of blurring, eh?? That photo, we told you, was actually great — but your editing was unfortunately ruining it. We always say that when the first thing a viewer sees are the “effects” before the story, then you’ve “processed” it way too much. Trust your images to speak for themselves, and if heavy effects are required to make it “work,” then the storytelling is probably not strong enough to begin with…
©Anton Kawasaki Popsicle
DC: Your feedback was fearless and incredibly constructive. The amount of time that you spend analyzing, deconstructing and critiquing each and every photograph of every single student of yours is truly impressive! How do you manage? This might sound a stupid question, but why do you do your workshop? Surely not only for the money… for the amount of time you spend during those ten days is just over and above what you get from a monetary point of view.
AK: Hah! It’s DEFINITELY not for the money! We barely make anything for the sheer amount of work we put into this. The pricing issue is actually a huge problem for us. The first time we offered the classes, it was a bit of a “tryout,” and we offered them too cheap. At a huge loss for us, really — but we honestly weren’t sure who, if anyone, would join them back then. Those first rounds of workshops ended up selling out, and so we’ve been slowly increasing the cost of them each time we offer them in order to at least break even a bit (and also giving more to the students each time to make the cost increases at least worthwhile). But each time we did that, there were slightly fewer people signing up. There’s definitely a “wall” we’ve hit that people aren’t willing to pay to more than. Yet all of our professional photographer friends STILL think we’re severely under-selling ourselves for the sheer amount of work and feedback that we give (it’s a steal compared to a comparable course in DSLR photography).
It’s frustrating because we’re still not making enough money off these courses. And yet…many of our students have said that while they were reluctant to pay the price for them at first, AFTER taking them, and seeing how much they learned from it, they would have gladly paid more. Unfortunately it’s hard for people to take that initial leap. We get that… but it’s still frustrating knowing that there are probably lots of people who’d be willing to take these courses if they only knew how much it actually improves their storytelling. It’s a problem we haven’t quite figured out how to solve, because we know there’s a huge untapped audience for what we teach who would really appreciate what they got out of them, and we can’t seem to “reach” these people.
SF: Deep down it’s also perhaps an issue that happens everywhere else, where people have gotten used to get so many things for free (reading material, watching movies, listening to music and even experiencing photography) that many are not willing to pay a dime for anything that has to do with creativity, communication and learning, more so than ever if it happens online. But yes, we don’t do this for the money, because it will never become a substantial income. We do it because we’re very passionate about the concept of story, that we’ve learned from our background in journalism, comic books, cinema, etc. and we truly enjoy sharing that knowledge with other people. Seeing someone who may have never taken a single iPhone image before then end one of our Portrait workshops creating a photo series depicting a family member, that had coherence, and was dynamic, is a lovely reward. I appreciate so much any advice and teaching I’ve got from some of my own mentors, that I think if we can do the same for anyone else out there, it’s all worth it. Lastly, we do this too because WE ALSO LEARN from the experience always, we learn from our interaction with other people and what they produce, where they come from, what stories they’re telling. And it enriches yourself and your own process too.
©Sion Fullana Shall We Dance
AK: As for the constructive feedback we give during the workshops…it’s all done out of love, and to make our students better storytellers. And I think they “get” that — even though it’s sometimes a shock to people who are so used to only getting “great!” and “lovely!” comments on Instagram. Unfortunately the way IG is designed, it’s constructed in a way that most people simply care about getting the most “likes” and followers possible. Most people we know on IG flip through their friend stream so fast, they rarely stop and truly appreciate a great photo. Many admit that they “auto-like” whatever their friends upload, because they hope they’ll get that same “love” back on their own photos.
Unfortunately this creates a false “everything is wonderful” environment that gets perpetuated. There is ZERO room for constructive critique or in-depth analysis. No one wants to hear that! They just want the like, the positive comment, and that’s it. Unfortunately there’s no room for real growth or learning that way.
SF: Or you get the other sad face of the internet: the trolls that only come uninvited and uncalled for to trash the work of someone without giving a single word of why they feel the image doesn’t work or without having any (good) images in their own accounts to back up their knowledge and mastery, or what entitles them to come play “I know better than you” card.
AK: Our students understand the extreme learning limitations of places like Instagram, and they LOVE the feedback we give. We always tell them what works and why, but we also tell them where they can improve, or if something’s just not working at all, and the reasons. It’s very eye-opening, but they crave that because they learn so much, and then just do even better with their next batch of photos. Our workshops are only 10 days long, but it’s crazy how much improvements we see over such a short time. And that affects their photography and storytelling from that point on. We hammer in a lot of info, and we get a kick out of our students saying later that they still hear our “voices” in their heads when they’re shooting — and that it really helps them tell better stories. We’ve had such great students, and they’ve given us some amazing testimonials. It’s been a really rewarding experience, doing these workshops.
©Anton Kawasaki Hands in the Air
DC: What is it that you want to achieve with your workshop, what is the final goal?
AK: It’s been fun to see the advances of our students, and the waves some of them have been making in the mobile photography world (you included, Dilshad!). It was a really exciting moment when we got to do the “What’s Your Story?” Exhibit, and show work from our Mobile Photo Workshop students! We’re constantly trying to think of new ways to expose our students work to the masses, and we hope we can do more exhibits or other things like that in the future.
DC: So when is the next session starting? And which workshops are you going to do this time? How can one join? And what should they be expecting?
AK: The next workshop is “Storytelling: Street Photography” and it starts this Thursday, June 13th and runs until the 22nd. It’s still not too late to join it! Then after that, we have “Storytelling: Portraits” from July 2-11 (a fantastic way to learn how to take arresting portraits without needing any fancy equipment), and then we’re bringing back “Storytelling: Documentary/Journalism” from July 23-August 1. (People can register for any or all of these by going to www.mobilephotoworkshop.com, which gives plenty of info on what to expect in each course). We decided to bring that last workshop back because we strongly believe that kind of photography (along with text) is the real future of storytelling.
DC: As a participant in one of your Storytelling workshops, I have only praises — and you know how much I did love it, so I can only heartedly recommend it to anyone. From the utter beginners to the very professionals, one can only learn and better themselves, and the platform that you offer is worth every single penny! What I would say is that they should be truly be ready to participate and to discuss and comment and post, this is the only way to really benefit from this!
SF: Thank you, Dilshad! We agree that perhaps the most fun way to enjoy the workshop is to use the social aspect of it, to engage with the other students, leave your own feedback on the work they submit, to ask questions or exchange stories, etc. But it also depends on every person. Some people may be more shy or self-conscious and they prefer to take a more laid back approach, quiet and listening in and submitting less. I guess that’s fine too, as long as they feel they’re taking in what we’re contributing.
DC: In regards with social media, what is your rapport with it? Where do you post your work? You guys have gone quiet on Instagram, what are the reasons behind? Where do you see Instagram going? And is there a real competitor standing up tall against IG?
SF: I started using Flickr in 2007 and became heavily involved a year later. It was through my Flickr images that Time Out New York found out about me and offered me a collaboration. It was through being on Flickr that I’ve got not one but two book covers for some of my photographs. And it was there that we first met a bunch of incredible people all around the world. So perhaps out of a silly romantic nostalgia, I’ve always stuck to Flickr even in the few years where they fell behind in the mobile revolution, where seeing the app through a mobile device truly sucked, and they lost a lot of users and traction. I kept posting most of my best work there, even when I was using Instagram the most. And after my fallout with Instagram, it’s good to know that Flickr finally got their act together and created a better, more ready for today’s devices, service. So yeah, I’m still on Flickr on almost a daily basis.
©Sion Fullana Oedipus Rex
AK: I sadly abandoned Flickr for a while there and posted exclusively to Instagram for a long time. Boy, what a mistake that was!! But I’m happy to be back there now.
As for Instagram…yes, we no longer post new images there. The only time we post something it’s to make some special announcement…like new workshops or something. The reasons for leaving IG are multitude, but let’s rewind a bit and give you a quick version of our “IG History”:
We joined IG the first month it debuted. At first we didn’t know what to make of it, and thought the filters and such were silly — but once we realized we didn’t need to use them, we thought the app was a great and easy way for sharing photos. We became pretty heavy users, and within a short time we were both put on the “Suggested Users” list. This made our follower count explode overnight, and it continued to grow for months! Unfortunately…it also lessened the appeal of the app considerably for us. We were no longer able to keep up with who was following us, or much of anything. And the people who were following us weren’t necessarily coming to us because they loved our photos — they were following us because IG was telling them to. It meant we got a lot of teens or users who could care less about photography, and people posting tons of “follow me”-type comments. The spam increased out of control, and it no longer became fun. After several months where it got worse and worse, we became the only people (that we knew of at the time, anyway) that actually wrote to IG to ask to be taken OFF the “Suggested User” list (which seemed to shock them). Meanwhile, everyone else seemed to be doing everything in their power to get ON that list at whatever cost. (If we had stayed on, we estimate our follower count would have risen to over 300-400k, according to similar people on the list who remained).
©Anton Kawasaki Forbidden Beauty
Gaining followers and likes was not our goal. We simply wanted to share good photos, and consume quality photos from others. But we saw IG becoming more and more of a popularity circus. I ended up writing a controversial article at one point (for the Mobile Photo Group’s blog — the website of which was sadly taken down earlier this year) which was entitled “Is Instagram Defining, and Therefore Ruining, Mobile Photography?” It basically talked about my frustration about how Instagram was completely taking over the global conversation about mobile photography in general. Whenever shooting with a mobile device was brought up in any mainstream news article, it became nearly impossible NOT to tie it to IG.
It got to the point where “mobile photography” and “Instagram” were so intertwined in people’s minds, that they became interchangeable. When I would tell people that I would meet for the first time that my photography was taken on an iPhone, they would say “Oh, so you’re an Instagrammer?” It drove me crazy, because I knew they immediately pictured me taking photos of my feet, or my lunch, or a pet, with an “Earlybird” filter slapped on top of it. That’s not what I do at all, but sadly that’s what the “average person” thinks of now when they hear about iPhone photos. Most people still don’t think you can actually take compelling photographs with a mobile device, and that’s sad.
©Anton Kawasaki Crossing Ahead
Over five years ago, when iPhone pics were first getting people’s attention, you would see headlines like “Wow! You Won’t Believe These Photos Were Taken With an iPhone!” There was a lot of debate about whether iPhones were legitimate as cameras or not — which seems silly to think about nowadays. But at least there was a discussion about the true merits of photography back then! Once Instagram became a huge hit, however, the conversation completely changed and derailed — suddenly people were talking about filters, and followers, and likes, and IG get-togethers. A single app — which was really created for being social, and NOT really about fine photography — suddenly became the “end all, be all” of the mobile photo world. We really wanted no part of that, and our investment in IG lessened over time. Once the whole “Terms of Service” debacle became part of the story, we used that moment as a good excuse to finally put our accounts on private and stop our uploads of new material.
Many of our students, when they first come to us, are so used to taking photos with IG, and sharing ONLY there, that they think EVERY photo has to have a heavy filter on it and be square. Or that every photo has to be constructed to be “like bait” — to get the most hearts possible. Or every photo has to be an extreme close-up to be seen on a tiny phone screen. Details and storytelling and originality are getting lost. We find this deeply disturbing!
To be fair, we don’t want to paint IG as some “evil app” or something. It’s well designed and has its purpose, and we have actually gained SOOOOO much from it. We’ve met so many great people through IG, and we’re very thankful for that. We still think it’s a good app for being social, and think it’s great that people use it for that. But we already have other apps/services that fill that need for us. We do NOT think it’s a good app for sharing photos, however — as least not for serious photographers. That’s just our opinion, though — and is NOT meant as a slight to any serious photographer who is still on there. Many of our talented photographer friends still only post their pics to IG, and we still go on there occasionally as it’s the only way to view their images. But you wanted an answer to why WE are not on there, and we have to be completely honest.
I had over 80,000 followers at my peak (it’s since dropped by going private), but I always knew that maybe only 5% of those followers were actually engaged or interested in my photos. Lots of people don’t understand that those high numbers don’t really mean anything. When the platform became more of a “game” than a vehicle for expression, that’s when I knew it was time to go.
Has not being on IG hurt us? Maybe a little — but only because it still holds waaaay too much power than it should. It’s frustrating when people write us and say “we miss your photography” — as if we suddenly stopped, because we’re no longer posting on IG. There’s more to life than a single app, people! IG’s power has been lessening, though — we hear people say all the time that it’s not as good as it once was. It’s just unfortunate because I think for all the good IG has done (which is a lot), it’s done more damage towards the view of mobile photography in general — and it’s going to take a while to recover from that.
We’re firm believers in quality over quantity, and we want to only promote platforms that truly take photos and storytelling more seriously.
SF: And that’s when a new player comes in, BACKSPACES, that signifies what I’ve always wanted to see: a platform that married the usage of text and imagery together to create compelling photo stories and depended less on the “one image at a time” type of message. I love that the app is very simple and easy to use, yet it delivers a beautiful result that can be perfectly read not only from within Backspaces, but greatly from a web version anywhere else. So currently I’m having a blast putting together a bunch of weekly photo essays there.
©Sion Fullana A World Of Suspicion
AK: Stuff like Backspaces is the future of sharing images and telling stories. You really need more than just a single image (that people flip by quickly on IG, and then never see again) to get people’s attention nowadays. Think about it — there are over 300 million photos shared DAILY on Facebook, and over 40 million a day on Instagram. There are more images being taken and shared in the last couple of years than ALL the previous years of the history of photography combined. We’re constantly subjected to visual overload…so shouldn’t you do everything you can to make your stories stand out a little better and be remembered?
Photo stories, themed sets, multimedia…all of that is going to be the driving force of the future when it comes to sharing visual media. And at the end of the day…it’s gotta be GOOD.
DC: Finally, Do you belong to any mobile-photography groups? You used to be part of the Mobile Photo Group (MPG). While I appreciate that on this topic much has already been said, and yet I really never understood what happened there, I remember reading the manifesto and there was one line that I was not sure — the gist of it was more or less that it was to solely promote the work of the members. Can you tell me what are your thoughts about this and why ultimately it all ended by disbanding the group?
AK: Our former MPG comrade Olly Lang summed up the demise of the group rather well on his blog “Mobile Photo Group — an Obituary.”
SF: As they say, not every good idea in paper was meant to be a great idea in life. The concept of a group sounded great, the members involved were huge talents individually, but having everyone all over the world and with different philosophies, work ethics and missions in mind it became impossible to drive the boat to open sea and explore where it could have taken us all.
©Sion Fullana Humanity Love
AK: As for groups in general…I’m not sure we’ll be joining any others any time soon. We think it’s great that groups like We Are Juxt, AMPt, Tiny Collective and others exist, but if everyone in them aren’t getting something out of them, or they aren’t serving a greater purpose, then they shouldn’t be around. To truly elevate to something amazing, a group needs a strong purpose and mission statement, great leadership, and for all members to add something and contribute. A team is only great as its weakest member, so you have to make sure that each person is truly outstanding.
If we ever become part of something again, it will be smaller, more local, and have a very defined and clear purpose that truly adds something to the greater conversation and elevates storytelling in some way. A group just to have a group is really silly to us…
DC: Wow, I think we have covered quite a lot, one last thing, or maybe two more: if someone wanted to start what would you tell them? What is the best approach to mobile-photography? How can they get some good feedback and where should they look, who should they approach?
SF: I’d say start by typing “Mobile Photography” on a search browser and see what comes. You’ll probably find many of the articles we mentioned, lots of images (obviously good and bad, but you can pretty soon start making the difference between them). Then stop for a few minutes (or a few days, if that’s what it takes) and ask yourself a very simple, sincere and essential question. What do I want to photograph and WHY? If you can’t come up with a few answers to that question, you’re not ready to shoot because you won’t have a focus or purpose, so it’s a mandatory step. Once you find your answers, read about what apps are available, what they can do and see if it fits in the needs and style of the type of photography you want to do. If you’re into street or portraits, you want something that has good separation of exposure and focus to shoot more accurately. If you’re into digital creations, you will find apps that allow masking, textures, multiple exposures and layering, etc. And then practice and practice hard. Your first sets of images are probably going to be mediocre or with mistakes. But every now and then one will come up that you’ll be happy with and it will get better.
AK: Just don’t get hung up ONLY on apps! It makes us very sad when people ask us “What app did you take that with?” rather than “Why did you take that photo?” or “What were you trying to convey here?” Apps are very important, but they are just tools. They alone won’t make your photos better…
©Anton Kawasaki Bad Habit
SF: As to how to get good feedback, I know you guys here at Juxt have some threads with reviews and constructive criticism, right? It’s all about finding places where that longer, deeper analysis is encouraged. Don’t expect any serious feedback in a place that’s meant for fast consumption like Instagram, that’s for sure!
DC: If people want to see your work where can they find it?
DC: Is there anything that you would like to add?
SF: If there’s anyone still reading this after how much we wrote, I say thank you for your patience and you are a good trooper. In these times where people see one paragraph of text and say “uff, you write too much, I’m lazy,” it means a lot when you get someone who will take on your journey.
So yeah, thank you readers, and long live Mobile Photography and Storytelling!
DC: Thank you ever so much for your time! It’s always an incredible pleasure talking to you two!
SF & AK: Thanks, Dilshad!!
*Also you can read Sion’s Interview with David N here, “The Dance in New York City.”