Some thoughts on iPhone pictures and POYi

A Grunt's Life - 2011 POYi 3rd Place Feature Picture Story

Damon Winters’ iPhone-taken story, A Grunt’s Life, was awarded 3rd place Feature Story in the 2011 Pictures of the Year International. This has been met with controversy. Many, including most prominently Chip Litherland, say the pictures aren’t photojournalism and that they don’t represent what was in front of the camera, others, such as Logan Mock-Bunting, say that the images violate POYi’s rules that stipulate, “No masks, borders, backgrounds or other artistic effects are allowed.”

I have no problem with the pictures being allowed in the contest. There haven’t been masks, borders, or backgrounds added to the picture (and “other artistic effects” should be read as non-photographic elements added to a picture; the structure of the sentence in the rule makes this clear–“other” indicates that forbidden effects would be of a sort similar to borders, backgrounds, and masks and not of a sort that includes such things as color filters, flash, grain, black and white conversion), and I think there’s no reason not to call this photojournalism. What follows is a modified version of my response to these concerns that I posted in a conversation on the Luceo Images facebook page.

If the color modifications of an iPhone application are to be forbidden, why allow black and white or flash in photojournalism, then? That’s not what the scene looked like in front of the camera. Or why allow ISOs, apertures, and shutter speeds that manipulate light in a way that the human eye can’t achieve (the human eye can’t have infinite focus starting on something at 3 feet away; the human eye can’t let in enough light in an instant as a ISO3200 on bulb; etc.)? As long as the content remains true–that is, nothing has been posed or removed or added to the frame–and it’s intended (photographed and presented) as journalism, I don’t see a reason to disqualify pictures from the contest.

I see arguments against these types of photos as similar to complaints about Salgado making pictures that were too beautiful for the subject matter. Our goal should be to make people look, and these do an admirable job at commanding the attention, not just because of the content but because of how the pictures look and how they were taken. So much photojournalism shot in the traditional style gets ignored or washed over; we need to use everything at our disposal to connect to audiences.

And I’m wary of a lot of the argumentation around these images.

Slippery slope arguments don’t work. It’s perfectly possible to imagine a world where Winter’s photos are awarded, but more traditional photography still gets published and awarded. In fact, there’ve been other problems with over-toning in the past, or Holgas, or other weird techniques, but it hasn’t destroyed all of the other photojournalism that’s still being produced, nor does it mean that non-hipstamatic photojournalism won’t hold public attention. Recent coverage of Egypt proves that. Even the most straightforward wire photography was going viral.

Arguments about the tradition of photojournalism don’t work, either. Older ideas aren’t necessarily better. They might be, but we need evidence that new photojournalism tells a story less accurately or connects with audiences less well than old, straightforward photojournalism. Only then can we fully discount the new style. If we held on to the traditions, we’d be moving corpses like Brady, we’d be shooting daguerrotypes, we’d be posing and using huge lighting setups like the early Life photographers, we’d be layering frames like W. Eugene Smith, we’d all still use film. Traditions fall by the wayside. Methods evolve. New styles emerge.

I don’t want to say that just because the technique is novel or popular that that makes it okay, either. That’s fallacious reasoning. Danielle Steele sells a lot of books, but that doesn’t make her books great literature.

As I see it, the photos are faithful to the story and to how things were in front of the camera, and that’s all that really matters. The colors might be juiced a bit, but that doesn’t invalidate the work. Really, the colors aren’t changed much at all compared to work such as Richard Mosse’s infrared work exploring conflict in Congo.Artistic technique goes a long way in communicating tone and emotion in photography, and I think we (photographers and the public) would be a lot worse off if we (photographers) couldn’t use aesthetic language in photojournalism.

[Matt, the other half of dvafoto, wanted me to say this: ‘Matt agrees with everything but wanted to record the fact that he still hates iPhone photographs. Even his own.’]

15 Responses to “Some thoughts on iPhone pictures and POYi”

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  2. Aaron Joel Santos

    Well said. I couldn’t agree more. Glad I’m not the only one.

  3. David Campbell

    This is a thoughtful analysis, and I’m in complete agreement with the thrust of your comments. I posted a comment on Chip Litherland’s blog so won’t repeat those points, or the the content of my pre-Xmas post on Winter’s iPhone photos (at

    What I find most interesting about these periodic debates about what is/isn’t photojournalism or is/isn’t manipulation is the way they express the persistent anxiety about the inevitable and unavoidable place of aesthetics in photography generally. I think people want to draw clear lines demarcating the legitimate form the illegitimate precisely because it is nearly impossible to draw such lines. In others words, the debate is about a desire that is impossible to address.

    In the end, especially with regard to photojournalism, the challenge is how to address the documentary and story-telling functions of pictures given when we recognise them as aesthetic representations that construct the very thing they picture. There are limits involved in that, but they are not the limits of the aesthetic vs the non-aesthetic (whatever that might mean).

  4. Greg Ruffing

    How is the Hipstamatic that much different than, for example, photographs using night vision technology, Richard Mosse’s use of infrared film, or quite frankly even using a warming gel on the fill flash (a decades-old practice among photographers at National Geographic, likely considered one of the pantheons of photojournalism)? All of which have resulted in images that have historically won awards in photoj-oriented contests.

    Scott I think you’re on target: if the point is to create compelling content for readers/viewers, then his photos probably accomplish that task (or at least this grouping of POY judges claim it as such). The medium is secondary.

    We live in a world that is very visually sophisticated and highly literate about images. People are bombarded by visual stimuli daily, from a wide variety of sources. Photojournalism needs to recognize and understand that.

    Making arbitrary demarcations as to what is/isn’t considered acceptable imagery for visual communication can only accelerate the genre’s slipping relevance among readers/viewers (particularly the younger, more tech-savvy demographics), who likely aren’t wringing their hands right now in a discussion about how the images they consume are created (even if, frankly, maybe they should be — and here is where this week’s other photojournalism “crisis”, Michael Wolf’s award in World Press, comes into play).

  5. Logan MB

    I think people are arguing several different points. Ethics of photojournalism, technical processes, aesthetics, etc are NOT the point of my contention (or post).

    As simply as I can put it: the images break the rules of the contest in which they were entered. Therefore, they should be disqualified.

    That’s it.

    Do these images have content? *Yes*
    Is there a place for them in history? *Yes*
    Are they story-telling? *Yes*
    Can the images be published and enjoyed as a way to carry the experience of being there? *Yes*

    However, are they ineligible for THIS contest based on THIS contest’s rules? *Yes*

    For the record, I think that SEVERAL images on POYi this year are grossly overtoned and should be DQ’ed as well.

    I’m not trying to get in an argument about “If this, then why not that?” Instead, the objective is simply pointing out that this is a clear-cut case in which the photographer, publisher and software-maker all admit the entry does not obey the contest rules.

    • Matt Lutton

      Logan, a couple of questions – first, do you have the rules for this year’s contest? I looked at your blog post and you are linking to 2007 contest, maybe rules have been amended since then (in a few minutes of searching, I can’t find a link to Poyi68). Second, and this is my assumption, isn’t it the jury that will apply the rules to the images they are judging? They are the arbiters of whether or not images break the rules (unless there is the equiv of an appeals court?). Awarding them seems to be a clear indication that they classify them as eligible for the contest.

      • Logan MB

        Hi Matt,

        Been on the road on assignment so forgive the late reply.

        #1 – The PDF for POYi rules is here:

        and on page 3, you can see that point #5 clearly states: 5. Digital manipulation, manufactured photo illustrations, double exposures, added masks, borders, backgrounds, text, or *other artistic effects are not allowed.* (my emphasis)

        #2 – Your point about the jury’s Power is a VERY good question. I have not been to POYi’s judging, but the contests I have attended, the Jury was almost “sequestered,” in that they were only given the information that was included in caption. This sort of “information isolation” seems to be in effect with POYi as well, as it is now 13 days after the place was announced and they still have not officially revealed the winners’ names for individual categories (much less their techniques in making the images).

        Indeed, most of the awards that I know of that have been rescinded were done AFTER the contest, when folks had a chance to research the image. For example:

        My metaphor for this would be in sports, when someone is tested post-competition for steroids.

        So unfortunately I cannot answer your question directly, but it sounds like we have both made some assumptions. Anyone out there know POYi’s judging protocol?

        BTW, I really like Martin Gee’s explanation and comparison below – very easy to see difference. far more effective than just words…

  6. martin gee

    There’s so much debate about this. Let me show you some pictures to prove my point:

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  8. duckrabbitblog

    Great post … but we’ve come to expect that,

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