Instagram: Friend or Foe for Photojournalism?

Instagram’d picture of an article about Instagram in an article about Instagram.

The exponential growth of apps like Instagram has fueled an unprecedented boom in the use of cell phone photography. The journalism world is still struggling to find out how it fits.

In 2011, Damon Winter became the first photographer ever to place in the Picture of the Year International competition using cell phone photography, with his Third Place Feature Picture Story entrant — “A Grunt’s Life.” The photos, shot using Hipstamatic — an app similar in nature to Instagram — and characterized by their square resolution and “nostalgic” aesthetic, depict intimate moments in the lives of soldiers serving in Afghanistan.

While few denied the quality of Winters’ work, it wasn’t long after the decision by POYi was announced that it was pounced on by professional photojournalists as the first step on a slippery slope to the demise of photojournalism.

One of the most ardent critics was Florida photojournalist Chip Litherland, a friend and former colleague of Winters’. Litherland wrote a scathing blog post in response to the announcement, describing the POYi nomination as a “knife” in the side of photojournalism.

Central to his criticism was the belief that the use of Hipstamatic’s filters puts a “haze” between the viewer and the subject of the photograph.

“The scenes in Iraq aren’t green and grainy and kind of weird-looking like Hipstamatic does to your photos,” says Litherland. “It doesn’t look like that.”

Litherland says the use of these kinds of tools changes the real-life situation actually observed by a photojournalist, and imposes a layer of editorialization.

“Those kind of tools can alter reality,” says Litherland. “For somebody in the general public using those, they don’t really know, but a photojournalist’s job is to document what is happening, and that’s his responsibility.”

A new, social photography

That concern about cell phone photography’s potential to erode photojournalistic ethics is shared, even by the emerging field’s strongest supporters.

Few people can claim to be a more passionate advocate for Instagram than Emmy award-winning photographer Richard Koci Hernandez. With more than 160,000 followers, Hernandez is one of the most popular photojournalists on the entire platform.

Hernandez’s photos make heavy use of filters, helping them achieve a noir effect. Each one tells a story, but Hernandez is careful to separate his playful use of Instagram from journalism.

“I’m a big believer that, as photojournalists, we need to carry the torch of the most ethical imagery we can, no matter the technology,” Hernandez says.

And that means being transparent about how the photos are processed.

News organizations have to be extraordinarily careful when embracing Instagram, Hernandez says. Including light-hearted, heavily-filtered photos in the same feed as serious news photos can confuse readers, and dilute the impact of their serious work.

For newsrooms contemplating starting an Instagram feed, Hernandez recommends choosing one style and sticking to it. Or, failing that, he suggests creating separate feeds for photojournalism and lighter fare.

For those who handle the change with grace, Hernandez says, the rewards can be considerable.

“The thing that struck me most and sold me immediately was the literal immediate social response,” Hernandez says. “And then you follow the breadcrumbs and find out that the people commenting are from all over the world.”

Instagram offers journalists the kind of international exposure they could only have dreamed of decades ago. But only provided they use it correctly, Hernandez says.

Getting with the times

A year after his impassioned defense of photojournalism against the encroaching Instagram hordes, Chip Litherland says he has had a change of heart, at least in part. He now sees Instagram as a great tool, as evidenced by the more than 200 images in his own Instagram portfolio.

Litherland says shooting with a cell phone has proved less intimidating to potential subjects, affording him photographic opportunities he wouldn’t be able to get carrying a bulky DSLR. He recently shot an entire advertising shoot on his iPhone, and nobody he photographed was any the wiser.

But for as much success as he’s had shooting with his phone, he says the future of photojournalism is far from decided.

“It’s going to be on the photographer and on the editor to figure out where the line is,” Litherland says. “And I don’t want the line to be drawn by me.”

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