Is The iPhone The Right Tool For Photojournalism?

“I’m a very reactionary image-maker. When my head and heart scream shoot, I shoot. Photography, for me, is about honoring the impulse to make an image, no matter what.” – Richard Koci Hernandez

Chase Jarvis said that the best camera is the one that’s with you (to be fair, Joe McNally said it too). With more than 150 million units in the wild, that best camera for many may be the iPhone. The iPhone 4 and 4S top the list of Flickr’s most popular cameras, beating out DSLRs from both Nikon and Canon. But, is the iPhone really good enough to be used professionally, or is it merely the “best camera” for enthusiasts and amateurs? Photographer Damon Winter of The New York Times came under fire for his series “A Grunt’s Life”, which he shot on the iPhone using the Hipstamatic app. The photo essay took third place from Pictures of the Year International, but was sharply criticized. Photographer Chip Litherland  said, “What we knew as photojournalism at its purest form is over and POYI just killed it.” Personally, I don’t agree with the criticism at all and, fact, completely agree with Winter’s point of view. He says, “Some consider the use of the phone camera as a gimmick or as a way to aestheticize news photos. Those are fair arguments, but they have nothing to do with the content of the photos.” Winter goes on to say that the problem the photographic community seems to have is not necessarily the device, but the way the aesthetics are changed within the particular apps. “But,” he says, “I don’t see how this is so terribly different from choosing a camera (like a Holga) or a film type or a processing method that has a unique but consistent and predictable outcome…”

Damon Winter - A Grunt's Life

Images from Damon Winter’s “A Grunt’s Life”

Just like post processing in Lightroom or Photoshop, the filters and effects available in iPhone apps are there to enhance the image, but they won’t magically transform a bad image into something spectacular. Do some photographers over use these filters? Absolutely. They also over use HDR, vignettes and tilt-shift. Rather than tearing down the tools as a whole, and writing them off as unprofessional or somehow blame them for killing the industry, why not celebrate those who use them well? After all, it’s still up to the photographer to tell the story though composition, lighting and subject matter. The iPhone is merely another tool, and in that respect no different than upgrading to the latest DSLR or the newest version of Nik Efex.

One photographer who has embraced the iPhone as his main tool for photojournalism is Richard Koci Hernandez. Richard is an Emmy-award-winning video and multimedia producer who worked as a photographer at the San Jose Mercury News for 15 years and has been nominated for a Pulitzer Prize. Twice. Suffice to say, he knows how to tell compelling stories. In fact, in addition to teaching courses in mobile reporting at UC Berkeley’s Graduate School of Journalism, Hernandez worked with lynda.com to produce a course on iPhoneography, called iPhone Photography, from Shooting to StorytellingSo, choosing to use the iPhone (along with the iPad) as the hub of his Essential Mobile Journalism Kit is definitely not a gimmick, but simply a matter of the right tool for the job. In an interview for The Los Angeles Times’ reFramed, Hernandez said that the iPhone has completely changed his photographic process. “First,” he says, “it has accelerated my output. Not only is it the camera in my hand, but it’s the printing press in my pocket and more importantly, with the rise of social networks like Instagram, it’s become my satellite dish in order to instantly transmit, globally. I can share my vision at the touch of a button and receive instant feedback and sometimes, intelligent conversation about the photographic process. It’s a thrilling time for photographers.” Hernandez is just one of a growing number of advocates of the “any tool to tell the story” school of thought when it comes to reporting. He understands that the way people consume information is changing and is changing along with it, while at the same time allowing the new tools and technology to inform how he tells stories.

The 54
The 54 is a brilliant example of how the iPhone can really be used as the hinge pin to a multimedia workflow. Hernandez gave himself 54 days to shoot 54 images on his daily ride on the 54 bus in Oakland. Everything from images to music to titles was produced using his iPhone.

Koci Hernandez Koci HernandezKoci Hernandez Koci Hernandez

[Quotes via reFramed, Lens]

UPDATE (7-26-12): Hipstamatic plans to open the Hipstamatic Foundation for Photojournalism to “support photographic storytellers” who use smartphones to tell their stories. Read the full story on British Journal of Photography.

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