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Technology: Is there room for Hipstamatic in photojournalism?

February 16, 2011 | 10:56 am

Hipstamatic New York Times photographer Damon Winter recently took third place in the prestigious Pictures of the Year International contest for a photo that ran as a part of "A Grunt's Life," about American soldiers in Afghanistan. The photo, however, is the subject of controversy because it was taken on his iPhone with Hipstamatic, an app that treats an image with special effects while it's "developing."

Critics such as photojournalist Chip Litherland say that using Hipstamatic crosses the line; it turns images from photojournalism into photography. And in the past, this would have been a clear-cut issue. Like altering facts, manipulating an image with Photoshop changes its meaning. Take, for example, the infamous Time magazine cover that presented a darkened version of O.J. Simpson's mug shot, thereby editorializing and casting doubt on his innocence.

In a statement reacting to the criticism, Winter defended his decision to use Hipstamatic and lumped it in with the many options -- film, cameras, lenses, flashes -- available to photographers when making aesthetic choices.

We are being naive if we think aesthetics do not play an important role in the way photojournalists tell a story. We are not walking photocopiers. We are storytellers.  We observe, we chose moments, we frame little slices of our world with our viewfinders, we even decide how much or how little light will illuminate our subjects, and — yes — we choose what equipment to use. Through all of these decisions, we shape the way a story is told.

[…]

Take as an example the image that won first place in feature singles in this year’s Pictures of the Year International competition. It is black and white, shot with an extremely shallow depth of field to focus attention on the intended subject and blur other distractions and to give it a certain feel. It features a very heavy use of vignetting.

Much of the information in the image has been obscured in the interest of aesthetics. We humans do not see in black and white. And we do not see the world at f/1.2. These are aesthetic choices that do not contribute to the accuracy of the image. They are ways that the scene has been enhanced aesthetically.

Winter also went into how using a camera phone helped him capture more candid photos, though that's almost beside the point in this argument because he could have just as easily used the iPhone's regular camera.

One of the sticking points in this debate is whether a photo should be considered manipulated if the special effects are applied while the photo is still developing. Here's the thing though: You know in advance that using Hipstamatic is going to change the look and feel of your photo. So if you wouldn't use Photoshop, the same logic should be true of Hipstamatic. Yes, Winter makes a compelling argument about the choices photographers make before shooting. But there's still something disconcerting about using an app that you know will alter your image.

Here's how the Hipstamatic folks describe their product.

The Hipstamatic brings back the look, feel, unpredictable beauty, and fun of plastic toy cameras of the past! […] Characterized by vignettes, blurring, over saturation, discolored images, Hipstaprints have a casual and seemingly accidental snapshot feel.

I love the vintage aesthetic of Hipstamtic images, but within the context of photojournalism, do we really want a photograph taken today to look like it's from 1969? Personally, I think it can be misleading. But it's the second point here that really raises a red flag. What if we applied these adjectives -- oversaturation, blurred, discolored -- to published news stories? Would we be comfortable with blurred facts? 

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--Alexandra Le Tellier

Photo: Screenshot of Hipstamatic app taken from writer's iPhone.

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