For the Hartford Courant, a threshold was crossed almost two months ago when a photograph I made using a company-issued iPhone was published in the newspaper’s CTNow section. Since then, I have used the phone on a number of Courant assignments including a portrait of Parker Posey and for a story on gong meditation.
Most of these iPhone-produced photographs were created using the Hipstamatic app and some were published in the paper, at courant.com or here at Eye Contact.
With the start of this century, digital cameras have emerged as photojournalism’s dominant tool. But unlike the last century — when decades were defined by a single prevailing camera model — there is no longer a consensus on what is standard equipment. Digital cameras are ubiquitous and global lines of distribution are available to anyone with access to the Internet.
This does not mean that anyone with a cellphone is a photojournalist any more than it means that anyone with Microsoft Word is a reporter. But it does mean that more news photographs can come from a greater number of people and from a greater number of locations.
With this increase in the quantity of images that can be distributed and seen as news photographs, photojournalists bear an important responsibility to define clearly and discuss the principles and ethics of how we record and present our photographs.
When using my Courant-issued Nikon DSLR (Digital Single Lens Reflex) cameras, I shoot raw files. I do so not because I want a zillion degrees of latitude and malleability; rather, I set my cameras to shoot raw files for the credibility of the images.
Raw files are made only when a shutter release button is depressed. There is no way to make a Nikon raw file using Photoshop. If ever there is a question of what my Nikons recorded at the time I decided to make an image, a raw file shows exactly what the camera saw when its shutter was open. (iPhones, for now, are not built to create raw files, but I welcome the day when they can).
This moment of creation, either when film is exposed or when a camera’s hardware and software convert light into a digital file, is held in high regard by photojournalists. John Long, chairman of the Ethics and Standards Committee for the National Press Photographers Association, and a former Courant staff photographer, has described this moment as “sacrosanct.”
As photojournalists, every photograph we make is the result of decisions regarding lens choice, camera choice, angle of view, camera subject distance, etc. In addition to these tools of the trade, Courant photographers have a long-standing ethic of documenting our subjects with a minimal amount of intervention – beyond our presence — into the environments of our subjects.
Portraits allow for some direction from the photographer, but even then the tradition of not disturbing or intervening is strong. This practice has become instinctual, and I employ it at all times — even when photographing my family. It is no exaggeration to say that I have never asked a member of my family to stop or repeat what they are doing so I can make a so-called “better” photograph. It is not the responsibility of our subjects to make a compelling photograph; it is ours.
So when I started using an iPhone on assignments, it was a choice I made with strong consideration of these principles. What amazed me about the iPhone’s camera was how little impact it had on a scene. These devices are small and silent, their image quality in most cases is very high, and their non-intrusive nature has allowed me to work in environments where larger and louder cameras would have destroyed the integrity of a scene.
The rise of apps like Instagram with their post-capture filter packs and selective focusing tools are intriguing and I have experimented with them. Over time, I have steered away from them because the extent to which they alter a scene after it has been captured is more than I am comfortable with.
That said, I am not as reluctant to use specific pre-sets that come with an app like Hipstamatic when these aesthetic devices are implemented at the time of capture. The result is that I can use the Hipstamatic app to achieve consistent, predictable photographs.
I recently had an assignment to photograph brothers John and Edward Cyrulik. These World War II veterans were separated during their service in the war but found each other on the South Pacific’s Bougainville Island. Their emotional reunion in 1943, and their plans this year to visit the World War II Memorial in Washington, D.C., was reported by free-lance writer Katherine Ogden for The Courant.
While making their photograph with my DSLR cameras I also made photographs using the iPhone and Hipstamatic app. The iPhone camera produced an image with greater depth of field than the DSLR could render. This resulted in communicating a stronger relationship between the foreground images that the brothers held of themselves and the photographs on the wall behind them. It was a clearer and more compelling presentation of who the brothers were, who they are now, and their generational legacy.
There was reluctance on the part of some in The Courant’s newsroom, and photography department, to use this image in print because software created the photograph’s border and isolated regions of blur. For that reason, it was determined that the photograph could be published but only with a credit line indicating it was a “Hipstamatic photo-illustration.” Because the image and its apparent “flaws” in quality were produced at the moment of capture, I don’t agree that the image is an illustration. That term has been reserved traditionally for photographs rendered unrecognizable from the image created at the moment of capture.
In 2011, the Pictures of the Year International competition awarded Damon Winters of The New York Times third-place for a set of photographs he made, using an iPhone and the Hipstamatic app, of U.S. soldiers in northern Afghanistan. In response to the award, photojournalist Chip Litherland wrote: “What we knew as photojournalism at its purest form is over and POYI just killed it. Well, they didn’t kill it so much as just dig another knife deeper into the back of its decaying corpse.”
Damon Winters wrote, and I feel the same way, that he did not want “to be seen as an advocate” for “camera phones and apps in photojournalism” because he did not want “to be seen as an advocate for their use and to avoid any appearance of endorsing any particular product or technique.”
So yes, the irony is not lost on me that this subject has resulted in my longest Eye Contact post but discussions of process are vital to maturing further the voice of a craft that is ever more challenged but whose potential is growing ever greater.