Snap happy

Last week three VIPs took a moment in the most important and publicised event in the world that day to capture their own image on a smartphone. Little did they know that this would become the most circulated and reproduced images from Nelson Mandela’s memorial and one which would spark debates on society, photography and what Michelle Obama thought of it all.

It’s a strong statement in our society when a smartphone is the resounding topic of such a momentous event and one which prompted the Guardian’s Stuart Jeffries to ask whether camera phones are killing photography.
(You can read his article here: http://www.theguardian.com/artanddesign/2013/dec/13/death-of-photography-camera-phones?commentpage=5)

Jeffries observes that smartphone photography encourages laziness, we don’t stop to consider the shot but are more concerned with capturing the moment than capturing unique angles, compositions and lighting for the perfect image. Smartphones are putting professional photographers out of business, in the same way that the rise of photography in the 1850s meant that many family portrait painters lost their livelihood.

The wave of popularity for smartphones holding ever more sophisticated cameras has meant that the value of a good photograph, let alone a printed one, has diminished and any old person on Instagram claims themselves to be a ‘photographer’. Photography can now be held alongside the fast fashion, throwaway culture that we live in – the mentality that if we take hundreds of photos in five minutes of an event, somewhere within them will be the one we intended to get… or close enough.

We have lost the little rituals in personal photography, such as considering a shot at an event because we only have 26 photos on a roll of film or waiting a week for photos to be developed. The equivalent of having a photo of our family in our purse is now having them as your iPhone background. Hundreds of photos will be forgotten or lost on hard drives and psychologists even argue that there is such a thing as a ‘photo taking impairment effect’, where the act of relying on a camera to record memories means that you subconsciously store the memory to a lesser extent than you would have otherwise. We are suffering experientially just for the sake of a phone full of photos.

It all seems a bit doom and gloom as far as photography’s concerned, but there’s a whole other side to the story. Despite the rise of platforms such as Instagram, a person with a smartphone is not qualified to call themselves a ‘photographer’ and more than a person who can doodle can call themselves Michaelangelo. There is definitely a blurring of the lines between personal and professional photography, but it’s far from being killed off.

Digital photography has brought photography to the masses; as with anything put into the mass market, the quality is bound to suffer, but that doesn’t mean that the craft of taking a ‘proper’ photograph is lost. Digital has taken away the expense of buying, developing and printing film and it allows people the potential to capture great images, even if they’re not the kind of images you’d want to be put in your wedding album.

It has often been said that ‘the best camera you have is the one you have with you’. Naturally a DSLR will always beat a smartphone camera but they are a huge effort to carry on your person at all times, whereas you’re more than likely (if you own one) to have your smartphone readily accessible in a pocket or bag. Yes, the process of photography has changed in terms of the everyday person but we, as human beings, often use our personal, less than professional photographs as a means to connection.

Social networking has allowed us to share with more people and over vast distances more than ever before, and it also allows us to share our photographs – there is often no photo limit and the platforms are usually free to use. We are encouraged by others and it’s often a shameless form of self-promotion with users plugging in to the rise of ‘hey, look what I’m doing/where I’ve been’ photography. Our society loves to be able to see things in our friends’ lives and be able to pass comment on them remotely, we’re often not too bothered about high-res images, excellent lighting or inspired composition.

In the 21st century as a culture, we are recording our own history in an unprecedented way. In September Facebook revealed that its users have uploaded more that 250 billion photos, and are uploading 350 MILLION NEW PHOTOS each day… That’s an average of 217 per person, per day. (http://www.businessinsider.com/facebook-350-million-photos-each-day-2013-9). It’s a momumental amount of data and proves how obsessed we are with documenting our daily lives, from what we have for breakfast to the oddly dressed person we saw on the tube.

We have an incredibly casual approach to taking photographs and a lot of them will be irrelevant to look back on in 20 years time but it’s still an interesting insight into daily lives, I’d rather see a picture of what someone had for dinner than read constant status updates where they tell me they’re bored/hungry/tired.

But I don’t believe that photography as an artform will die as long as there are those who want to learn the craft and consider photographic composition and lighting rather than just being concerned with just getting any photo that hints at the intended meaning. The landscape of photography is adapting and advancing with technology, but this is a natural step for progression. Fashion photographer, Nick Knight, champions the iPhone as a great tool in his photography and the iPhone Photography Awards show that not all smartphone users are taking endless photos of their cats.

Kim-Hanskamp1 Jon-Resnik Maegan-Moore Luyu-Huang

A selection of winning photographs from the iPhone Photography Awards 2013. (See more at https://www.ippawards.com/index.html)

Of course there is potential in smartphone photography, so long as the elements that are photographed are considered, but photography as a profession will still sit on a level higher. Personally I wouldn’t hire someone with an iPhone to take my wedding photos, no matter how qualified they may be, but perhaps we need to see this as an opportunity or a new path within photography rather than a disaster for the industry.

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