Photojournalism: Why Smartphones Are Essential
In this article, we’re exploring how smartphones have become empowering tools for photo journalists and the public alike to shine a spotlight on troubled parts of the world.
Six years agoE photographer John D McHugh was on assignment in Kandahar, Afghanistan when the region went from zero cell phone coverage straight to 3G. Suddenly, it opened up a world of possibilities.
“I was able to go out and shoot and send pictures from patrol,” he says. “A smartphone is definitely a valuable tool in your arsenal, and it’s become accepted now.” he adds. “When I started shooting pictures on an iPhone a lot of people sneered and turned their noses up, saying I was diminishing photography and contributing to its demise which was rubbish.”
The Role of Smartphones in Conflict
Phil Hatcher-Moore is another reportage photographer who believes the mobile phone has an important role to play – and can in certain circumstances be more useful to a photographer than a DSLR.
The British photographer has been working in South Sudan chronicling the unfolding humanitarian disaster after many years of war and human displacement as part of a wider project to chronicle those places that are off the radar of mainstream news bulletins.
“Sometimes wielding a big DSLR in front of your face does change the dynamic of the situation whereas with a smaller smartphone, you can catch people in a different light. And even in impoverished parts of the world, you’ll still find people with smartphones. It’s something they can relate to so you can establish a rapport. They understand the concept.”
“There’s a very sensitive security context here as well,” he adds. “Where I’m working, bringing a camera with you can raise a lot of questions, whereas with a phone, the level of access is higher.”
McHugh, who has won multiple awards for his work and was badly injured in 2007 after being shot in the chest, agrees. “You can photograph and film with your phone in places where you simply wouldn’t be allowed to with a DSLR.”
“I shoot a huge amount of my photography on smartphones now,” he adds. “The big advantage of a smartphone is that you have it with you all the time. It’s small.”
He points out that it’s never going to compete on quality with a DSLR but for day-to-day documentation they are great. It’s also not about the camera but the person behind the lens.
“It’s important to remember that a smartphone in a professional photographer’s hand is going to be utilised far differently than a smartphone by my mum, for example.”
But as a journalist and film maker, he says the greatest value of smartphones is precisely that everyone has one, opening up possibilities to secure images and footage in places where the media is denied access.
A few years ago, he set up verifeyemedia.com, a news agency that seeks to collate and verify eye-witness images and video footage, whether shot by professionals or members of the public – and secure payment for that content on behalf of contributors.
He says that a lot of places are simply off limits to professional photo journalists. One example is Naura Island, which Australia uses as an offshore immigration detention centre.
But working alongside Channel4, Verifeye media was able to track down some refugees and get them to share video and images of their lives.
“That story just could not have been told without the smartphone,” adds McHugh.
Likewise, there are places in Afghanistan that are totally off limits because they’ve become so dangerous. But with the spread of smartphones, it’s possible to find someone locally who can document what’s going on and get it out to the wider world.
KODAK’S Heritage in Reportage Photography
In many ways, the rise of smartphone photography mirrors the rise of the portable cameras that were pioneered a century ago by Kodak’s founder, George Eastman. Before he came along, taking a set of images could cost up to three years’ salary and you’d need porters to carry all the gear.
His passion was to make photography available to everybody, not just professionals, and not just men, but women as well – a new idea back then.
His determination is the stuff of legend. In the early days, he worked in a bank by day and tested photographic equipment at night, once blowing up his mother’s kitchen while experimenting with processing chemicals.
His perseverance paid off. The result was the KODAK BROWNIE Camera. It was originally intended for children but became hugely popular among the wider population.
“You push the button, we do the rest,” was his famous slogan. As a visionary, Eastman would understand today’s empowering implications of putting a camera into a device that no one leaves home without.
During the 20th century, Kodak was involved in many of the world’s most iconic moments, and became the film of choice for photographers.
- It was on a KODAK Film that Steve McCurry shot his iconic 1984 portrait of a bright-eyed ‘Afghan girl’ and Carol Guzy took her award-winning shot of a boy being pushed through barbed wire fence at the border in Albania in 2000.
- When John Glenn became the first American to orbit the earth in 1962, KODAK Film recorded his reactions to traveling through space at 17,400 miles per hour.
- Another famous photo shot on KODAK Film is the day after the Oscars shot of an unkept Faye Dunaway in her dressing gown, lounging by the pool, her Oscar for Best Actress on a table; the morning’s papers lying scattered on the floor.
Kodak went on to establish a deep heritage with reportage photography during its golden age, when photographers were the belles of the ball in journalism. They roamed the planet for titles like Life magazine and National Geographic with dozens of rolls of film in their bag and unlimited expenses.
Why Good Photography Still Matters
Those days are sadly gone, but the value of good reportage photography is still as important as ever says McHugh.
“Documentary photography, photojournalism and reportage is incredibly important. If you look at the recent fire in London. Images that were published of that are going to be documents in history. The problem is it has become almost impossible to earn a living because the value that’s placed on photography has greatly diminished.”
He grew up inspired by the photographers of the Vietnam era, like Larry Burrows. “In that time photographers were told to go away, work on the story and capture a good strong photographic essay and the photographs would be printed large in the likes of Life magazine with captions that explained what happened – but the photographs were still predominant. That has changed and those magazines have ceased to exist,” he says.
But it would be a mistake to say that photography is no longer appreciated. In fact, it’s enjoyed a resurgence thanks to the internet.
“If you look at Instagram, it’s entirely based around photography and engaging with that. The power of photography in the digital world is unquestionable. More and more communication happens visually.”
For Hatcher-Moore working in South Sudan to document the refugee crisis and unfolding human tragedy since war returned to the region three years ago, Instagram can be an empowering tool. He says it allows photographers to create an essay of images that help to give deeper context than a newspaper caption and tell a bigger story.
“It allows me to talk about issues that aren’t necessarily getting much attention on mainstream publications,” he says. “The context is hugely important to what I do. Every picture is accompanied by a caption that explains the situation and delves into what’s going on to provide deeper insight.”
He says that in this ‘post-truth’ world of ‘fake news’ and ‘alternative facts’, reportage photographers have an important role to play. “A lot of what we do is to rely on our reputations to bring back stories. A single image can be powerful but I’d like to think what we do differently is to bring back entire stories. So rather than one image, we can bring back something that describes in more detail what’s going on.”
He adds: “I’m not sure I subscribe to the belief that a photograph can change the world. But captivating images can start a dialogue and our role to make sure there’s an awareness and try to provoke debates, policy and things like that.”
And in the future, it is more likely than not that those debates will be spurred by images shot on smartphones. “Every news report is likely to include footage or photographs from people who are witnesses,” says McHugh. “The smartphone has become a recorder of history.”
Find details of upcoming screenings and exhibitions from the work of conflict photographers and documentary makers at London’s Frontline Club.