Hipstamatic is putting the finishing touches to its Photojournalism GoodPak, which will feature a new digital lens and film dedicated to aspiring photojournalists, but already, its wish to start a Foundation for Photojournalism is drawing praise, as well as criticism, from the industry.
"Personally, I think it's a good idea," says photographer Karim Ben Khelifa, who co-founded Emphas.is. "I don't see why it would be a problem for Hipstamatic to launch a foundation – already a lot of banks and financial institutions do the same – and it just shows how important photojournalism is. Of course, you can't pretend these institutions are not doing this to promote their own activities or their beliefs, be it a bank or Hipstamatic. Just take a look at Heinz, which gave an award to James Nachtwey five years ago – it doesn't pose any issues, in my opinion. On the contrary, I'm all for more money for photojournalists."
The Foundation, which BJP understands won't be officially launched until October 2012 at the latest, will offer grants to photojournalists to complete a project using the iPhone app. "The idea behind it is to create an educational platform, where professionals will be able to give some of their time to educate up-and-coming photographers on how to go into Libya, for example, and not get shot," said Hipstamatic CEO Lucas Allen Buick. "Stories have always been a large part of what Hipstamatic is about. We have an opportunity to let photographers do the stories they want to tell and we will be giving out grants to these photographers, so they don't have to find publishers to finance their work."
While Hipstamatic is still working on the logistics, photographer Teru Kuwayama has welcomed the news. "I don't know [much about what they plan to do], but I would think that any new source of support for photographers is welcome, especially if it's coming from outside the traditional ecosystem." Especially, adds Ben Khelifa, since the world of photojournalism is changing. "Our industry is exploding, in a good way," he tells BJP. "Our practices are changing – we're going faster, we're dealing with new economics and new tools. Everything is changing, and I think it's great because it allows us to renew ourselves. Applications such as Hipstamatic and Instagram are making a lot of money right now, and I think it's great when they decide to give something back to photographers. It just goes to show that photojournalism is still important, even for companies that specialise in new technologies."
However, at the heart of the Hipstamatic Foundation of Photojournalism lies the app itself, which continues to cause acrimonious arguments within the photojournalism industry. "As long as you don't have control over the image, I don't believe it has any value," says Jean-François Leroy, the director of the Visa pour l'image photojournalism festival. "No one can pretend that the photographer retains control over his images when using Hipstamatic. I find that this type of application tends to standardise photography – you're not shooting your image, you're shooting a Ben Lowy image," he says, referring to the digital filter Hipstamatic plans to release for photojournalists in the coming months. The GoodPak, as Hipstamatic calls it, was developed with Lowy's input. BJP understands that the Pak was finalised three weeks ago, after undergoing months of tests.
Magnum photographer Christopher Anderson, on the other hand, doesn't have anything against photographers using the app, yet, as a photojournalist, he believes the resulting images are visually bad. "Garish is the word I would use," he tells BJP in an email interview. "I think they are also oddly nostalgic. But that said, I don't have any ethical problem with them. For the purists out there, I would remind them how their own dogmas alter reality – the use of black and white being the most notable of hypocritical dogmas. Unless the photographer is truly and thoroughly colour-blind, this is a pretty drastic alteration of reality. I don't see how making your skies purple with an app is any less ethical – albeit in worse taste, perhaps."
But, adds Anderson, there's another side that remains unexplored. "It occurred to me that my mother and sister, and everybody on Facebook, is showing their world to each other using these apps. That 'look' is not at all exotic to them. So when a 'professional' photojournalist such as Kuwayama or Michael Christopher Brown use an iPhone and app in a conflict zone, perhaps it actually helps communicate what is going on in, say, Afghanistan to people in the suburbs because it looks like the way they show each other their world."
He continues: "It is a visual language that makes sense to a new generation. And perhaps, what us old guys see as real photography is just an out-dated visual language that cannot communicate the reality of Syria today because it is just too exotic to a certain generation of viewers. Most of the discussion I have heard around the Hipstamatic phenomenon in the war zone seems to centre on how these photographers are aestheticising war with their iPhones. But I think it could be argued that they are doing just the opposite. They are making photographs less sophisticated in order to better communicate to an audience to whom photographer's photography just doesn't translate. And maybe all of us purists are really just the old-guard that doesn't get what these kids are up to these days."
For Ben Khalifa, whether to use Hipstamatic or not remains a personal choice. "What's really annoying is that all these debates about the aesthetics and whether it's a good idea to use Hipstamatic don't make sense. The story is at the heart of photojournalism, and if a photographer believes he can tell a better story by using Hipstamatic, that's his choice. Hipstamatic, like a Leica camera or anything else, is just a tool and nothing else."
He adds: "Photography was never objective and never will be, so I think it's not an argument to say that Hipstamatic images are not valid because a filter was used. When we used a dark room in the past, we did the exact same thing. It wasn't as fast as what Hipstamatic does, but the result is the same. If you look at the trend for radical black-and-white images, it's also a filter – a filter applied by photographers because that's the way they want to show their images and express their ideas. It's exactly the same thing."
And, says Khalifa, some people will like the final result while others won't, "and that has always been the case". Brian Storm of MediaStorm goes further: "Honestly, I don't think the general audience knows an iPhone from a Leica. They are either educated, moved and inspired by an image, or they are not."
Yet, Joerg Colberg of Conscientious argues that using an app such as Hipstamatic or Instagram in photojournalism can blur the overall context of an event. "We all know that photography is fiction: as a photographer you make choices, which influence the photograph enough for it to be more of a fiction than a fact," he writes. "That's photography for you. That's just the way it is. But the photojournalist's task, the photojournalist's duty, is to minimise the amount of fiction that enters her/his photography. We are aware of the problem in a news context – this is, after all, the context where the problems with image manipulation come up regularly – so we expect photographs in this context to be as truthful as they can be. The problem with Instagram and Hipstamatic, in this particular context, is that they add a huge amount of fiction to photography, simply by its aesthetic."
There's also a fear, says Noor's managing director Claudia Hinterseer, that teaching aesthetics to young photographers using Hipstamatic could be counterproductive. One of the Foundation's goals is to "educate the next generation of photographic storytellers using smartphones with Hipstamatic". "I'm not opposed to educational initiatives," says Hinterseer, "but I'm not sure you should focus on Hipstamatic to teach visual storytelling. In my view, a photographer adapts the aesthetics to the story he or she is telling. If you're only trained in Hipstamatic, that's a bit limiting."
Beyond the use of Hipstamatic and Instagram, photographers and other experts believe the use of smartphones can have positive implications for the entire industry.
"Something that is brand new for photographers, thanks to these tools, is that we can almost disappear in a crowd," says Khelifa. "When I covered the Tunisian and Yemen protests with my phone, no one could tell me apart from the protesters. I was able to take photographs that I would never have been able to take before with my two large camera bodies. I thought using my phone made sense in this situation."
For Stephen Mayes, director of VII Photo, the smartphone could revolutionise journalism. "It's fascinating to see how people are adapting to this new tool and, I think, the smartphone camera will develop its own life," he tells BJP. "It's interesting to remember that when the Leica 35mm camera was introduced nearly 90 years ago, it was thought to be a landscape camera because it was so portable, and look what it did to 20th century photography, which was nothing for landscape. As with all new technology we're trying to understand the smartphone camera in terms of what went before rather than what it actually does. In my view it's somewhat quaint to think of it as a camera that makes photographs. Photographs are static documents, but smartphone images are dynamic and ever-shifting. The smartphone is really about streaming much more than documenting, and I'm excited to see where this takes journalism."
Especially, as Anderson points out, since most phone owners can now become so-called citizen journalists, if they happen to be at the right place, at the right time. "For photographers and journalists, it is just another tool, but the interesting question is what should be made of the public assuming the role of journalist now that they have easy access to the same tools and platforms as trained journalists."
And that's when ethics come in, he says. "For the professional, vetted journalist/ photojournalist, [the fact that these smartphones are 'always on'] is a quantitative change from before, not qualitative. By that I mean that a smartphone serves as a tool to publish faster than before, but it doesn't change the fundamentals of ethics. Integrity still applies. Truth still matters. But when the general public assumes the role of citizen journalist with an iPhone, there is a profound impact."
According to Anderson, we are drowning in unvetted, unaccountable information that may be uploaded with an agenda. "There is a reason I read The New York Times. Sure they may make mistakes, and I may not always agree with their editorial page, but they make an attempt at accuracy and objectivity. They may not always get it right, but their reputation – indeed, their business – depends on doing everything they can to be as accurate and objective as possible."
Speaking to BJP in October 2011, Hipstamatic's CEO said his Foundation for Photojournalism would have education at its core. It remains unclear, however, whether ethics will play a part in that commitment.
For more details about the Hipstamatic Foundation for Photojournalism, read BJP's exclusive report.
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