February 11, 2011

When I heard about the controversy surrounding Damon Winter’s award-winning series of photos that were captured with the Hipstamatic iPhone app, I contacted him to see if he would participate in a live chat on Poynter.org

He told me he couldn’t participate because he’s on assignment in Afghanistan. But he offered to write a statement describing the role of aesthetics in photojournalism, explaining his process in capturing these images, and reacting to the controversy over these images.

We are publishing his complete statement, edited for grammar and clarity. If you want to participate in the live chat Friday at 3 p.m. ET with Kenny Irby and Ben Lowy regarding the use of Hipstamatic in photojournalism, scroll down below the statement.

I have stayed away from much of the online discussion of the use of camera phones and apps in photojournalism largely because I have not wanted to be seen as an advocate for their use and to avoid any appearance of endorsing any particular product or technique, which I absolutely do not. It was never my intention for these photos to be seen only in the context of the tool by which they were made. That is unfortunate because it is a good story. Having said that, I will always stand behind these photographs and am confident in my decision that this was the right tool to tell this particular story.

I think any discussion on the validity of these images comes down to two basic fundamentals: aesthetics and content. 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 I think has gotten people so worked up falls under the heading of aesthetics. Some consider the use of the phone camera as a gimmick or aestheticizing (Is that a word? I don’t think, so but I’m using it anyway) news photos. I think that those are fair arguments to make, but those arguments have nothing to do with the content of the photos. We are being naïve if we think aesthetics do not play an important role in the way we as 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 and through all of these decisions, we shape the way a story is told.

Let’s look at how the images have been processed by the camera application. From what I understand, a standard set of rules is applied to each image as it is taken. It is not the case that an image is taken and then a filter is chosen and applied later. A photo is taken and then you must wait between five and 10 seconds or so as the image is processed before you can take the next one. Every image receives what seems to be a pretty similar treatment, which involves a color-balance shift, burning of predetermined areas of the frame and increased contrast.

These are all pretty standard parameters in Photoshop, and all things that can still be done on a color enlarger. I think the problem people have with this is that a program is doing it and not the photographer. But I don’t see how it is so terribly different from choosing a camera or film or process that has a unique but consistent and predictable outcome, like shooting with a Holga, or cross-processing or using a color balance not intended for the lighting conditions (tungsten in daylight, daylight in fluorescent, the cloudy setting to warm up a scene, etc.).

If we look at the image that won first place in Feature singles in this year’s POY competition, it is an image that has been converted to black and white, shot with an extremely shallow depth of field to focus attention on the intended subject, blur other distractions, and give it a certain “feel,” and features a very heavy use of vignetting (probably a mix of in-camera and post-production, Photoshop burning).

A large portion of the information in the image has been obscured in the interest of aesthetics. We do not see in black and white. The photographer had to actively choose to convert the image. And we do not see the world at f/1.2. This is an aesthetic choice. None of these elements contribute to the “accuracy” of the image. These are all ways that the scene has been “enhanced “ aesthetically.

There has been no complaint about images like this as they have been celebrated in photojournalism competitions for years. I have a hard time seeing how this differs in essence from how the camera phone has processed the images. I just didn’t go into Photoshop and process it myself. It’s just a different tool.

If I had had the choice at the time, I would have used a program that applied less of an effect than what I used, but I was using it for the first time and this was all that I had available to me. Without an Internet connection, I could not download a different plug-in for the application that had more subtle processing. I would have preferred that, but this is what I had and this is what I used and that is that. I have always loved shooting the square format, and this program allows you to shoot and, most importantly, compose in that format.

I could not have taken these photos using my SLR and that perhaps is the most important point regarding my use of the camera phone for this story. Using the phone is discreet and casual and unintimidating. The soldiers often take pictures of each other with their phones and that was the hope of this essay: to have a set of photos that could almost look like the snapshots that the men take of each other but with a professional eye. It is also the beauty of using a new tool that allows you to see and approach your subjects differently. I am terrible sometimes about paying attention to the little details in storytelling, and using this phone brought me in to those little details that I know I would have missed otherwise.

The image of the men all resting together outside on a rusted bed frame would never have been made with my regular camera. They would have scattered the moment I raised my 5D with a big 24-70 lens attached. The men were very comfortable with the phone, and it always got a laugh from them when they would see me shooting with it, with professional cameras hanging from my shoulders.

“A Grunt’s Life” was essentially a lighter feature story in the context of our larger project following the 1-87 infantry battalion of the 10th Mountain Division on their yearlong deployment, a project that has employed still photography, video, audio, and Quicktime VR panoramas. This essay was not a news story, especially not within the context of “A Year at War.”

The reporter, James Dao, and I had wracked our brains trying to figure out how to tell the story after having been on so many missions that often go nowhere and have no clearly defined story arc. We had spent so much time with these men and they had become so comfortable with us that we really got to see a rare and honest glimpse into their lives — which for us sometimes resembled more a summer camp with guns than a military operation for the men on the ground. Halfway through our six-day mission I knew there was no other way I could tell the story, and I concentrated my efforts on shooting the snapshots with the phone. The written story was light but gritty and raw, and it was told in a way that meshed perfectly with the images — a rare and wonderful thing for a newspaper collaboration. I believe our readers were served well by the piece.

People may have the impression that it is too easy to make interesting images with a camera app like this, but that is not the case — just as it is not the case that good pictures automatically come out of exotic places. At the heart of every solid image are the same fundamentals: composition, information, moment, emotion, connection. If people think that this is a magic tool that makes every image great, they are wrong. Of the hundreds and hundreds of images taken with the phone over the course of those six days in Nahr-i-Sufi, only a handful were worth reproducing. Considering how slow the process of shooting with that application and phone is, that’s not a great batting average.

I cannot say if I will use this again for my job. I have no intention of becoming a camera phone photographer. I use it often for personal photos (my cat being my favorite subject). But I maintain that it is exactly that reason that it was the perfect tool to tell this particular story. It helped me to make personal, intimate photos of a subject (the American soldier on wartime deployment) that is often seen only as part of a massive, anonymous fighting machine.

People have covered war with plastic, toy cameras, including Erin Trieb most recently in Afghanistan. (Her work was discussed at length in an MSNBC piece.) David Burnett used the tilt of his large-format cameras to render major sporting events into miniature dioramas. Paolo Pellegrin creates exquisite black and white images from major news events around the world that often more closely resemble paintings than photographs, using the same digital camera that we all use.

Each photographer uses a technique or tool that helps him or her to best tell the stories, and all of their work has been acknowledged and celebrated. None of these techniques are grounded on the idea of visual accuracy. But they are effectively used to tell stories, convey ideas and to enlighten, which is the real heart of our work.

Even your panelist Benjamin Lowy was using his own camera phone to cover the Republican convention in New York when I first met him in 2004. It’s like they say: There really is nothing new in photography.

Thank you, and I look forward to the debate. My apologies for not being able to participate in person.

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Steve Myers was the managing editor of Poynter.org until August 2012, when he became the deputy managing editor and senior staff writer for The Lens,…
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