Many Possibilities For Many Reasons by Andre’ Hermann
Never has photography been more questioned and debated as an art form, or as a continuously changing form of technology than it is today—Mobile phone photography. As another tool at our disposal as visual storytellers it is continuously morphing. One thing is for certain it’s here to stay.
As individuals and media outlets embrace the mobile phone camera as a serious storytelling tool the role we play in today’s media landscape as consumers and producers of content remains in a constant state of flux—that is sometimes a cause for people to quickly take sides over what we should call this tool, which type of camera is the better tool, and why.
Now that the honeymoon is over—technically photography is still photography. Now what?
Over the last few months I have interviewed pro photographers who are out in the real world utilizing mobile phone cameras to tell the world’s stories. We’ve heard from Ed Kashi and Michael Christopher Brown, two well-established photographers utilizing the tool (Rob Hart was also interviewed by We Are Juxt). Feeling the need to explore another perspective on the mobile phone camera tool, I recently took the opportunity to speak with the Director of Photography at one of the most prestigious news publications in the world. TIME magazine.
A little over a year ago Kira Pollack and her team made a crack decision to cover Super Storm Sandy through the eyes of five photojournalists, covering five different regions affected by the storm using their mobile phone cameras. This was by no means a revolutionary moment in photography, as much as it was an evolutionary shift in how content is produced and consumed. So gather around and hear Ms. Pollack’s thoughts on mobile phone photography—present and future, and what led up to the decision to embrace this tool at TIME Magazine.
How has the mobile phone changed photography and storytelling as we know it? How has it changed the way we consume media?
I think that the answer is, from my perspective, certainly the mobile phone has allowed anyone that’s in the right place at the right time to make a picture, whether that is by a professional photographer, or, by a normal citizen that is potentially in the midst of a breaking news story. That changes things quite a bit. The other part is speed. We can receive those pictures much quicker that we could, coming from a camera, just by the way they’re transmitted and emailed. So I think it changes the speed in which we can publish things, and that an audience can see them, and, Instagram has also enabled that to happen very quickly. That is just one form of technology. I think that Instagram has enabled us to send things straight from the field to an audience. That is really revolutionary. We used Instagram when we worked with Michael Christopher Brown and Ed Kashi for the hurricane—the Super Storm Sandy last October. That was the means in which we worked with them. They work on their cell phones often, and we commissioned them to cover that event. We haven’t done that very often. I think it really lends itself to certain, very specific kinds of stories that are breaking. But we have tried it, and successfully, I think.
Let me ask you this then, do you feel that now with the mass acceptance of the mobile phone cameras, and especially with the growing popularity of Instagram do you think journalism in it’s traditional form is more or less important?
Yes absolutely. I think journalism is more important than ever. And I think that these are new tools for journalists as much as they are for regular people. But journalism has never been as important as it is now because the journalists have the back ground to be telling these stories and these are just more tools to enable people to do that.
What was your opinion of mobile before Sandy? Was Sandy the first instance that TIME utilized mobile phone imagery?
During the campaign Brooks Kraft made photos in New Hampshire of Romney that we ran in the magazine. And they were great and he used his camera, and he used his camera phone. We just looked at both of them and that was sort of an interesting way to show that story. I think it really depends on what we’re covering. We have done it very infrequently to be honest. It’s not like we’ve changed the way we are covering things to mobile phone photography. But some photographers prefer to photograph on mobile phones. And I think that sort of dictates the people that we’re using to photograph that way. Its not like we’re asking people to photograph on their mobile phones, but sometimes, like in terms of Super Storm Sandy, that was what happened. We went to five photographers in three regions where the storm was scheduled to hit. Three of them were very, very familiar with their camera phones and two of them also had dabbled with it. They were all great photographers and journalists that we had worked with in the past. We commissioned them to shoot on their mobile phones. And because of Instagram we were able to see those photographs right away. They also photographed with their camera. And so we used some of the pictures as double truck spreads in the magazine. Those were taken with their cameras so it wasn’t just mobile phone it was both. And I think photographers are often shooting with both, and sometimes they’re liking the mobile phone pictures more than others.
Also during the campaign Brooks Kraft photographed Obama and Christopher Morris photographed Romney leading up to the final month in the campaign. They also used their cell phone for that as well. But I do just think that some photographers are interested in exploring that tool and some photographers are not. We just published our top ten photos of the year, our picks for the top 10 photos of the year. One of
those was a picture taken by a citizen in Australia during the forest fires last January. It was an incredibly compelling, emotional picture that he made. It was him, taking a picture of his five grand children and his wife under a dock escaping this fire. It’s an incredibly newsworthy photograph that a photographer wasn’t there to photograph. And this was the grand father that took this with his cell phone. The purpose of this picture was to send to his daughter so his daughter knew those children were OK. But it became a news picture. And I think that happens sometimes. That’s what cell phones have allowed to happen. There are, in some cases, newsworthy events being made by normal citizens because of the camera phone.
Andre: And I think that’s a really interesting point because there are a lot of purists out there who only believe in shooting film, and/or the DSLRs. And some people really look down on mobile phone photography as being a curse from the Devil himself, you know, and I think with an image like that one from the citizen in Australia, when I saw that image, I thought more of the emotion that’s created from the moment, the way it makes me feel rather than “Oh, that was shot with a phone.”
Kira: Right. And, it was shot by a regular guy. So it’s two things: It’s the shooting by a phone and its also citizens becoming journalist. I think they’re becoming witnesses more than journalists, and that is the distinction. I don’t think citizens want to be journalists but I think that there’s an engagement with photography that is just—the mobile phone has allowed us to communicate through pictures in a much more frequent way. It’s just like between all the things that you can have on your phone, and a younger generation that’s use to communicating through Snapchat, where photographs are actually disappearing. But that’s how they’re communicating quickly, there’s just a whole other way that pictures are moving. And it’s exciting. I think you have to use it in the right way at the right time. And some photographers are. Michael Christopher Brown is doing incredible work with his camera phone. Ben Lowy, also Ed Kashi. These guys are all great journalists. Most of them dabble in all different kinds of tools.
So back to Ben Lowy and the TIME cover, I understand you commissioned five different photographers from five various regions that were hit by the storm, so, why that particular image? If you can, share your decision making process that led to that cover.
It was the best picture. That’s why it made the cover. There was something emotional about it. It also had a painterly quality to it. It sort of transcended the news in a way, and it was about this huge wave washing in. There was just something, sort of a timeless feeling about it, and, it was an image that could hold type, which it needed to do.
Covers are tricky. There are a lot of decisions that go into it. Its easier if I could show you all the different covers that we tried that day. It was actually a decision that was made that morning that we closed within hours. We obviously had five very talented photographers on assignment for that story so we wanted to use one of our pictures. But we also always look at a wide range of pictures that were made. So that picture, it just worked on the cover. It wasn’t about saying it was a cell phone picture. It was just the best picture. And that distinction is really important because we got a lot of attention for that assignment and we were thinking that it really was the best way to cover the story because of the speed in which people could file. The fact that a lot of the power was going to be out, which it was, so you know, photographers were waste deep in the East Village wading through water, and they would have to go back into their computer to file the pictures to us. When Michael Christopher Brown was making those pictures in the East Village in the middle of the night, in the darkness, he was making them on his phone and he was uploading them to our Instagram feed, and TIME readers saw those pictures as they were being made. We were cut out of the process in some ways. We had those photographers file directly to our audience—really made it a very unique experiment. You can’t do that with every photographer. You need to very much trust the people you’re assigning, basically, the keys to the car, which is uploading right to the feed. And I think that worked because they were coming in from all different regions. It was Connecticut, New Jersey, New York, Brooklyn and Queens. And I think they were all, kind of delivering, all of these different dispatches, you know, as they were happening in real time. So that was exciting. Ben’s picture just made the cover because it was the best. I know that’s not the most articulate answer, but it really was, it worked. There was an emotional quality to the way that picture felt, and it really worked. So I think it proves a picture that’s made with a mobile phone can work in a publication, or on a cover. It’s not every week that we’re doing that. It’s the first real cover that we made out of one photograph from a mobile phone but if that’s what it is, you know, it can work, and I think that to me the mobile phone is more of a tool, it really is just another tool to make pictures.
What kind of backlash did time get from the journalism community or other publications for running an image created with that type of tool?
I think generally the response was, was positive, because we were breaking through something, and we were trying something new. And the pictures were good, and, they-were-made-by-great-photographers. So I felt very confident in that assignment because we were going to true journalists to be working with their camera phones. I think that the backlash is exactly what you’re saying: purists that don’t think that journalism should be made with mobile phones. People always question the sort of toning that goes with those pictures, which we felt confident was within our standards, because it was very, very minimal. Every photographer has to make a final image. We’re not publishing raw files in our magazine. So we watched that very closely. We have great, great news editors here and that’s what we’re doing. So I think generally, it was positive and people were excited by it.
Now that the honeymoon is over, and mobile phone photography has established itself as a serious tool, rather than a passing fad, please share your thoughts on the future of mobile phone photography? How will mobile phone photography continue to redefine how we experience, interpret and consume content?
I don’t think it’s a fad but I don’t think it’s taking over photojournalism at all. I think it is another tool, like I said, and I think its worth utilizing that tool at the right time in the right situation when it’s necessary. Whether it is a picture that’s made in a breaking news situation that we need up on our homepage really quickly—that might be a situation that we would tap into the mobile phone photograph. But, really we haven’t done it very often. I think we got a lot of attention for covering that storm that way. We did it very specifically for that particular story because of all of the things I mentioned. And that was over a year ago. The campaign we covered journalistically with photographers using SLRs, and they also uploaded to our Instagram feed, you know, some pictures, but generally we are not asking photographers to shoot things on their mobile phone. But some photographers like Michael Christopher Brown we might want to go to him for that kind of picture because that’s what he’s doing. I think that the idea of the mobile phone and the technology that the mobile phone is providing in terms of distribution and how quickly we are seeing things are one aspect. The other aspect is the mobile phone photograph made by— you can take out the camera phone and the picture’s done and it can be transmitted right from the phone— it’s the technology around it rather than the actual mobile phone picture which I think is interesting. That’s going to dictate a lot in the future, how quickly we see things.
Any other thoughts you’d like to share in regards to mobile phone photography or the images that are created from the tool?
I think that it’s an interesting moment journalistically. There’s a conversation around citizen journalism. There’s a conversation around mobile phone photography. But, the journalists are the ones that have the experience in the field. They have the chops, the background, and the ethics in storytelling. The value of that is so crucial. If a great photojournalist picks up a camera phone and takes pictures, or an SLR, I think we’re going to be in a place soon where they’re both possibilities for different reasons.
Photo Credit in order: