This post was co-produced with Basetrack.org
I was slow to catch-on to phonecams. Until Teru Kuwayama asked me to join his Basetrack.org project in Afghanistan shooting on iPhones, in February 2011, I’d never taken a photo with a phonecam (with all the camera equipment I have, the last thing I thought I’d ever want was a telephone that took photographs).
The first thing I did, as with any piece of new equipment, was look for the instructions. But there weren’t any. We were using the Hipstamatic app, which simulates analogue photography.
It has a selection of downloadable effects, called “film” and “lenses,” and I had to decide which ones to use. However, the descriptions of the effects that come with the Hipstamatic app are completely abstract and useless. Here’s how they describe the “Ina’s 69” film effect:
“Ina has a bakery today but 40 years ago she was rocking some pretty serious instant film. Peel away the boring with this fine film.”
In the end I asked my colleagues what they were using based on trial and error: Ina’s 69 plus the John S Lens – about as close to “normal” as the app gets, until they come up with less radical effects.
All of this begs the question: Why use a phonecam in Afghanistan? The easy answer, like climbing a mountain, is “because it’s there.” It’s in an artist’s nature, Marshall McLuhan said, to “exult in the novelties of perception afforded by innovation.” In other words, it was an experiment.
Moreover, in Helmand province in southern Afghanistan, which modernity seems to have passed over, cellular phones are in a way the only real visible signs of contemporary technology – with the notable exception of American super high-tech war machines speckling and roving across the desert landscapes day and night.
Many more civilians have cell phones than land-lines in Afghanistan. Insurgents have been coordinating their operations with cell phones for over a decade. Most of the Afghan National Army soldiers had cell phones (see fig.1. An Afghan National Army Soldier perched on a pillar in search of a cell phone signal). They are not an unusual sight.
So in a way, using a phonecam equalizes you technologically with the culture, and while it’s impossible for a western journalist in Afghanistan (especially a woman) not to stand out, at least my technology did not.
The Hipstamatic app both facilitates and hinders photography. It fits in your pocket and requires no technical skills to operate. When a Master Gunnery Sergeant of the 1st Battalion 8th Marines asked me what it was like to use an iPhone as a camera, I replied: “Imagine if one day all the equipment you’d mastered, all your training, all your experience became obsolete, and was replaced with a Green Lantern Magic Power Ring that anyone could use. That’s what using the iPhone feels like.”
Of course there are limits to the iPhone’s powers (unlike the Green Lantern’s Ring, “the most powerful weapon in the universe.”)
Its processing time between when you shoot a frame and when you can view that frame and shoot again is painfully slow at about 20 seconds (when the camera is set to its highest resolution – 1936 x 1936 pixels). Obviously you can’t shoot action easily, and you miss more shots than you would with a DSLR.
I often found myself impatiently waiting for the processor light to stop blinking, hoping my subject wouldn’t move or get bored before I could take another shot. You have to plan ahead and try to predict where the subject is going to be at the exact moment you take the photo. You only get one chance every twenty seconds, so if you press the shutter too late or too early, you’ve lost the shot. Fig 3. Afghan locals leaving an American patrol base).
One of the joys of digital photography is that you can show your subjects the photos on the spot. It’s hard enough to explain to people in English let alone my non-existent Pashto and Dari that it takes twenty seconds for the image to process, and I can only shoot a frame every twenty seconds. They must have wondered why someone of obviously considerable means would have such a slow device. I think some of them thought it was a trick.
The camera is unpredictable in high-contrast light, and useless in low light. You can’t control shutter speed or aperture or attach an external flash. In addition, the effects are global and you can only change them in post-production, so a lot of work has to be done on your computer (I use Aperture combined with Adobe Photoshop). Because my background is in lighting and I’m a very technical shooter used to doing most of the work in-camera, I had to learn about the aggressive post-production techniques that maximize the app’s potential (thanks to talented brothers Peter and Balazs Gardi).
But the limits of the Hipstamatic iPhone app are also part of its appeal – the discipline of the single objective square frame, the absence of artificial lighting, being forced to slow down. And while some amateurs will benefit from the funky effects of the app, no device can direct the shot: establish composition, subject and background, the relationship with your subject, the semiotics of colour, access to a war zone…
There is no question that technology changes how we see. Phonecams are mysterious creatures. Unlike DSLRs, which are a kind of hybrid mechanical/digital beast with many recognizable parts, phonecams seem to exist in a post-mechanical, supra-physical world. Ironically, it is at these removes from the tangible and real that we hope to continually find fresh ways of making people pay attention to realities in places far from their own.