A Photojournalist’s Most Important Camera


Conchita Fernandes finds out why the cameraphone is an important tool in the hands of photojournalists.

Benjamin Lowy's cellphone photograph from Hurrican Sandy, was made the cover of Time magazine.

Benjamin Lowy’s cellphone photograph from Hurricane Sandy was made the cover of Time magazine.

When Hurricane Sandy hit the East coast of the United States, Time magazine’s Director of Photography Kira Pollack, made an important decision. She decided to send five of the best photographers to document the havoc using only their cameraphones. In addition to this, she let them take over the magazine’s Instagram feed, to enable them to instantly upload their work. By doing so, Michael Christopher Brown, Benjamin Lowy, Ed Kashi, Andrew Quilty and Stephen Wilkes were automatically given access to a larger audience. The project was so successful that one of the images shot by Benjamin Lowy made it on to the cover of the magazine.

However, Time magazine’s decision to opt for cellphone photographs was not a rash one. Neither did they do it because of the popularity of Instagram, but more so because at the time, it was probably the quickest way to make the photographs accessible to the world. Inadvertently, the unfortunate disaster reinforced the importance and power of the cellphone camera in the hands of photojournalists.

Photograph/ Kevin Frayer

Photograph/ Kevin Frayer

While photographers have a lot to be grateful for in regards to the cameraphone, I think the one feature they should be most thankful for is its size. Just by holding a phone in their hand, photojournalists have been given access to areas where a DSLR would have probably got them killed. National Public Radio photographer David Gilkey, found his iPhone to be the only ‘camera’ to be ignored by the Russians when he was visiting Siberia. This treatment could be because the world has fortunately not yet reached the point where they feel threatened by a cellphone pointed in their direction. It is this casual quality of the cameraphone that has led it through some pretty murky and secretive lanes.

On the other hand, the cellphone medium also allows the photographer a certain level of intimacy with his subjects that the DLSR may not be able to achieve. Its casual physical appearance allows the photographer to point it at any person even in their most vulnerable state, without having the subject feel uncomfortable or exploited. Maybe that’s the reputation that DSLRs have be attached with today–bulky interfering gadgets.

Photograph/ Damon Winter for The New York Times

Photograph/ Damon Winter for The New York Times

One of the most sought after feature of using a cellphone is the use of editing apps and filters. By using them, photographers are able to render important aesthetic values to their pictures. Unfortunately, there have been several criticisms in this direction. When Damon Winter won for his work on the American GI soldiers in Afghanistan, he was criticised for making light of the difficult conditions of soldiers. The main problem lay in the usage of the Hipstamatic app. In an article from The New York Times, he defends his work by saying that his photographs are honest representations of the moment with nothing added or deleted from the visual. However, what people were not in favour of were the aesthetics. To this he rightfully said that photojournalists that not just mere photocopying machines, where they vomit out pictures as they see them. Rather they are storytellers, and in order to tell a story they need to employ certain techniques and aesthetics. It is not that much different from creating an image with a shallow depth of field, where the subject is highlighted. It is about the message that is transmitted by highlighting the subject.

In another aspect, the cellphone is hassle free in the sense that photographers don’t have to worry about the camera settings. All they have to do is point and shoot. This quality becomes extremely important especially in war situations, where every second can determine whether you are alive or dead or can even change the entire topography of the area. Time here is like a ticking bomb and the cellphone atleast makes the process a little easier.

Photograph/Michael Christopher Brown

Photograph/Michael Christopher Brown

In an interview with Digital Photo Pro, photographer Michael Christopher Brown said that the cellphone allowed him to not take himself too seriously. In fact when he is out shooting with his phone, he turns into a citizen, capturing pictures of what interests him the most. Plus it has allowed photographers to share photos with those who are interested in seeing the backstory of the projects they are involved in. It helps them paint a picture of what motivates them when they are on assignment or back at home. David Alan Harvey is a good example of the later.

Being an accessible, convenient and affordable device has its own perks. The good news is that you don’t have  to possess training or an understanding of photography to be able to shoot with your phone. Which is why when photojournalists are not permitted to document an important issue, the country’s citizens can rise. So whether it is the recent 2014 elections in India or the ongoing Syrian conflict, the cellphone is the most democratic, versatile, accessible, convenient and affordable tool.

This article originally appeared in the May 2014 issue of Better Photography.

Tags: Camera, aesthetics, india, DSLR, photojournalist, photographer, Conchita Fernandes, cellphone, filters, may 2014, stephen wilkes, conflict, instagram, Cameraphone, Casual, Hipstamatic, Important, Hurricane Sandy, United States, Time Magazine, Kira Pollack, Michael Christopher Brown, Benjamin Lowy, Ed Kashi, Andrew Quilty, Cover, David Gilkey, National Public Radio, Intimate, Editing Apps, Damon Winter, The New York Times, Accessible, Elections, Syria, Perspectives, Opinions