Journalist Ben Lowy covered the aftermath of Superstorm Sandy with his phone.
© Benjamin Lowy/reportage by Getty Images
To navigate breakneck news cycles and global social media platforms, savvy pro photographers (and their editors) have a new favorite tool: the smartphone. We spoke to several mobile-friendly photojouranlists to find out how and why Instagram is becoming an ever-bigger part of their work
As Superstorm Sandy bore down on the Eastern Seaboard, Time magazine’s director of photography, Kira Pollack, had a snap decision to make about how to document the impending chaos. “We came in Monday morning [October 29, 2012]—Sandy hit Monday night,” Pollack says. “We really didn’t know what would happen: whether the power would go out, or how we would file images.”
The solution? Pollack’s team contacted five photojournalists and handed them the keys to Time’s Instagram feed, granting unmediated access to the magazine’s presence on the social-photography platform; the images would also appear on LightBox, the magazine’s photography blog.
“I had immediate access to hundreds of thousands of viewers,” photographer Michael Christopher Brown says about shooting the assignment. “There was this tremendous sense of power, as I was both a photographer and an editor, able to reach an audience faster than any wire service.”
Within hours, five shooters hit the ground to document the devastation: Brown, fellow editorial photographer Ben Lowy, frequent National Geographic shooter and VII member Ed Kashi, recent Australian transplant to New York and World Press Photo Award winner Andrew Quilty, and Stephen Wilkes, who’d earned accolades for his large-format interiors in Ellis Island: Ghosts of Freedom. The kicker: Four of the five relied primarily on their smartphones. (Quilty used his DSLR and his iPhone; Wilkes had a laptop, which he used to download one image.)
“It was really about speed,” Pollack says. “It was a way to get images up as quickly as we could, but we had to have the right photographers to make it work.” She explains that Lowy, Brown, and Kashi especially were chosen for their smartphone shooting chops. “These are extraordinary journalists, and what they do with the technology is equally amazing,” she says. “Brown was literally shooting images in the middle of the night—in total darkness, with the power out in the city and only minimal light available—using nothing but his cellphone.”
Lowy and Brown are no strangers to chaos in the field. Each specializes in conflict photography, where, they’ve found, smartphone technology adds a layer of flexibility and freedom to their journalism. “In Libya, everyone used phones to take pictures and videos, so what I was doing was no different,” Brown says.
Brown had shot mobile for a project in China and then got his first smartphone-only assignment covering the Democratic Republic of Congo, Rwanda, and Uganda for Time’s mobile tech issue. “I flew to Africa with three phones and no photo equipment,” he says. “I have to thank Kira Pollack for believing in the project. On previous jobs with other publications, the consensus was we were only safe if we were using a 35mm.”
Lowy similarly garnered recognition when images he took in Afghanistan with the app Hipstamatic landed in The New York Times Magazine.
“People look at what they have readily available and they can say, ‘I take a picture of my lunch or my cat with my iPhone, and this guy is using an iPhone to photograph Afghanistan or Libya or the hurricane.’ It brings it that much closer to them."
“I flew back to New York from California as the storm was coming in,” Lowy says. “When the plane landed I had an e-mail from deputy photo editor Paul Moakley at Time saying they were thinking of having me cover the storm, and I realized the Rockaways and Coney Island were where I needed to be.” In hindsight, his instincts were right on; his iPhone image of the waves pounding Coney Island made the cover of Time’s subsequent print issue.
Digital photography has become easier for everyone to create and distribute thanks to smartphones and access to instant-publishing tools.
“I think, with the democratization of photography, people look at what they have readily available and they can say, ‘I take a picture of my lunch or my cat with my iPhone, and this guy is using an iPhone to photograph Afghanistan or Libya or the hurricane.’ It brings it that much closer to them,” Lowy says. “It’s not some foreign tool. It’s like a very small psychological bridge that you can use to connect with your audience.”
This simple tool may have the power to change how professional photographers interact, not only with their craft, subjects, and audiences but also with the outlets that buy their work. It’s difficult to shrug off the impact of connected photography.
In November 2012 Samsung released the Galaxy Camera, a first attempt to incorporate the Android OS and a cellular antenna into a compact camera. Then Canon introduced the EOS 6D, a full-frame DSLR with Wi-Fi and sharing tools built in. “This connectivity will become the new normal,” says Richard Koci Hernandez, an Emmy-winning multimedia journalist, assistant professor of journalism at UC Berkeley, and mobile-photography maven. “I never bet against technology.”
Hernandez was an early adopter of iPhone photography and social media. As a photojournalist for the San Jose Mercury News, he bought his first iPhone in 2007—the first iteration, with its brutally grainy 2MP camera—and almost immediately started using it on the job. “The combination of a camera and an Internet connection meant I didn’t have to bring out my laptop,” Hernandez says. “It was so convenient, I didn’t want to use anything else.”
Hernandez was an avid Lomo and Holga user before he embraced the iPhone, and he thinks the smartphone’s shortcomings—like poor low-light performance and lack of manual controls—are small sacrifices to make for the ability to edit and publish images from the palm of his hand.
Today Hernandez has more than 160,000 followers on Instagram, and the moody black-and-white street images that populate his feed have been published everywhere from The New York Times’s Lens blog and Slate to a National Geographic book (published in Germany) titled iPhone-Fotografie, which features Hernandez alongside four other iPhone photographers, including Michael Christopher Brown. “With the iPhone 4S, at least, the camera is finally acceptable,” Hernandez says. “Good enough to get blown up for a National Geographic book.”
At a time when every part of the image-making business—fine artists, news outlets, multinational brands—are fighting for increasingly fragmented and distracted audiences, finding ways to engage people through social media and photo-sharing sites is considered the brass ring. “I’ve been approached numerous times by major car companies, clothing lines, and alcohol brands looking for mobile photography expertise,” Hernandez says.
The role social-savvy photographers such as Hernandez play in galvanizing communities around a topic, whether it’s a new craft distillery or a vital news event like Sandy, is still very much in its Wild West phase. But examples abound of pioneering shooters who take great images with simple tools, engage online audiences, and ultimately carve out careers for themselves based in some part on photography they make with their smartphones.
“I’ve now been using an iPhone as my work camera for nearly two years,” she says. “So far, no complaints.”
Take Liz Eswein, who—with two other Instagrammers with big followings, Brian DiFeo and Anthony Danielle—cofounded the Mobile Media Lab, one of the first social-media marketing consultancies built almost entirely around Instagram.
Eswein was a student at NYU when she joined the startup social photography site in 2011, well before its current status as a Facebook-owned tech juggernaut. She casually chose the username @newyorkcity. “I decided I wanted to show photos of the city. I tried a few names, and amazingly this one was available,” Eswein says. “I was so excited when I had 50 followers, but then it just exploded.”
Eswein quickly realized the inherent value of her username when people from all over the world started liking, sharing, and commenting on her snapshots of skylines, street scenes, food, and fashion. Her following quickly swelled into the hundreds of thousands—more than 560,000 as this went to print—and early last year Eswein started getting offers from NYC-based brands willing to pay to build their mobile marketing and appear in her photo stream.
Fresh out of college, Eswein, then 23, had inadvertently become a one-woman publishing house with an audience to rival that of many magazines, her feed the de facto face of New York City on Instagram. Cue the light bulb.
“Brian, Anthony, and I were already being approached individually when we decided to cofound the company, and we got a big campaign with Samsung right after we teamed up,” Eswein says. “It’s been really successful so far—I’d say about 95 percent of our clients approach us, rather than the other way around.” Mobile Media Lab’s recent work has included coverage for Kérastase at New York Fashion Week and Evian at the U.S. Open, as well as virtual guest appearances—known as Instagram Takeovers—for such outlets as Lucky magazine.
Toward a Mobile Aesthetic
One byproduct of the spike in demand for mobile photography is the widespread use of filters and frames on images shared through Instagram and similar apps. They serve to mask the flaws that come with lower-quality images, but filtering has also become its own kind of aesthetic.
Veteran sports photographer Brad Mangin brought that look to the print pages of Sports Illustrated when the July 23, 2012, issue included a three-page spread comprising 18 Instagram baseball images that he took during spring training and the regular season.
Like many photographers getting a new perspective on their craft thanks to the simplicity and creativity of smartphone photography, Mangin found it liberating to shed his big cameras and just experiment. “We are always looking for ways to present the game of baseball in a fun photo essay,” Mangin says. “And we liked the idea of Instagram because it was kind of new—none of the big weekly magazines had done much with it yet.”
Former art director turned iPhoneographer Tim Young had never seriously picked up a camera before he began sharing his iPhone photos on Instagram, but two of his images were selected for inclusion in the first International iPhoneography Show at the SoHo Gallery for Digital Art. The ensuing snowball effect included a book with the creators of the apps FX Photo Studio and Color Splash Studio, more gallery shows, and commissioned works.
“I’m a photographer that chooses to use an iPhone. It’s about ease of use, unobtrusiveness—it’s my dark room, apparatus, and gallery,” Young says. “The technology lets me share test images with effects quickly, then turn around the final shots on a tight deadline, but at the end of the day, my clients want me for my artistry, not the device.”
Web publishing is another venue for which instant mobile photography is a perfect fit. The past five years have seen an explosion of original online content, and it all needs Web-optimized images that can move from camera to reader quickly.
Kirsten Alana, a travel photographer, blogger, and social-media consultant, fell into iPhone photography thanks to an equipment malfunction. “My 5D Mark II had a bad water encounter,” she says. “So I decided to travel light and carry less equipment, testing myself to see if I could still capture images good enough to submit to editors.”
Now Alana spends much of her life on the road as a contributor for travel outlets such as Afar magazine, Gadling, and Hostelworld and as a correspondent for Expedia; she gives talks and classes about smartphone photography along the way. “I’ve now been using an iPhone as my work camera for nearly two years,” she says. “So far, no complaints.”
Alana credits the pocket-sized portability, endless supply of apps, and the ability to publish photos from anywhere as the primary reasons she’s chosen to work with a smartphone rather than her DSLRs. “I want people to feel like they are there, traveling as well, experiencing a destination along with me,” she explains. “An iPhone lets me do this better than most digital cameras.”
The TOS Debate
As this article was being filed, Instagram announced planned changes to its terms of service, sparking criticism among pros who use the site, including many of the photographers interviewed here. The most controversial among the proposed changes were those construed as giving Instagram and parent company Facebook the rights to publish and sell images for advertising without consent from or compensation for the photographer.
The huge backlash among high-profile users led Instagram CEO Kevin Systrom to release a clarifying blog post within 24 hours, part of which read, “To be clear: It is not our intention to sell your photos.” Shortly afterward, Systrom announced, “We are reverting this advertising section to the original version that has been in effect since we launched the service in October 2010.”
Michael Christopher Brown was willing to wait for the dust to settle. “Initially, my reaction was to wait for the final verdict,” he says. “Though if they had changed the terms to what they were proposing, I would have closed the account.” Mangin says he was worried and would have left the service had Instagram not rolled back to its original terms, but ultimately, is happy that the company listened to its users. He continues to use the service.
In the era of social networking and instant publishing, debates like these will keep popping up. Instagram, like many other social networking platforms, may be a powerful publishing tool, but it is also a for-profit enterprise.
Ultimately, the reasons that Time’s photo team chose smartphones to cover Superstorm Sandy are much the same reasons Eswein and Alana use them: In a fast-paced world, convenience, speed, and connectivity rule the day.
Both a magazine and its readers benefit when reporting spreads as far and wide as possible. Pollack had published smartphone images before Sandy; she even incorporated Instagram into Time’s first Wireless Issue. But the magazine’s storm coverage was still very much an experiment—its first attempt at using the platform for a breaking-news event of this magnitude.
The experiment worked, driving 13 percent of the entire website’s traffic during a week with one of the highest traffic days in its history. “The images were strong, immediate, and emotional. And they spread like wildfire,” Pollack says. “When it lends itself to the right story, with the right photographers, I’ll do it again.”