Visually speaking, it’s a whole different world. And we are speaking a new tongue. Cellphone photography has emerged as one of the most popular forms of expression in present times. It’s a visual language everyone’s talking. Reflecting the self, celebrating everydayness. Documenting the interesting and the banal. A couple of decades back, portraits were a ceremonious affair, clicked in studios with strict chairs, plasticky flowers, curtained backdrops. At home, the patriarch handled the boxy camera, chronicling special moments in the life of the family. Now with the cellphone always in hand or pocket, everyone is a photographer, experimenting with angles, light, filters, editing, capturing and sharing moments both mundane or special, leading to a massive wave of photographic expression.
Democratisation of the camera
“The democratisation of the camera has led to a culture of expression through the universal language of a photo,” says Prashanth Vishwanathan, eminent photographer whose work focuses on documentary photography, visual sociology and news photojournalism. “Saving and sharing memories has been an age-old practice in our history. The only difference is that earlier the shared memories were confined to close social groups like a family, a gully or a mohalla. Hand in glove with this explosion of cameras is the social media revolution which has given a global platform to these social interactions. This trend has disrupted a few centuries-old discipline of photographic language that was formed with masters toiling away with the visual form, the camera format, and its dissemination. Today technology has taken away all that inner and outer struggle by making the production, editing and dissemination of an image a matter of a few seconds. Hence, a language understood and restricted to a few has become mainstream today. When a niche language becomes popular, the grammar simplifies and the vocabulary increases. I would call it a transition in the way we have traditionally seen and viewed pictures and the way we do it now.”
Handy, powerful tool
While professional photographers have always preferred their cameras, enthusiastic amateurs found cellphone photography simple, easy and self-gratifying. It allowed them the convenience and freedom to photograph anything, anywhere, anytime. The visual language of mobile photography is more easy chatter than serious talk. But the cellphone is also a powerful, handy device with the calibre to be a tool for high quality photography. “A good frame is in the eye of the photographer and the device just supports in capturing it as he has visualised. These days, phone cameras pack a serious punch,” says Sankara Subramanian C., travel evangelist who blogs at Be On The Road (www.beontheroad.com). “The double lenses allow them to capture more detail and give you that DSLR-like bokeh or background blur. Then, the sensor is so advanced that it can effectively work in very low light without sacrificing quality. You can even adjust exposure manually in some models. In simple terms, DSLR-like functionality without all the heavy gear. I have been slowly making the switch from my DSLR to my phone as I get fabulous quality and it is a camera that sits comfortably in my pocket.”
Om Routray, who blogs at theyoungbigmouth.com, prefers to see the mobile more as an integrated device than a casual device. “It’s also less intrusive, so it can capture what many DSLR cameras can’t,” he says, adding, “Photography is not all about pixels, it is also about stories and composition. A good photographer with an average device would still take better photos than a bad photographer with an amazing professional camera. And, then, you should look at the winners at Mobile Photography Awards, it will change a few ideas we have.” To a serious practitioner of visual art or storytelling, every device is a serious device, believes Prashanth. “Cellphones today cover war, news, shoot commercials, as well as disseminate the images back to an audience,” he says, adding, “They are preproduction, production, post-production and dissemination devices all in one go! To someone who knows how to utilise the device in the photography space, it has been a complete rethinking of his/her photography workflow.”
Cellphone photography might be capable of fine speech, but what it speaks most often is inane chatter. For those passionate about photography, the tsunami of selfies and random clicks bear no link to art. “Can we really call them photographs?” asks Amit Mehra, documentary and fine art photographer whose new book Roznaama is India’s first photo book shot on iPhone. “To me these are visual references of our meetings, events, how we celebrate, travel, holiday… They can’t be included in the category of photographs. Communication has taken a whole new leap. What used to be shared earlier with others via text or SMS on mobile is now being done visually. For the rest of the world it can be called photography, but for those who understand the language of photography, who are sensitive to its grammar and alphabet, it does not rate a serious standing. For me it’s a mode of visual communication. The package of camera plus social media has fuelled its popularity. The key note is sharing. If the element of sharing were removed, the excitement of this so called photography would take an immediate hit. Instant sharing gives a kick to mobile photography. Now even photographs are taking a backseat with people sharing video footage. That is more exciting, in terms of evidence it has more value as it has sound and action.”
Selfies are the popular stars of mobile photography, and their unflagging popularity is even dictating market trends. “Unfortunately, majority of cellphones are being used to capture selfies and to ride on this wave, cellphone makers have launched special cameraphones with better selfie camera than the main camera of the phone,” says N. Prasad, who blogs on desitraveler.com. “So ultimately it is the user defining the content being created, most of it of no creative or documentary value. I mean how many different ways can you capture your face?”
The mobile in the pocket has made clicking pictures an anytime affair, giving rise to an almost constant search for what’s photo-worthy around us. And this habit of photographing every other thing has become an instinct, a compulsive prompting. “Mobile photography is inherently compulsive and habit forming as there is no entry barrier either for price point or creative challenges,” points out Prasad, “With a zero cost of clicking images, it is a free for all. But while many an Instagram star is born thanks to mobile photography boom, many of them are more popular thanks to the community they have been able to build around a common passion e.g. say gardening, cooking etc. So that is a big positive — you are able to connect with folks with similar passions thanks to your photography that you are sharing on the visual social media like Instagram and Facebook. But on the other hand, many are just sharing 1000s of garbage images.”
What has given mobile photography a poor standing is the bulk of the content being qualitatively bad, dwarfing sparks of creative brilliance that are also there. “Last month I attended an Instagrammer meet in Singapore where a speaker said: ‘Today the camera eats first’. Add the selfie culture to it, all our Facebook and Instagram feeds look self-obsessed and messy,” says Prashanth. “But the culture to photograph one’s life and surrounding aren’t new to photography. To a serious photographer, the camera is like an extended arm. The instinct to shoot everything around is inherent to the history of photography. What has changed today is the cost of creating an image and time required to disseminate it. Earlier less was produced, today the number of images created every minute is phenomenal! Also, the discipline, style and approach in creating those images differ drastically from individual to individual.”
The Art of seeing
Frequent usage of the mobile camera that’s always in hand is making people more visually alert. But this compulsive visual documentation comes at a price. “Smartphones have given people the leverage to photograph everything. Last evening I saw four girls in Lodhi Garden, clicking each other’s portfolios on mobiles. I was quite amazed,” says Amit, reflecting, “Smartphone empowers people to shoot what they want. But the flip side is now people want to shoot everything. They don’t want to see. We have lost the art of seeing. If anyone visits the Thar desert, he won’t see the sunset on the dunes patiently, he will be in a hurry to shoot and share. It’s now a phenomenon of 3Ses — a Shoot-Share Statement. There’s always a tool between the eye of the person and the beauty of nature. The tool being the mobile. People have forgotten the art of encountering beauty, cherishing it… they just want to shoot it for the sake of memory and in the process of capturing a memory, they forget the present.”
Sankara finds this habit of photographing everything very obsessive. He feels instead of living the moment, everyone wishes to capture the moment and put it up on social media for likes, comments and shares, and hence, there is a lot of clutter. He says, “If they make great memories that will be treasured for years then it is a good thing, but if it is an obsession that leads to photo clutter in our universe and lives, then there is nothing special about it. With great power comes great responsibility. If we don’t use it thoughtfully, we will just be generating gigabytes and terrabytes of e-waste that will become impossible to sift through.”
Disagreeing with the view that people are clicking everything and seeing nothing, Om believes people are actually looking closer, “Photography as an act demands that you look closer and deeper. It is an act of creating a memory out of a moment. It is a tangible way of carrying a moment,” he says.
Photos do our talking
The popularity and ease of the visual language of cellphone photography is making people more pictorially aware and visually fluent. For some, this passion is honing their observation, composition, design skills. For most, their photographs are doing much of their talking. “This visual language is now an indelible part of our vocabulary. And the visual medium is doing so much of the talking that most people only look at photos and don’t read the context, which is essential to understand the story being narrated,” rues travel blogger Anuradha Shankar. She points out that photography has always been associated with memory, and a big positive of mobile photography is that it can provide a visual memory of every single day with ease: “As we rush through our busy lives, this is of great importance as it preserves those tiny moments that we would otherwise probably forget.”
“These days when people buy a phone they don’t look at the configuration but the camera quality. A cell phone these days is as good as DSLR used to be three-four years ago,” says Rekha Kakkar, commercial food photographer and food blogger. She agrees that its lower resolution makes mobile photography unsuitable for professional use, but finds something very comforting about using it for informal shots. She says, “I draw a line between professional and personal photography. The whole day I work with professional cameras. But when I am living a particular moment, or capturing a recipe in my kitchen, I want ease of work. So a cellphone offers me good quality with ease of work. I don’t have to bother about touch-up and heavy lighting and highly styling my food. With a cellphone, I just click.”
Prasad finds it interesting that the awareness about photography spans all age groups. He says, “In some of our photography workshops not just young people but even retired folks join in as they want to take good pictures.” About cellphone photos that have caught his eye, Amit says, “Self-portraiture is at a whole different level now. People have an obsession with shooting their food, and that’s very interesting to observe. Some travel pictures are very good. And a lot of abstracts really surprise me with how people have started seeing more, and their eyes are getting sharper.”
Om feels this medium has given a new fillip to street photography. He says, “While a lot of fluff is being created, it has also enabled visual documentation that was not possible before on such a large scale. There is a lot more street level photography and creation of urban archives now than ever before. I know of journalists from rural areas who have created a body of work via their twitter and instant photography that a mobile phone enables. In my opinion, we just need to look beyond our large device bias.”
— With inputs by Suridhi Sharma...