From Memory To Experience: The Smartphone, A Digital Bridge

September 22nd, 2012Stephen Mayes

Presented at The Toronto Photography Seminar 2012:

The Photographic Situation

It’s interesting to note 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 for 20th Century photography, which was nothing for landscape. So it is with the Smartphone, a truly revolutionary instrument, which as with all new technology we’re trying to understand it in terms of what went before rather than what it actually does. Looked at in this way it’s somewhat quaint to think of it as a camera in a traditional sense or that it makes photographs; photographs are after all static documents but Smartphone images are dynamic and ever shifting. The Smartphone is really about streaming much more than documenting. This, and the casual intimacy that the instrument allows define the transformative technology that is reshaping the role of the image in culture.

A story: In May 2011 I met with the photographer owners of VII, the collective agency I manage. It was a serious gathering of serious photojournalists discussing how to do serious documentary work in this struggling media environment and there weren’t many light moments. Gary Knight played idly with his iPhone and no one paid heed until it was discovered that he was quietly posting pictures of the meeting to Facebook with a wry commentary for all the world to share. The Likes and Comments were exploding and in a moment the entire group had their phones out and were posting witty, teasing pictures throughout the remaining days of the meeting.

Two notable phenomena emerged: it was the first time I had seen the photographers of VII actually have fun with photography, uninhibited and chuckling with every post; and none of the images was made as a document of record. The imagery existed only to serve the moment, becoming woven into the experience of being there and shared for others to join the event. I pointed this out to my colleagues who probably considered me to be over-thinking the moment, which after all was just a bit of fun with their Smartphones. Which is exactly the point; somehow there was a distinction between Smartphones and real cameras. Maybe they didn’t particularly regard the Smartphone play as photography; it was a form of visual banter, an unself-conscious chat with friends, colleagues and people with similar interests, so what was there to talk about?

The initial differentiation between Smartphone and camera soon blurred as professional photographers everywhere self-consciously re-approached the Smartphone and co-opted it as “just another tool” for their work, albeit with some distinguishing qualities. Debate has rumbled in the world of professional photojournalism as some have attacked the Smartphone as somehow improper while others have defended it as a continuation of traditional photography with some bells and whistles added.

The Bridge
Resistance from photo traditionalists has mainly centred on the shifting of technical control from the camera to post production, which both demeans the imagery as casual snapshots and even worse carries the inference of digitally manipulated truth. The pictorial tropes of the popular filters by Hiptsamatic, Instagram and others have been another cause of complaint. Many photojournalists have responded enthusiastically to these attributes with Benjamin Lowy endorsing a Hipstamatic filter in his name (due for release later in 2012), and many are embracing the portability of the Smartphone that allows some significant developments in the field craft of photojournalism. Most significantly this has created a form of invisibility for the photojournalist who becomes just another person with a Smartphone, indistinguishable from the protagonists. This engenders some practical and ethical re-evaluations, allowing the professional photographer closer proximity than ever before and also raising questions about the assumed separation of neutral observer and active participants. This and the permission to play that the Smartphone evokes, encourage the professional photographer to experiment in ways that the traditional camera inhibits. With a new tool in their hands photographers feels almost required to push their style, their choice of subjects and the context into which they put their work.

However different these practices might feel to practitioners, these Smartphone attributes still only repurpose the tool to emulate or improve the traditional practice of photojournalism. Much professional work made with Smartphones is more sophisticated than the auto-nostalgia seen in the use of filters that mimic cyanotype, distressed silver and the borders that imitate Polaroid or the Leica black line, but the professional use of the Smartphone to execute traditional photojournalism keeps one foot firmly planted in the past.

Basetrack made a bold step forward in 2010 when three photojournalists Balasz Gardi, Teru Kuwayama and Tivadar Domaniczky who lived with US soldiers on deployment in Afghanistan. While making some images themselves, their real work was the development of a special technology that allowed the soldiers to hook their Smartphones into a dedicated social network that facilitated dialogue between the fighting front and the home front. Rather than acting as a window on the world, the photojournalists opened the window and allowed the world to speak, offering their skills as a platform for others to communicate.

More recently two other case studies show promising signs of photojournalism pushing into the 21st Century.

Peter DiCampo and Austin Merrill are currently developing a project called “Everyday Africa” in which they exploit the casual quality of their Smartphones to deliberately avoid the familiar clichés of African representation. The resulting collage of inconsequential scenes starts to describe the continent in unfamiliar terms: this is not the Africa that we see on magazine pages but is rather the Africa that any visitor would see if they were there to walk, talk and engage with society. The result is rich in its banality because it is so markedly different from the sculpted photojournalism that excludes so much normality in pursuit of “the story”, as pre-defined by photographers and their clients.

This relatively unself-conscious image making is one of the defining characteristics of the Smartphone, which by its pocket-sized ubiquity and low skill threshold encourages offhand observation. This quality in itself could change the shape of photojournalism as much as the page layouts of Berliner Illustrirte Zeitung in the 1920’s, the structured photo essays of Life magazine in the 1950’s and the popular adoption of colour gravure printing by magazines in the 1960’s.

In August 2012 John Stanmeyer covered a refugee crisis in South Sudan on assignment for Medecins Sans Frontieres. Without the constraints of being a news producer in the traditional sense, MSF abandoned the formal protocols of controlled publishing and instead published direct to social media, not as an adjunct to the “main event” but as the primary medium . Stanmeyer threw himself into the streaming environment and produced a flow of imagery using his Smartphone that was remarkable not only for the context of its distribution but also the content. Freed from the mindset of linear storytelling as defined by magazine pages for the last seventy years, Stanmeyer produced a current of images that were evocative and metaphorical as much as being descriptive, which became the lifeblood of a real-time conversation between the photographer, the protagonists, the assigning client and the participating community. With his Smartphone Stanmeyer was able to play, just as he had done at the VII meeting 15 months before albeit in a much more serious context, opening a direct connection between the audience and the field, allowing the story to emerge in real time rather than carving it into predigested messages. There is a marked qualitative difference between the black and white Smartphone images and the 35mm-style digital images , which as though by habit fall back to a more familiar style of emergency reportage.

100 billion truths
Much as the photography profession wants to define the parameters and protocols for the image in culture, this privilege has been usurped by the online masses. The vernacular is the true driving force and 100 billion images on Facebook testify to the real cultural force of the Smartphone, a universe of imagery made by people who are not thinking about the process but are just getting on with it, and without precedents to follow they are making the rules as they go along. Non-professionals are driving the image culture by creating, distributing and consuming imagery without editorial mediation, except for the broad restrictions of each platform’s Terms and Conditions, and the protocols of the interface.

Some are stepping into news reporting as citizen journalists and they fully engage the experiential quality of the Smartphone. They are not creating studied documents for record as much as they’re sharing their experiences in a truly visceral way. Consider the Japanese tsunami or the Syrian crisis. Images of these events bring viewers close to the action, not only by the intimate proximity of the photographer (few Smartphones have telephoto lenses), but more importantly through unfiltered connection to the participant combined with temporal immediacy. Often posted before the events are fully played out on the ground, the images show the action in near real-time as the protagonists experience it: rough edged, without narrative structure or known outcome and shared as participants rather than as observers. It’s “real”. Images are posted online throughout the action inviting the participating community to take ownership of the experience by sharing, commenting and contributing in their own ways. This is a transformative photographic experience and very different from the distanced show and tell of professional photojournalism.

Memory and experience
Most online imagery is less spectacular and the drama is usually of a more mundane nature, but the principle of streaming communication is the same. It’s a flow of information without editorial architecture that the viewer assembles over a period of time to learn about the author’s experience. Time becomes the crucial component. Few single images convey the message in isolation but like the frames of a movie they accumulate to express the experience of the author, and to become an experience for the viewer. If there were a photographic precedent it would be David Hockney’s joiner images of the 1980’s. Hockney’s joiners were more than a two-dimensional collage of fragmented subjects, they were a study in time that show the subjects in space and across the hours or days that it took to collect the elements. The legacy of cubism that was absorbed by popular culture through the Twentieth Century was harnessed by Hockey in his joiners and is finding a vernacular voice in the Smartphone as the social media community intuitively adopts the principle of taking multiple fragments and stitching them together in our minds.

Christopher Isherwood 1983 © David Hockney

The consequences are significant, not only in the evolution of narrative storytelling but maybe even more in the necessity for active engagement required of a viewer to understand the message. The old photographic process of show and tell is a relatively passive process for the audience (recognising of course the imaginative work needed to reconstruct the meaning of even the most basic still image), whereas the streaming process becomes an active experience for the viewer. The viewer must work to establish if the source is credible, or at least interesting, and then they must collect the elements across time, which requires effort often because components are missed as the viewer steps away from their screen or is distracted by other narratives (or maybe even by their own lives). The process requires the viewer to check in frequently or to otherwise fill the gaps, and of course we’re woven into the story by our own responses along the way.

Live streaming becomes a natural extension of this structure of story-telling, a form tested by Wafaa Bilaal’s 3rd Eye project in which he surgically implanted a camera in the back of his head and posted images on an automatic schedule . Tiny lightweight HD video cameras are becoming affordable and are already used to stream recreational events such as skiing and skateboarding, and it will be only a short time before this extends to other activity (or inactivity).

The Smartphone image is escaping the burden of being a document of memory. As a streaming phenomenon it’s not designed to be indexed and stored as evidence for future reference; once consumed it’s rapidly washed over and replaced by the next fragment, each contributing to the viewer’s current understanding of the world. The Smartphone image is no longer about creating memory as much as it’s about shaping experience, each component adding to the understanding of the next but not existing as discrete packaged moments of (past) time.

This distinction between memory and experience has some empirical substance. In April 2012 Reuters reported a continuing healthy market for conventional digital cameras, indicating that the Smartphone is adding to our photographic repertoire rather than replacing it . The Reuters report cites data that the iPhone 4 has become the single most popular tool for posting images onto social sites such as Facebook, Flickr and others, while at the same time camera sales remain strong.

“For several years, it has been predicted that smartphone adoption would cut into digital camera sales,” said Prashant Malaviya, Associate Professor of Marketing at Georgetown University’s McDonough School of Business. “In fact, the exact opposite has happened.” (Reported by Sam Wagstaff of Reuters April 25 2012).

The same report references research by NPD Instat suggesting a simple reason for this: non professional photographers don’t trust the Smartphone with the precious work of preserving memories, which function still falls to the camera as memory tool. The Smartphone is creating a new role for itself.

The Smartphone has tapped another need that’s deeper than collecting memories or indeed of storytelling. We talk about information and data as though this were the point of the new digital tools, and information transfer is indeed one of the functions. But for many of us information is itself only a vehicle for a more powerful need for validation, a means of placing ourselves in society. The Smartphone is uncorking a profound psychological driver that underlies our social existence.

Speaking at a seminar in July 2012 Jake Levine, General Manager of the online news aggregators and, talked about his company’s research into why people want news. Paraphrased, he reported that when asked why they consume news people come up with a variety of reasons such as wanting to be informed or to know what their friends find interesting or an urge to help, but if you keep asking ”why?” to each response it boils down to a single common motivation. “I want to understand how I fit in the world.”

We all want recognition and we want validation. Social media, and critically the super-portable, visually expressive Smartphone, feeds this need in at least two ways: our consumption of images reaffirms our view of the world and our postings provoke responses. By active and passive filtering of our online connections we create an expanded circle of people and institutions that share similar values and who feed into and react to our lives. The Smartphone permanently in our pocket becomes a lifeline of emotional support and through it we find protection in our self-defined environments. Before politics or culture came psychology and we create the tools to support our needs. The key to all of this is technology and the Smartphone is unlocking the door to a deep need.

There are things about this tool that are special, which in combination make the Smartphone unique. The portability, the invisibility, the connectivity, the interactivity, the intimacy, the ubiquity, the multifunctionality, and the simplicity make the Smartphone something new.

Another story. While writing this paper I spent a week in Scotland with my sister in law and to my surprise she’s become a prolific photographer. In thirty years I’ve never seen her make a picture, but suddenly she’s seeing the world through the lens of her iPhone. She is approaching every situation through her phone, using it as the entry point to each experience, thinking about where she is as a close-up or a landscape, as a colour or as a as moment. Some images she shared with her absent friends and daughter, some she made purposefully for a forthcoming PowerPoint presentation and some she filed just because was pleased with the result. I asked her why and she explained that for the first time in her life she had a tool that gave her permission to express herself without needing to be an expert. Holding a camera makes her self-conscious and nervous but holding the iPhone makes her free; if there was an equivalent musical tool maybe she would use it but the Smartphone wins because it’s all about the experience, the image and the sharing.

Kevin Systrom, founder of Instagram, attributes it all to the simplicity of use . “We set out to solve the main problem with taking pictures on a mobile phone,” which is that they are often blurry and poorly controlled. “We fixed that.”

Amanda Petrusich writing for Buzzfeed in April 2012 makes a droll analogy to Instagram as the visual equivalent of Auto-Tune that creates an artificial sound by smoothing the imperfections, and she goes on to point out the hazards of pictorialism and automated nostalgia. These are not the only problems waiting to be solved. The filters of 2012 will become weary, dating the images as surely as cross processing, ring flash and the filed edges of negative carriers date preceding decades, but probably even more rapidly. And along with all the freedom of the new technology there is a peculiar constriction on the presentational options, which tend to limit imagery to standardized sizes in linear arrangements. (This might be solved with Blurb’s development of the “eBook” which promises to allow flexible sizing, captioning and non-linear sequencing.)

One of the most common problems is the apparent lack of opportunity to monetize the creative process in this new world, and as with everything else in the new paradigm it’s a challenge of imagination. Maybe professionals from the old world are seeking to monetize the wrong thing, namely their images. A current experiment by Anthony Danielle and partners at The Mobile Media Lab is finding commercial funding not for the images they make but for the connection to their followers. By posting images to Instagram they deliver a ready-made audience of enthusiastic followers to their sponsors.

“Instagram made Anthony Danielle a professional photographer. The 25-year-old New Yorker and entrepreneur went pro within eighteen months of opening an Instagram account. He now has more than 180,000 followers on the mobile photography platform and wins commissions from corporations as large as airlines to shoot events and put images of their brand in front of his massive online audience. … So far the firm has covered about five brand events … “We were given access to parts of Madison Square Garden that are off limits to the average fan,” says Danielle. “It was a cool experience for us and our followers.” (Photopreneur, June 21 2012 )

Part I
We are at the beginning of something new that has already pushed us beyond the familiar paradigms of traditional photography, and there is much to be invented. In his book After Photography , Fred Ritchin referenced the principles of quantum physics to describe the new phenomenon of digital imagery, meaning that it’s multi-layered and often simultaneously self-contradictory as it floats in cyberspace adopting whatever meaning or other qualities that are ascribed to it. It’s distinguished from the analogue by its non-linearity, existing in multiple forms simultaneously and expanding across time; it’s fluid and not fixed (literally or conceptually), unlike the analogue photographic image. The Smartphone super-boosts these attributes, loosening all the seams, allowing the digital image to come home to a place where it’s more comfortable than in print and other page-like environments.

For the photojournalist this presents a myriad of challenges and opportunities, inviting a reconfiguration of the documentary practice. The legacy of auteur-driven imagery that played to passive audiences in slideshows, printed pages and other linear formats must evolve. This cannot be done by applying the new tool to conventional practice, as so may photographers seem to think, but it will flourish when we learn to adapt our practice to the new tool. The process will change not only the significance of the image but also the role of journalism, forcing us to give up some dearly held tenets while introducing new and provocative perspectives.

This is not a voluntary transition. Six billion mobile subscribers are transforming the meaning of the photographic image whether professionals choose to participate or not. The Smartphone is not just another camera; it’s changing our understanding of what a camera does and is contributing to a redefinition of our social structures.