A few months ago, photographer Damon Winter of the New York Times won a prestigious prize for a series of photographs taken on the Hipstamatic app for iPhone. The debate sparked was shortlived (despite an early announcement of the ‘death of photojournalism’) and as the quality of mobile phone images improve, more and more professional photographers seem to make use of them to document the world around them in a quick and handy way. Artists too, embrace the potential of a digital-camera-that-feels-like-analog in your pocket (see for example the work of Dublin based Dragana Jurisic).
Furthermore, last year, Red Pepper magazine published a tongue-in-cheek article on the ways in which activists can make use of smartphones for political campaigns. This includes to-do-lists, calenders, social networking tools, and of course, various still photography and video functions for documenting police behaviour at demos, and the like.
All of these functions can, of course, be utilised in social research. I would argue that a cameraphone that produces reasonably sized image files, is a brilliant research tool. You can carry it anywhere, even in poor weather, there is no need to worry about rolls of film or memory cards, and most importantly, its use may not to provoke the sort of self-conscious reaction in subjects sometimes created by pointing an actual camera at them. This point is also made by Winter, when he explains why he chose to use this particular tool for photographing a group of soldiers he was spending time with while on assignment in Afghanistan. The iPhone, he found, was ‘discreet and casual and unintimidating’. Surely this should be good news for any researcher worried about having an effect on her/his subjects.
Whether you choose to use an app like Hipstamatic, or the phone’s regular camera, in the end comes down to how obvious you want your choice of aesthetics to be. Personally, I’m rather fond of the feel and format of Hipstamatic images. And anyway, all photographs are framed, composed, and somewhat manipulated, despite our best attempts at capturing ‘reality’. As Winter says in his defense, ‘we are not walking photocopiers’. This is a subject to which I will return in a later post.
The picture above was taken with Hipstamatic for iPhone last autumn on the beach in Lahinch, Co Clare, as part of my ongoing attempts at exploring the relationship between humans and other animals.