Flickr's Favourite Camera and How it Really Doesn't Matter

Disgustingly, I took this using my phone. Is it a photograph? Yes, yes it is.

A follow up to a recent TechCrunch article caught our eye here at Small Aperture. The essence of the articles is as follows – the iPhone 4 is dominating Flickr stats as Flickr’s most used camera. The tone taken seems to be one of pure dismay, the Instagram app being the currently favoured target of demonisation. The suggestion is that the saturation of images taken using a camera phone is indicative of “the state of photography right now”. Personally, I am not convinced this is a bad thing.

With the advances in technology over recent years, those who could be classed as “casual photographers” have been able to enjoy the freedom of taking a photo using their phone, adding a few fun effects to it, and uploading it to Flickr, Facebook and other such social community sites to share with their friends incredibly easily and quickly. This upsets some, who feel that photos should only be taken with a “proper” camera, and that to take an image with a smartphone, upload it to Flickr, and have some of your friends praise it, even though you don’t even have an official photography degree or qualification of any kind, is a terrible insult to and a threatening encroachment upon our precious medium.

Passive aggressive sarcasm aside, my point is that I really don’t think it matters that a smartphone camera is at the top of Flickr’s most used stats, whether you’re of the opinion that Flickr is being used incorrectly or whether you’re seeing it as representative of photography’s general decline. In actual fact, I feel there are several positives to draw out of the significant increase in casual photography. Yes, I’m going to begin addressing them now, in a new paragraph which is coming up next. Seamless.

Disgustingly, I took this using my phone. Is it a photograph? Yes, yes it is.

First, it could be argued that the increase in the use of smartphones as cameras has shifted the market and helped to create better defined demarcations between the “casual user”, the “enthusiast” and the “professional” photographer. At one time, anyone with a passing interest in photography and a disposable income would have grabbed themselves a higher end point and shoot or even an entry level DSLR or bridge camera. These would be used purely for better quality family snaps, in anticipation of travelling abroad to document their time visiting various countries or, god forbid, to pursue it as a casual hobby, for fun. This still happens, of course, but now there is a greater degree and freedom of choice for people who enjoy dabbling in photography but can’t or don’t want to spend too much money. I can’t see how this is a negative development. Unless you hate people.

Essentially, we are witnessing the birth of the next generation of photography snobbery. The first generation (sadly still lingering, grumbling in the corner with its slippers and pipe) are the “film is just better” crew. It’s not photography if it’s not film, digital is cheating, I miss inhaling dangerous chemicals and so on. There is a place for both film and digital photography. Film is absolutely beautiful and has that romantic, inimitable quality to it, but when digital came along it brought photography to a brand new audience of enthusiasts and professionals, expanding and developing the medium. This is happening again: we will see photography tackled in new ways and artists will pick up and find a way to embrace the advantages new technology brings.

Another plus to introducing new people to photography is the overall increase in appreciation of the medium. The more commonplace it becomes, the more accepted it is, and we will suffer fewer problems down the line. It’s a bit like one of the other largely demonised interests in my life – videogames. Since the Nintendo Wii came along and introduced casual gaming to a massive new audience, when someone notices a games console in my house, they no longer immediately consider me a dangerous recluse who spends all his time dreaming up violent fantasies, entrenched in his own filth in a basement somewhere, not eating for fear of losing precious gaming seconds (I save all that for weekends). Similarly, the stigma and prejudices aimed at photographers, of which there are many, will start to soften and melt away.

An image from Michael Wolf's "Paris Street View" series, taken by photographing and cropping an image found using Google Street View. See more of Michael's work here -

The important thing to take away from all this is that it is problematic and dangerous to hold the stance of “the better the camera, the better the photograph”. Photography should be seen as independent of the equipment used: for me, photography lies in the intangible essence of what you are trying to achieve. It’s about composition, choice of subject, timing and the story you tell by combining all these elements. A stunning example of this is a series of photos that have caused significant controversy this year – a series of images taken using Google Street View by Michael Wolf (link to a February BJP article here). I won’t go into depth on my thoughts of it here, that’s for another article, but I admire the thought process behind this series and applaud it. The outrage caused is most likely the same outrage from those who are upset by the increased use of smartphones being used to take photographs.

This all reminds me of the story of a good friend and fellow photographer of mine. He was once complimented on one of his images by an unwitting fan, who had no intention to offend by any means: “wow”, he enthused, “you must have a really good camera!”.

Visibly disgruntled, he replied “yeah, and Shakespeare had a really nice pen”.