It’s a Hipstamatic controversy


Hipstamatic photo for NY Times
Award-winning photo by Damon Winter for The New York Times.


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.

• • •

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.

• • •

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.



3 thoughts on “It’s a Hipstamatic controversy

  1. i do think the slight editing evokes a “feeling” and a “mood” that goes beyond the boundaries of photojournalism. I think they should hold the line on the no alteration rule. Otherwise, how far is too far? We human beings tend to push limits and bend rules, and the fuzzier the line is, the more it will be crossed. There can be no “artistic license” in photojournalism. This needs to be photographic documentation of events. “A picture paints a thousand words,” and we don’t need any editorializing. We need to have some assurance that journalistic photography is unadulterated so that we can draw our own conclusions from the image without undue manipulation. Of course, the photog still has discernment over what to shoot and when, and I am not so naive as to think that images are not shot and published based on their ability to create interest, buzz, and bias. However, to add to that any sort of image manipulation, even subtly, would really be pushing the limits of factual photographic documentation. Just the facts, m’am. Just the facts.

  2. Yeah, I know what you mean about manipulation, just the facts. I agree that photojournalists should not manipulate situations, or digitally alter images after the fact for more impact.

    The thing to me is, he did just take a picture of what was in front of him. He didn’t do anything to it after he took the picture. There’s no post-manipulation, which is what the onus really has been on in photojournalism. Photogs have to choose which camera, which lens, what lighting source to use and how much, what shutter speed and exposure time for every single picture they take. It’s not uncommon for them to choose certain equipment, etc. to get a particular end result. That’s part of what makes a good photographer.

    I think it’s interesting how so many protested the advent of digital photography, saying certain qualities of the images that can only be had with film would be lost. A lot of people thought digital photography lost a certain depth of quality. Of course now it’s pretty much a requirement photographers shoot digital for work, even if they don’t like it. Then this guy uses a digital photography application that can give images those film-like “qualities” again, and it’s considered manipulation. Whereas if he had used an actual film camera that produced the exact same look, no one would be protesting. Technology can mimic the “old stuff” now. Is it manipulation, or just trying to get back something we lost? Is it the same as post-manipulation of an image, or choosing your equipment? It’s an interesting question.

    And to complicate, there are also the questions of how it ran in the paper — in what context. It ran as a photo essay, which perhaps has some more leeway than a hard news story. The editors at the New York Times are probably the best in the business, so I’m sure these images did not run without some serious discussion. I personally think some of the protesters were almost more upset that he used an iPhone than how the images actually looked.

    It really is quite a fascinating topic. I’ve gone and practically written another blog post on it! 🙂 I’m sure eventually the industry will arrive at some kind of consensus.

    • could it be that the “feel” of this particular image, with it’s analog look, captures the sense of the vietnam era? it’s kind of like hearing an old song that evokes the senses and memories of its time for some of us. maybe the younger generation can be more objective on this, for those very reasons. does that make any sense?

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