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Through My Eye, Not Hipstamatic’s: Damon Winter Discusses the Use of an App – NYTimes.com

March 22, 2012

Through My Eye, Not Hipstamatic???s

Damon Winter of The New York Times has won third place for feature picture story from Pictures of the Year International (albeit anonymously, for the time being) with photographs taken on an iPhone using the Hipstamatic app. Critics have pounced. The debate over the propriety of using apps, already hot, is intensifying.

???What we knew as photojournalism at its purest form is over and POYI just killed it,??? Chip Litherland said on his blog. ???Well, they didn???t kill it so much as just dig another knife deeper into the back of its decaying corpse.???

Matt Buchanan, on Gizmodo, followed up by saying, ???I can see how the photographer ??? the person who was there, documenting a moment in a time ??? can reasonably argue that his Hipstamatic print more accurately depicts the feeling of what it was like to be there.??? He added, ???Winter might be the first photojournalist to win an award using a slick photo app to document an event, but he won???t be the last.???

Largely absent from the debate until now has been Mr. Winter himself. On Friday, however, he prepared a statement for a live chat on Poynter.org ??? ???What role do image apps like Hipstamatic have in photojournalism???? ??? scheduled at 3 p.m. (Eastern time). The photographer Benjamin Lowy and Kenny Irby of Poynter will participate. Mr. Winter???s statement:


I have stayed away from much of the online discussion of the use of camera phones and apps in photojournalism largely because I have not wanted to be seen as an advocate for their use and because I have wanted to avoid any appearance of endorsing any particular product or technique ??? which I absolutely do not. It was never my intention for these photos to be seen only in the context of the tool by which they were made.

Having said that, I will always stand behind these photographs and am confident in my decision that this was the right tool to tell this particular story.

Any discussion about the validity of these images comes down to two basic fundamentals: aesthetics and content.

Intimate Views
???A Grunt???s Life???

DESCRIPTION

Damon Winter???s photos and James Dao???s article.

At the heart of all of these photos is a moment or a detail or an expression that tells the story of these soldiers??? day-to-day lives while on a combat mission. Nothing can change that. No content has been added, taken away, obscured or altered. These are remarkably straightforward and simple images.

What has gotten people so worked up, I believe, falls under the heading of aesthetics. 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.

We are being na??ve if we think aesthetics do not play an important role in the way photojournalists tell a story. We are not walking photocopiers. We are storytellers.  We observe, we chose moments, we frame little slices of our world with our viewfinders, we even decide how much or how little light will illuminate our subjects, and ??? yes ??? we choose what equipment to use. Through all of these decisions, we shape the way a story is told.

Let???s look at how the images have been processed by the application. This is not a case of taking an image and applying a chosen filter later. A photo is taken and then you must wait up to 10 seconds, while the image is processed, before you can take the next one. In processing, every image receives what seems to be a pretty similar treatment: a color balance shift, the burning of predetermined areas of the frame and increased contrast.

These are all fairly standard parameters in Photoshop. And they can be done on a color enlarger. The problem people have with an app, I believe, is that a computer program is imposing the parameters, not the photographer.

???No content has been added, taken away, obscured or altered. These are remarkably straightforward and simple images.???

??? Damon Winter

But 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 or cross-processing or using a color balance not intended for the lighting conditions (tungsten in daylight or daylight in fluorescent, using the cloudy setting to warm up a scene).

Take as an example the image that won first place in feature singles in this year???s Pictures of the Year International competition. It is black and white, shot with an extremely shallow depth of field to focus attention on the intended subject and blur other distractions and to give it a certain feel. It features a very heavy use of vignetting.

Much of the information in the image has been obscured in the interest of aesthetics. We humans do not see in black and white. And we do not see the world at f/1.2. These are aesthetic choices that do not contribute to the accuracy of the image. They are ways that the scene has been enhanced aesthetically.

Images like this have been celebrated in photojournalism competitions for years. I have a hard time seeing how this differs ??? in essence ??? from how the camera phone has processed the images I made. It???s just a different tool.

If I had had the choice at the time, I would have used a program that applied less of an effect. But this was all I had available to me. Without an Internet connection, I could not download a plug-in for the application with more subtle processing, as I would have preferred. This is what I had. And this is what I used. And that is that.

I have always loved shooting in a square format. This program allows you to shoot and ??? most importantly ??? compose in that format. I could not have taken these photos using my S.L.R. and that perhaps is the most important point to be made about the camera phone in this story.

Using the phone is discreet and casual and unintimidating. The soldiers themselves often take pictures of one another with their phones and that was the hope of this essay: to have a set of photos that would almost look like those snapshots ??? but through a professional eye.

???We are not walking photocopiers. We are storytellers. We observe, we chose moments, we frame little slices of our world with our viewfinders.???

??? Damon Winter

The beauty of a new tool is that it allows you to see and approach your subjects differently. Using this phone brought me into little details that I would have missed otherwise. The image of the men resting together on a rusted bed frame could never have been made with my regular camera. They would have scattered the moment I raised my 5D with a big 24-70 lens attached. But with the phone, the men were very comfortable. They always laughed when they saw me shooting with it while professional cameras hung from my shoulders.

???A Grunt???s Life??? was a lighter feature story within the context of The Times???s larger ???Year at War??? project, following the First Battalion, 87th Infantry of the 10th Mountain Division in northern Afghanistan. This essay was not a news story. The reporter, James Dao, and I had racked our brains trying to figure out how to tell the story after having been on so many missions that often go nowhere and have no clearly defined story arc.

We spent so much time with these men. They had become so comfortable with us that we were given a rare and honest glimpse into their lives. For us, it sometimes resembled a summer camp with guns more than a military operation. Halfway through our six-day mission, I knew there was no other way I could tell the story. I concentrated on shooting ???snapshots??? with the phone. Jim???s story ??? light, but gritty and raw ??? meshed perfectly with the images, a wonderful collaboration. I believe our readers were served well.

People may have the impression that it is easy to make interesting images with a camera app like this, but it is not the case. At the heart of every solid image are the same fundamentals: composition, information, moment, emotion, connection.  If people think that this is a magic tool, they are wrong. Of hundreds of images taken with the phone over those six days in Nahr-i-Sufi, only a handful were worth reproducing.

I have no intention of becoming a camera phone photographer. I use it often for personal photos (my cat being my favorite subject), which suggests why it was the perfect tool to tell this particular story. It helped me make intimate pictures of a subject ??? the American soldier in wartime deployment ??? that is often seen only as part of a sizable, anonymous fighting machine. I cannot say if I will use the camera phone again on my job.

People have covered war with plastic toy cameras. Most recently, Erin Trieb in Afghanistan. David Burnett used the tilt of his large format cameras to render major sporting events into miniature dioramas. Paolo Pellegrin creates exquisite black-and-white images of major news events around the world that often more closely resemble paintings than photographs, using the same digital camera we all use. Each photographer uses a technique or tool that helps him or her to best tell the stories and all of their work has been acknowledged and celebrated.  None of these techniques are grounded on the idea of visual accuracy but they are effectively used to tell stories, convey ideas and to enlighten, which is the real heart of our work.

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