A Personal Essay by Sergio Burns (Editor At Large)
In response to the line : before the smartphone revolution, someone recently wrote on Twitter : I had a life. A bit melodramatic, I thought, a bit over-the-top, because many people with smartphones, including myself, actually do have a life. What they didn’t tweet was how smartphones are changing the world, and how valuable they have become for street photographers.
In a busy city street, with everyone using their smartphone to text, email, google, take the odd snap of their surroundings, to capture people feeding pigeons or to take the ubiquitous selfie, a street photographer can simply melt into the crowd. Disappear, become invisible, just another pedestrian with an iPhone. They are certainly less likely to draw attention to themselves than someone wandering around with a DSLR, whose purpose is never in doubt.
Smartphones are also compact enough to be easily carried and concealed. Held discretely in the hand, they can be brought up and used quickly to take photographs on the street. In this respect mobile photography has the advantage of allowing the street photographer to quietly blend into the background.
This can be useful when they – street photographers – ‘break cover’ and start shooting unsuspecting strangers, some of whom will remain completely unaware they have been photographed. Such is the anonymity of the street photographer among the huge intergalactic universe of the smartphone.
Smartphones, in all their colour, design, and variety – not to mention differing price tags – have rapidly become strategically integrated into the human existential experience. I say, strategically, because a whole industry has developed and grown around their production and usefulness. For me, smartphones have become appendages (as opposed to accessories), extensions of our working and leisure selves.
A whole army of designers, engineers, sales people, assemblers, marketing people et al have built careers around their production. A workforce from differing disciplines, well educated and, sometimes, the not-so-well educated, now depend on people buying smartphones.
For what purpose? Work? Leisure? Communication? Taking photographs? All four?
The separate functionalities, of course, are also analysed. Those involved will question and try to determine, what people are using their smartphones to do – Text? Email? Google? Communicate by voice? Mobile Street Photography? Social Photography (including selfies)? In turn, the popular pass-time of taking selfies has led to the production of the simple but extremely effective ‘selfie stick’.
The smartphone, in its simplest terms, is a mini computer creating a technological process which is changing and altering an ever evolving world, economically, sociologically, psychologically and photographically, and, of course, all four are interlinked.
Just as the internet, and that mysterious ethereal, yet very real, virtual or otherwise, space between reality on the ground and reality on the ground somewhere else, (cyberspace)’exists’, so the smartphone, which has grown from those original computers and concept, alters our experience.
The idea of ‘cyberspace’, a term coined by William Gibson, in his novel Neuromancer page 4 (Phantasia Press), is a concept which has changed our existence holistically. Laptops, tablets, phablets and smartphones have altered the configurations of existence for everyone on the planet in terms of work and leisure. So, in turn, our socio-psychological, economic and photographic realities have simultaneously been altered.
This technological movement has spawned new concepts such as social photography, which Richard Koci Hernandez (Assistant Professor of New Media, Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism) styles as a matter of intention. Importantly, in this sense he argues, social photography relates to a form of smartphone image taking which is only meant to be shared between friends, family and acquaintances on social media. The mobile street photographer, by contrast, has a different intention that has more to do with being creative and adhering to the tenets of the street photography genre.
Hernandez, speaks about mobile photography in reference to the use of iPhones and other smartphone brands – but mostly iPhones – for street photography. Well-known and respected street photographers including Johnny Mobasher, Brendan O’Se, Rene Valencia and Richard Koci Hernandez himself, all work using iPhones, if not in all of their work, at least part of the time.
They, smartphones, are now integral to the work and life of over 2.3 billion people worldwide. A figure expected to rise to around 3 billion by 2020. The use of smartphones and how they are altering the behavioural existence of owners has not gone unnoticed.
According to the latest Deloitte (Global Mobile Survey 2016, the UK cut), around 50 per cent of young adults between the ages of 18 to 24 check their smartphones in the middle of the night. Millions of spotty, hormonal kids wandering around at three in the morning searching their iPhones for texts, emails or photos or contacting the world via social media, Facebook, Twitter, Instagram et al. In the adult population – any age – this translates to an amazing 30 per cent. That is something like 20 million people in the UK alone, sleepily shuffling around their homes in the early hours of the morning searching for contact, seeking connection with another human being via an operating system : Android, iOS, Windows.
A cultural meme which has socio-psychological and, of course, economic, not to mention photographic, repercussions for the manner in which we go about conducting human existence – and street photography.
No surprise then that the same 2016 Deloitte research discovered that 31 per cent of smartphone users in the UK no longer made voice calls. This is a staggering increase from the 25 per cent who didn’t make voice calls in 2015 and the negligible 4 per cent in 2012.
So, what are people using their smartphones for? Photographs? Well, increasingly yes, and, of course, the corporates have not been slow to catch the trend.
‘Shot on iPhone’ was a campaign by Apple which involved 53 images from 41 photographers viewed on Billboards in 85 cities across 26 nations. Some of the iPhone images also appeared in magazines.
A remarkable technologically-driven campaign that featured selected images from photographers who use an iPhone smartphone to point and shoot.
A smart move which also reflected a decline in sales for more traditional cameras, down from just over 120 million in 2011 to just under 40 million per annum sales in 2015 (Camera and Imaging Production Association). By contrast Apple iPhone sales have climbed from 1.39 million units to 211.8 million between 2007 and 2016 (thus far – Apple shifted 231 million iPhone units in 2015) – www.statista.com.
Clearly, there is a seismic shift taking place, which is taking photography into a new, more mobile, more social Mediaesque era.
A time when street photography, if not other genres of photography, are experiencing a rapid period of change. For some a breath of fresh air, for others the frightening spectre of change. But change, nevertheless, which will have ramifications for almost every corner of society, and for every person who walks the surface of the planet. None more so than the street photographer.