A recent award-winning New York Times photo series has come under fire and found itself at the center of controversy over apps in photojournalism. The photos, by Times photog Damon Winter, won third place for feature picture story from Pictures of the Year International. He took them using an iPhone and the Hipstamatic app, which takes digital photos using settings that give them an “analog” feel … aka so they look like they were shot using old film.
The questions are: How far is too far? And how much credit can the photographer claim if Hipstamatic did all the work? A basic tenet of photojournalism is that images must not be altered; they must depict what happened, as it happened. Don’t edit out telephone wires to make it prettier, don’t add something else in to make the image more powerful, don’t even flop an image. Portraits of course, should be noted as such. The only acceptable edits are color/exposure adjustments to ensure proper printing, and perhaps some cropping.
These rules of course can’t compensate for the fact that a photographer is a person. A person who chooses when to click the shutter, what to focus on, and what to frame in the image. The photographer can attempt to be as objective as possible, but they can still only share what they see. Beyond that, each viewer of that image brings his or her own perceptions and experiences to viewing that image. We can provide context with text, but that only does so much. Images are powerful. And this, I think, is what the Hipstamatic controversy is highlighting.
“The fact it was shot on a phone isn’t relevant at all and fair game, but what is relevant is the fact it was processed through an app that changes what was there when he shot them. It’s now no longer photojournalism, but photography.” ~ Chip Litherland
“We are being naïve if we think aesthetics do not play an important role in the way photojournalists tell a story. We are not walking photocopiers. We are storytellers. We observe, we chose moments, we frame little slices of our world with our viewfinders, we even decide how much or how little light will illuminate our subjects, and — yes — we choose what equipment to use. Through all of these decisions, we shape the way a story is told.” ~ Damon Winter
Did the app really change/alter/add to what was there when Winter shot the photo? If it looks like film, is it no longer qualified to be photojournalism but “photography”? (Ironic considering the way many resisted digital photography!) And don’t the people over at Hipstamatic feel pretty pleased with themselves that their fun little app has shaken the world of photojournalism to its core?
I do think the Hipstamatic app gave Winter’s images a softer, yearning feel that might not have been otherwise present. Is this what earned him the prize? I couldn’t say. My journalism training tells me I should be opposed to this. But I really don’t think I am. I’ve always been a little more open to changes in the way things are in the journalism world. Sometimes you have to know when to bend in the wind, or else you’ll break. This is not to say that I think photographers should just start willy-nilly digitally manipulating photos to make them more powerful, adding an explosion here and a crying child there. To me, that’s “photography.”
To see a gallery of Winter’s images and read his full statement on the issue, visit the NY Times Lens blog. You can also read the Poynter Institute’s summary of the issue and replay a live chat they recently hosted about the controversy. If you just want to look at more Hipstamatic images, try the Hipstamatics blog.
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UPDATE 2/24/11: The Missouri School of Journalism has officially announced the winners of the 68th Pictures of the Year International competition. The New York Times Lens blog has reactions, more about the Hipstamatic controversy and a gallery of the powerful winning images. Please be aware that some of the images may be disturbing for some.
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EDIT 2/24/11: My original wording in the first paragraph described the Hipstamatic as a filter, which is misleading in the context of this issue. How the Hipstamatic app works: The app it is meant to mimic using an analog, or film, camera on your iPhone. The “iPhonetographer” selects film type and speed, exposure, lens, etc. and then snaps a picture through the “viewfinder.” It is not a filter the image is run through after being snapped, as in a PhotoShop filter. The app even makes the faint whining sound I remember my mom’s old camera making! Read more and see a video of the app in action here.