For the past two semesters, I’ve worked with students as they reported all over the five boroughs and Long Island for the Multimedia Journalism class. They’ve produced photo slideshows, videos, and podcasts for the class, and my role has been to coach them through the reporting and editing process.
Here at Baruch, we have audio recorders, video cameras and basic still cameras that the students can borrow from the school if they don’t have their own equipment. At this point, we don’t have high-quality DSLR cameras to offer them (and in any case it’s not an advanced-level class). So most of the time, for the photojournalism assignments, we had them use their smartphone cameras.
I noticed fairly early on that some of the students seemed a little bummed that they had to rely on their smartphones rather than professional-grade equipment when it came time to shoot their photo essays. I’ve been a student journalist myself and know what it is like to feel as though my student status and tight budget is holding me back from telling stories as well as I’d like—so I sought to reassure them that there was no need to feel limited.
The first thing I did was tell them about photojournalist Michael Christopher Brown, who has been featured on TIME’s LightBox photo blog for his iPhone photo essays made in Libya and the Democratic Republic of the Congo. He told LightBox that he began shooting on his iPhone after dropping his SLR shortly after arriving in Libya, and then found that in many ways he actually preferred it.
Our multimedia class discussed the pros and cons of using a smartphone as a camera. True, the quality of the image isn’t as great with a smartphone, and the camera is much more limited in terms of the light conditions where it can shoot. But something strange happens when you pick up something the size of your palm to take a picture of someone instead of several pounds worth of glass, metal and plastic: You become invisible.
You could be checking your email, posting on Facebook, or playing Angry Birds. But even if the person knows you’re taking their picture, a phone is simply less intimidating. Subjects have blinked and even physically recoiled when I’ve pointed my DSLR quite close to their face to take a portrait. Using a camera phone often conveys a certain intimacy, and it makes you seem less of a threat. I know journalists who have been allowed access to places—field hospitals, for instance—with their iPhones while their colleagues with heavy cameras have been forced to wait outside.
Halfway through the fall semester, Hurricane Sandy shut down Baruch for a week. Many of our students were directly affected, and getting back on track as a class wasn’t easy. But one wonderful thing to come out of Sandy was the fact that it afforded the students an opportunity to report on a major story unfolding in their own backyards, and they did some truly beautiful work.
Sandy also led to an historic moment in photojournalism. For the first time ever, a photograph taken with a smartphone made the cover of TIME magazine.
Earlier this spring, Baruch invited Australian photographer Andrew Quilty, one of TIME’s five Instagrammers, to speak at a panel called “Your Smartphone: A Window On The World.” Sitting on the panel alongside Quilty were Genevieve Belmaker and Kirsti Itämeri, who have both used smartphones extensively in their work. The presentations and discussion delved into the practical aspects of using smartphones, the ethical ramifications, and the future implications for journalism as they become increasingly ubiquitous and cost-effective tools.
Just two weeks ago, for instance, the photojournalism world was stunned by the news that The Chicago Sun-Times had laid off its entire photo department in favor of putting iPhones into the hands of its reporters. From reading my musings up until now, you might think I applauded this decision, but let me point out one key distinction: Quilty, Lowy, and Brown are all experienced photographers who have spent many years developing an eye for style, composition, and content. When they take pictures with an iPhone, it isn’t as an afterthought, so they have something to run along with the story. As far as I’m concerned, there will always be a need for photojournalists who devote their lives to the craft.
One of the Sun-Times photographers started a Tumblr shortly after being laid off. In the description, he writes, “Rob Hart was replaced with a reporter with an iPhone, so he is documenting his new life with an iPhone, but with the eye of a photojournalist trained in storytelling.” And he delivers.
Ultimately, that’s what I want my students to see. That it’s not about the type of camera, it’s about the journalist holding it.