Hype or Hipster? Thoughts on photojournalism, amateur aesthetics and the iPhone.

The debate about the means to capture an image feeds into what Sontag calls the “aesthetic consumerism to which everyone is now addicted” (1979: 24. On Photography. London: Penguin)

I pose the question, are the photographer, the camera and the app, honest or hype or hipster?

Honesty

We look for honesty in news as we are exposed almost 24 hours a day with a  rolling appetite for information locally, nationally and internally.  The medium carrying this is evolving, the portals to our eyes and ears are now multitudinous.  The morning and evening newspaper deliveries used to define our personal focal points of news, alongside the 10pm “big” news broadcasts.  I would argue that now news media has truly blurred stealthily into social media.  I could propose that social media is no more a  relevant term, for example I know I draw as many news references via Facebook browsing than I do by deliberately seeking out the ‘news’ apps by established news organs such as the Guardian or Times.  What I choose to seek out on Facebook meshes with what my network of acquaintances also follow, I am thus setting my expectations for my news awareness and the curating carried out by my network frames my experience.  Adding our own images and comments makes for a personalisation and response to news. We become subconscious editors. 

The demise or diminution of local and regional ‘press’ publications (USA web site http://www.journalism.org/2016/06/15/newspapers-fact-sheet/  accessed 11/10/2016 shows advertising revenue and staff team numbers down significantly) has been countered by the emergence of local (e.g. award winning Brum Updates https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_C2vMloUmtY accessed 11/10/2016).  Citizens will often contribute images of events and emergencies – a car wreck may make for irresistible, if voyeuristic, viewing for example.  Individuals and groups often self form with a special purpose or campaign in mind.  The ability to make news visual is the realm of the smartphone, the ease, speed and convenience make the citizen campaigner, micro journalist or simply the serendipitous witness empowered to shoot and share.  But these individuals usually rely on the collector, the editor, the team who will make the images available to a wider audience via such sites as Brum Updates.  This editing ensures a degree of verification, this is the point of honest brokering; the curating of the visual flow. This does mean one thing, the demise of the local news photographer.  An example of this is John James, now a freelance photographer in the UK Midlands who was quoted, perhaps with some forbidding foresight, when the first commercial digital camera was made available to the press “As soon as I got my hands on the new equipment I knew there was no going back… its potential was absolutely phenomenal. Finally we could print pictures of the else could get. Today that’s what photojournalism was all about” (ALLAN, Stuart. 1995: 187 Blurring Boundaries: Professional and Citizen Photojournalism in a Digital Age [IN] Edited. LISTER Martin The Photographic Image in Digital Culture. London: Routledge)

Hype

With the hype around the pros and cons of not just the use of the smartphone but the array of app’s has currency particularly when applied to the work of photojournalists.  The debate came to a natural crescendo in 2011 with the award of third place in Picture of the Year International that year to Damon Winter. Winter contributed in advance to the debate about the use of smartphones and app’s via the Poynter web site http://www.poynter.org/2011/live-chat-friday-what-role-do-image-apps-like-hipstamatic-have-in-photojournalism/118898/

There is a strong case for the reality that lay un-debated around the experience of Winter as a photojournalist (interestingly and appropriately  in the New York Times blog web site covering the issue the use ‘visual journalist’ is used http://lens.blogs.nytimes.com/2011/02/11/through-my-eye-not-hipstamatics/?_r=0 ) was embedded for a whole year with US Army troops.  The fundamental key to his success was three fold, his collaboration with war journalist James Dao, we can assume the team work of writer and photographer to be a deep working bond, his ability to earn the respect of the troops and his selection of the cameras that was appropriate to the moments he recorded and won the award for.  He used an iPhone and an app known as Hipstamatic which creates a square format frame and enables manipulation of the image.  He makes reference to his ‘5D’ in his Poynter statement, “They would have scattered the moment I raised my 5D with a big 24-70 lens attached” so that would have been in his bag, to hand for perhaps the big outward looking moments, but his visual narrative was about the troops, their year long “grunt” of relentless readiness to move and fight or defend. “We are not walking photocopiers. We are storytellers” he says. “I will always stand behind these photographs and am confident in my decision that this was the right tool to tell this particular story”.  He adds “I have no intention of becoming a camera phone photographer”. 

The hype around the means to record the working lives of troops was unnecessary. To deny Winter an award for the use of a most suitable and well considered methodology would have been folly.

There is one interesting technical observation to record; as the award given to Winter was in 2011, one can deduce that he was using an iPhone 4 in the combat zone with the Hipstamatic app.  That model of smartphone was launched 24th June 2010 http://www.apple.com/uk/pr/library/2010/06/28iPhone-4-Sales-Top-1-7-Million.html it was equipped with a 5MP camera with video capability.  Notably, the newly launched (7th September 2016) iPhone 7 Plus has two 12MP cameras supporting two fixed lenses with greater processing speed and energy efficiency that its predecessor, yet in the UK it retails at £919 for the higher storage version .  So it may diminish the quality definition competition when run against the heavy and bulky DSLR’s but it comes as the same price of one.

Hipster

With a distant bearing on the Small is Beautiful political tract on social and economic propositions, the hipster is a convenient label for someone who indulges in craft beer, ethically sourced food and clothing, vintage style and a propensity to visually echo the past in photographs.  It is true that, along with many others, the hipster’s desire to echo the past using twenty first century technology is an indulgence.  The manipulation of the image to share is aping the cast of 35mm film or the prints left to curl in the attic. This visual yearning and nostalgia for the past is clearly a visual construct.  Given the dominance of digital camera technology, at least in the mass market for some years, these visual references are probably created in some ignorance of the actuality of the analogue processes that were applied to create the colour cast and formats to name but two. Instagram is the show ground for half a billion photo albums (https://www.statista.com/statistics/253577/number-of-monthly-active-instagram-users/ accessed 11/10/2016), so perhaps users vainly seek to distinguishes themselves from all the others by creating a particular style by applying the filtered, nostalgic digital files.  I suspect that the square format, colour, instant prints provided by the brand that not only cornered the market in instant results, but became a recognisable style of photography, the colour Polaroid, launched in 1963, perhaps this was equally seen as the provocative challenge to the long-winded, film based, world of photography that singularly prevailed in that era.

http://polaroid.com/history accessed 11/10/2016

But I am certainly no more technically offended by this trend for than the equally abusive use of technology that has created the hyper-colour, saturated HDR  images, but maybe my nostalgia for monochrome is too deeply felt.

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