Hipstamatic and Photojournalism

Concentrating in class has been hard today. My mind is in a tizzy trying to sort out the arguments for and against the POYi’s (Pictures of the Year International) award to Damon Winters for his feature story on soldier life in Afghanistan…which was shot with an iPhone and Hipstamatic app. Obviously this created an uproar among photographers and photojournalists alike. Not only because these sort of post-processing practices were seen in the past as unethical, but because they were recognized by a prestigious photojournalism award.

I’ll first summarize the two arguments and then offer my take on it.

  • Against: I think Chip Litherland said it best in his blog post earlier today: “It’s now no longer photojournalism, but photography. That transition happens when images become more about the photographer and less about the subject of said photos.” In Winter’s instance, these photos are good, but beyond the filter effect, they aren’t different from war images we’ve seen before. And what really drives Chip’s point home is that when Winter’s images were featured on the Lens Blog a few months ago, the discussion didn’t really revolve around the story of the images, but around Winter and the “tool” of the iPhone. Also, I reject the somewhat abstract idea Lens suggests that the story is helped by the casualness of phone photography…that’s pretty silly. If that were the case, the Hipstamatic app would not have been needed.
  • For: The best argument I’ve seen defending POYi comes from Chris Anderson of Magnum (can’t find the link) saying photography is a language, and languages are always changing. Photos from 20 years ago look different from now, just as those photos 20 years ago looked different from those 70 years before. New forms of expressing, reporting and conveying stories should always be welcomed, lest photojournalism turn into some traditional esoteric form of communication. Besides Anderson’s argument, numerous other photogs on Twitter assert the Hipstamatic app is merely another tool to tell a story, which, when you boil it down, is what photojournalism is all about.

So, what’s my opinion on this? (Not that I think my opinion matters, I just had to get this written down so I knew what I believed to be true haha. Seriously, it’s been bothering me all day.)

Do I think the images he took were great? Yes. His composition is remarkable and the moments he captured using only a phone were poignant. Do I think the photos would have won without the post-processing? No. Do I think Winter should have won the award? Maybe.

The problem I have is, why use the app? Obviously Winter used it because he thought the processing added something to the images. And he was right. The problem he now runs into though, is that the processing gets in the way of the story. When I look at Winter’s images (or any over-processed images for that matter), the processing is the first thing I notice. In the same way I find HDR to be a way to make bad images visually appealing, I find Hipstamatic and other film processing effects in Photoshop to be the same thing. What sucks more for Winter is the uproar about his images and not other, more over-processed images like the Sports Action photo that won an Award of Excellence (I mean, come on, how is that amount of post-processing allowed?!)

At the same time though, I feel this argument is somewhat hypocritical. What’s the difference between post-processing film effects and converting to black and white? There’s plenty of ways to make a crappy image look great in black and white — trust me, I’ve done it on numerous occasions. I think the difference is that the viewer, in most circumstances, isn’t going to think anything of the black and white images until further inspection. Why? Because photography started out as only black and white, and seeing them elicits certain emotions but doesn’t necessarily detract from a storyline because we’re all accustomed to seeing black and white images. However, adding absurd vignettes, film grain and burning in shadows to hide things on black and white images is just as misleading as the post-processing in the Hipstamatic app.

The argument I refuse to accept is that the Hipstamatic app is merely another tool for photojournalism. The clone stamp and healing brush are tools, but why not use them? Oh ya, it’s altering an image far from the context it was taken in. While I don’t pretend to think there isn’t a massive gray area in terms of amount of editing, I think it’s important to make certain judgement calls as to what has the ability to misrepresent reality and the context around a photo. In this respect, Hipstamatic is a tool that has this ability.

So now what? Should I stop converting my images into black and white? Should I stop vignetting my images? What about adding saturation? How much is too much? To be honest…I have no idea. The rule I always follow in my own work is, “is this what I saw when I took the picture?” If that answer is “no” then I don’t do the adjustments if the image is to be used for a magazine or newspaper.

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