The Genteel
February 25, 2021


Eelco Roos photography. Photograph courtesy of Eelco Roos.

Not so long ago, photographers were sneaking film canisters out of war zones to shed light on conflicts unfolding across the world. They worked in dark rooms, mixing chemicals, working with light and negatives. The end results were images the world had never seen before - images that changed the way people perceived cultures and issues.

The tactile nature of traditional photography may resonate with purists as an indispensable part of the medium, but the way the medium has been used and interpreted over the last decade has changed dramatically in a short period of time. News agencies and artists alike are learning to use and navigate a brand new world, one that exists solely in that elusive fourth dimension - the Internet; where photographs are quickly produced, shared and consumed.

Now, photography is considered as a medium that does not exist on its own, but one that is coupled with social media platforms. Take Instagram, for example, the photo-sharing application that Facebook recently acquired. As of September 2012, it had over 100 million users, who have shared upwards of four billion images and those numbers only continue to grow. 

Ed Kashi Hurricane Sandy photography.
Photograph courtesy of Ed Kashi.

Time magazine made headlines recently, rounding up five photographers to document the effects of Hurricane Sandy in the northeast - all on their mobile phones, all using Instagram's platform. Time's decision, to commission work done with phones and apps, was motivated by necessity; the advent of smartphone technology now means decent-quality cameras are widely available, dominating a large part of the photography market. Photo-sharing forums, like Instagram, have created consumer demand for material that isn't just effective, but immediate.

"This is a moment where change is so rapid, particularly in photojournalism," says Ed Kashi, one of the chosen Hurricane Sandy photographers. "It's also an exciting time to embrace the changes in how we are and can communicate to broader, non-traditional audiences and further our reach."

The idea of rapid communication is one of the overarching themes of mobile photography, and perhaps inseparable from a form of public relations. Uploading phone photos provides a sense of transparency and insight into the observations of not only photojournalists and artists, but politicians and celebrities alike. Through their phones, public personalities are able to reach audiences who may not follow traditional media. American President Barack Obama has nearly 1.8 million followers, while teen heart-throb singer Justin Bieber has more than four million.

Kashi himself has just over 7,000 followers on the photo-sharing network. In the last few months, he has started using the platform seriously, which has opened doors to other opportunities as well, including working with the New Yorker on its weekly feed and managing National Geographic's Instagram.

While Kashi initially found success in photography on a more traditional platform - shooting for the print editions of LA Times and National Geographic - other photographers have used social networking platforms to launch their careers. Eelco Roos hails from The Hague and works at a global IT company in Amsterdam. Since joining Instagram one year ago, he has already amassed 200,000 followers. Roos says he was always interested in photography, but that he began to seriously pursue it after he bought his first iPhone, the 3GS. "I wanted to be one of the first in The Netherlands to show the possibilities with mobile photography." 

Roos began pouring over tutorials and experimenting with different apps. "When you're on a social media platform and more and more users start following you everyday, you know you are doing something right," he says. "It's much harder to get this kind of recognition through other types of media." The recognition Roos is talking about includes his first iPhone photo exhibition (at the Crossing Border festival in The Hague), a campaign with Johnnie Walker, and invitations to discuss mobile photography at conferences around the world.

Taking photographs and uploading them into the public space is making photography a much more dominant part of our language. It is quickly becoming an indispensable and unavoidable way we talk to each other - one that transcends geography.

"The game has really changed with mobile media and social media," says James Ramer, Director of Graduate Studies in Photography at Parsons The New School, in New York City. Ramer taught one of the first digital photography classes at Parsons a decade ago and says the school is constantly trying to adapt its curriculum to reflect changes in the real world. "Our perceptions of photographs is changing because the images exist in a stream. [...] The way we teach photographers is more a producer/director kind of thing. It's not just about a print anymore. [...]They're very much affected by their context, more so than just the way photographs are being constructed."

The changes in the medium include breakthroughs in the portability of the device itself, which is inextricably linked to its functionality. A smartphone can now take decent-quality photographs with the touch of a button and, with another swipe or two, a high-resolution video. Ramer suggests another reason smartphone photography is becoming a game-changer is that it arguably produces the most "truthful" or "authentic" image - the antithesis to the common notion that magazine photographs are very likely to have been manipulated or airbrushed in some way.

It's not just the image itself, though, that is making mobile photography a core component of photography courses, but the speed at which photographers are able to share pictures and receive instant feedback in the form of "likes" and "comments." It's also a new way we write our autobiographies. "We can use it for visual journalling, for the mundane and prosaic, but also for the poetic and dramatic moments of our daily lives," says Kashi.

But what role will traditional forms of photography have in this digital conversation? Steve McCurry photographed of one of the most iconic and recognised photographs of the 20th century: Afghan Girl. He spent the early part of his career sneaking film out of war zones by sewing rolls of film into his clothes. And although he doesn't yet have a Twitter nor Instagram handle, he's had a Facebook page for the last four years. "Communication is always a good thing. [...] I don't see a downside to it. A lot of people - good, serious, intelligent people - use Facebook everyday. It's just the reality," he says. 

When asked whether or not he was resistant to the push toward digital photography, McCurry admits he was, noting that it's human nature to resist change. At the same time, he challenges this resistance with a smattering of rhetorical questions - whether cars would be as ubiquitous as they are today if people were set on using the horse and buggy, or if anybody really uses the typewriter anymore. "An image taken by a cell phone, I think, is as valid as a sort of 8x10 view camera. Why not? If you have an extraordinary image that tells a story [with] shade, emotion, composition, who's making the rules?'

Nevertheless, the renowned photographer (who reveals that he does, in fact, take phone photos, though not for professional purposes) says there are constraints when it comes to creating a good image. "[There is] something to be said about crisp, clear, beautiful prints with nuance...Is every person with a cell phone making great art, great pictures? [No.] But you take a skilled someone, with a great eye, they can do amazing things with anything."

Eelco Roos photography.
Photograph courtesy of Eelco Roos.

While photography has undoubtedly acquired a new dimension - one that fosters a new type of communication between photographer and viewer - it also seems like the fundamental purposes of the medium have not changed as much as some may think. As always, we still take photos to immortalise moments and to communicate what we see to others. Rather, it is the way we engage in the dialogue that has undergone a transformation; taking photographs and uploading them into the public space is making photography a much more dominant part of our language. It is quickly becoming an indispensable and unavoidable way we talk to each other - one that transcends geography.

While there is a certain nostalgia associated with the "old" way of doing things, as Ramer says, it's because the digital platform is still in its infancy. As we still don't fully understand the implications of this new language in the digital realm, the idea of it can be daunting. Nonetheless, this new frontier remains compelling, as there is still a breadth of potential not yet explored.

What is undeniable is the changing speed and quantity at which we produce and "publish" photos. These are conditions that will ultimately affect the way we use the medium. Perhaps our ability to navigate this new platform is not contingent on the individual to understand it right away, nor to subscribe to an objective assessment of its purpose. Instead, our understanding may come from a subjective experience of the continuous stream of imagery and choosing elements of it that will, ultimately, leave an impression on our personal lives.  



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