Capturing Libya: Through a Hipstamatic Lens
To photojournalism purists, it was pure blasphemy: a prestigious prize, third place for photo of the year, granted to a New York Times photographer who’d used not a 35mm to document U.S. soldiers in Iraq, but simply, his iPhone — and an app called Hipstamatic. Immediately, traditionalists went berserk: “What we knew as photojournalism at its purest form is over,” one photojournalist lamented. Using Hipstamatic in a news report, another commentator proclaimed, was “cheating us all.”
And yet, to Ben Lowy, a conflict photographer who has made a career out of a certain brand of iPhonography — and will debut the first ever photojournalism-inspired Hipstamatic lens with his namesake later this year — the award was a well-needed wake-up call for photo fundamentalists. Last February, Lowy set out to capture the uprising in Libya from his iPhone, alongside millions of protesters who’d document the Arab Spring on their mobile devices. In October, Lowy’s Hipstamatic images of everyday life in wartime Kabul were published in the New York Times Magazine, prompting the magazine’s photo editor, Kathy Ryan, to defend their use on the paper’s 6th Floor blog. And since then, Lowy has published an iPhone photo a day — from dramatic images of war to mundane life in Brooklyn — on his Tumblr, captured under the title, iSee.
Lowy sees the rise of the iPhone photo not so much as an assault on journalism, but as an asset, freeing a photographer from heavy machinery, enabling greater intimacy with a subject, and making candid snapshots easy. This month, Lowy is back in Libya, documenting the country’s growing pains in the aftermath of Gaddafi’s overthrow and the country’s first democratic election in 60 years. On a grant from the Magnum Foundation’s Emergency Fund, Lowy’s got three 35mm cameras with him, but he hasn’t used them. Instead he’s capturing it all via the Hipstamatic Lowy lens, which uses a bit of contrast and desaturation (but minimal processing) to convey its images. For the next week, Storyboard will publish exclusive images from Lowy from his time in Libya. We spoke with him about what makes iPhonography different.
What can you capture on an iPhone that you can’t on a regular camera?
The tool itself is a lot smaller and inconspicuous and can be a bit more subtle. I think it engenders a greater sense of intimacy with subjects because you’re not putting a big camera in their face.
Is it part of your duty as a photojournalist to embrace new mediums?
I think the responsibility of a photographer is not just to communicate something, but to find a way to communicate it more efficiently. Just as a writer would vary prose, photographers change aesthetic.
Is there a reason you’ve decided to use your iPhone in Libya specifically?
The reason is twofold: One, I want to show images that will grab the audience, because they look like the kind of images that anybody can shoot. Everybody takes pictures of their dogs with an iPhone these days; that just speaks to the democratization of the tools. But I think there’s something more intimate about an iPhone picture because of that, so maybe people will look more closely at it. I also think that using the iPhone is apropos for the Arab Spring because so much of the content that began the Arab Spring was from mobile technology.
Do you think you get better access with an iPhone?
I think in the past maybe, but I think now people are very aware that the iPhone is a camera. But it is easier in certain places, like on the subway, where you have to make eye contact. Photographing in a warzone is not hard, because people want you there to document what’s happening. But when I teach students, I tell them to stay on a subway for a day in one car, to take pictures of people with a camera, then put the camera down and make eye contact with the person you just photographed. That’s scary as hell.
How does an iPhone benefit you in a warzone?
I mean, there’s less to carry around, and it’s very quick. But it’s just a different ballgame.
It seems like iPhone photos have become so ubiquitous that you’d have to be an absolute dinosaur not to embrace them. Is there still any real debate about their journalistic validity?
There are still purists who hold onto that idea that the iPhone is not still a real camera, or doesn’t make a real image, and quite frankly, I think those arguments are bullshit. It’s the same argument that people made when color film was invented, or that painters made when photography was invented. People don’t like change, and they don’t like to adapt. There’s nothing real about black and white film photography that is any more or less real than me taking a picture on my iPhone.
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