Can photojournalism be done on an iPhone?

A Grunt's Life by Damon Winter
Photo of soliders in Afghanistan by New York Times photojournalist Damon Winter

If a photojournalist ditches his camera in favour of his iPhone, are the
pictures he takes still journalism? What if he manipulates the photos
to toy with saturation and colour?

An award-winning photo series of soliders in Afghanistan has raised an oft-argued debate: can photojournalism be objective?

New York Times photographer Damon Winter’s photo series, “A Grunt’s Life”, which recently nabbed third place in an international photojournalism contest, was shot entirely on an iPhone. Winter used an app called Hipstamatic to filter the photos to give them an oversaturated, discoloured and whimsical appearence.

Journalistic codes of ethics suggest that photojournalists have an ethical responsiblity to accuracy, and photos should remain unedited. Start messing around in Photoshop and you risk crossing the line into pure, artistic photography, which “should be seen as opinionated rather than unbiased work,” points out.

In a J-Source piece about the rise of cell phone journalism, Jasmine Pazzano writes:

“The Journalism Ethics for the Global Citizen website says that with the emergence of “cell journalists,” there is no way to verify that a cell journalist’s product is an honest representation of reality as opposed to a distorted, outdated or biased image. The site says “Ethical problems faced by cell journalists include all the problems associated with photojournalism in general: the digital manipulation of images, privacy concerns and the use of graphic images.”

Others disagree. In a online chat with PoynterOnline, Ben Lowry, a professional conflict photographer, said, “Photojournalism is not just journalism, it is also photography. Our job is to capture content, but to also present it in an aesthetic way. To capture the audience’s attention and deliver our message.”

In a statement for PoynterOnline, Winter writes:

“It was never my intention for these photos to be seen only in the context of the tool by which they were made…. 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.”

He notes that a lot of the photos couldn’t have been captured using his regular SLR camera. “Using the phone is discreet and casual and unintimidating. The soldiers often take pictures of each other with their phones and that was the hope of this essay: to have a set of photos that could almost look like the snapshots that the men take of each other but with a professional eye.”

Winter also points out that “A Grunt’s Life” wasn’t a news story: instead, it was a way to show a slice of solider life after “having been on so many missions that often go nowhere and have no clearly defined story arc.”

In the New York Times‘ photojournalism blog Lens, James Estrin writes that it doesn’t matter what phone Winter used to capture the soldiers. “It’s the images that are important.”

“Whenever possible, I avoid writing about camera gear,” Estrin writes. “The photographer takes the picture, not the equipment. Few people care what kind of typewriter Hemingway used.”