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A few months ago I was with a friend in an art museum that explicitly stated: “No photographs.” My friend may not have planned on taking pictures in the first place, but he happened to have his new camera phone with him. How could he resist? In a move that looked like he was checking for messages, he took a shot, e-mailed it to a buddy in California, and then put his phone back in his shirt pocket, clearly enjoying his undercover prank.

Increasing numbers of cell-phone owners will be upgrading to camera phones, and they will be shooting and e-mailing photographs in unpredictable ways. Already these visual communication devices are influencing the pictures we take and the pictures we see, and will surely impact our lives as individuals, consumers and professionals.

Consider these factors:
1) The camera phone is both a communications device and a visual recording device.
2) It is light and tiny; it’s as portable—and increasingly indispensable—as your wallet, and is therefore always with you.
3) By pressing a few buttons, you can transmit—i.e., publish— your image (and with some phones your video clip) to anyone or any group on the planet who has access to the Internet.
4) The image is transmitted within a few seconds.
5) The image can be accompanied by a simultaneous text and/or voice message.

The individual features of camera phones are not so radical: each capability can be accomplished with some other device. Instead, it is the combination of features—the functions, size, portability, speed, ease-of-use and ubiquitous nature—that creates the recipe for change.

Surreptitious picture taking
Picture taking has been prohibited for years in all sorts of places, for all sorts of reasons: privacy, copyright infringement, legal issues and safety. In this age of increased paranoia, the banning has reached new extremes. For example, New York City Transit has proposed a ban on unauthorized photography in the city’s subways and buses. What was once innocent tourist snapping has become a suspicious potential terrorist activity.

With a camera phone, one can easily take a picture without anybody noticing, and then transmit the image instantaneously. This has prompted camera-phone bans by institutions that are addressing not-so-innocent surreptitious activities. Health clubs throughout the United States are prohibiting camera phones in locker rooms. Technology companies that are fearful of industrial espionage are taking measures to curtail camera-phone usage. In Japan, where phone image quality is superior, some bookstore visitors are sneaking pictures of magazine pages in a new form of stealing called “digital shoplifting.” Many courtrooms are not allowing camera phones for fear of endangering undercover officers, among others. Celebrities are afraid that guests will bring camera phones to parties and instantly publish pictures to the public. The list goes on and on.

Will the camera phone’s capabilities, combined with the growing tendency to restrict picture taking, make people more rebellious, sneaking shots for the sake of defying authority? And then will such seemingly benign activities accelerate the dangers that the bans were intended to stop?

The incidental photojournalist
An important turning point in the history of journalism was the amateur videotaping of the police beating of Rodney King. This video was taken when someone happened to have a video camera, and was at the right (and horrific) place at the right time. The highest priority of the news media is speed: the winner is the one who can bring the story to the public the fastest. In recent years we have seen numerous examples of video and pictures being taken by “real” people who have sent their photos and footage to media outlets. Especially in the case of terrorist activities, photojournalists cannot always be on the scene because no one knows where “the scene” will be next. New York? Madrid? Saudi Arabia?

The camera phone combines the two most important aspects of breaking news: having someone on the scene as the drama is unfolding, and being able to broadcast the imagery immediately to the widest possible audience.

Think of this from the networks’ point of view: to be competitive, they must have real-time access to pictures from every newsworthy event. Often this access is in the form of video screengrabs from another news agency (e.g., Al-Jazeera, the Qatar-based news network), and there is a fee for the footage.

But what does a picture cost when it comes from the guy on the street with a camera phone? Already, networks are asking for content from viewers. (http://us.cnn.com/feedback/tips/. Scroll right to find “send a digital image to CNN.”) Do the networks get these visual submissions for free, and if so, does it reduce their news budget? Will images have copyright protection? What does this mean for the professional photojournalist?

Changing the nature of the conversation: pictures as part of decisions and iterations
It is likely that pictures will become an integral part of a phone conversation. They will be a natural part of making decisions and sharing iterations. Combining a picture with an instant message—better yet, with an interactive conversation—encourages iterative picture taking, that is, a sequence of pictures to lead up to a decision.

Let’s say you’re in a store, choosing a pair of glasses, and you want to show your spouse the possible selections. With your camera phone, he/she can see the various frames that you’re trying on: front, profile or a closer view of the detailing. You can indulge in multiple changes and variations because it’s easy and cheap and instant. Do you like this one or that one? Watch this, now watch that. Which was better? And so decisions will be made (or arguments prolonged).

In this sense, pictures are not meant as keepsakes. They are meant to illustrate, to add information to a conversation. They go by like words, with no intention of being saved. The camera’s role has changed, it is not an image-keeping device. Instead, it is a real-time extension of the sender’s (and viewer’s) eye, just as the traditional phone is an extension of one’s voice. So we can say to each other, “Look at this with me,” wherever and whenever we want.

The art of camera phone photography
But what about pictures as art? To consider a camera phone as an actual camera—something worthy of taking a picture that would appear, say, in a CA Photography Annual—may at first seem improbable. But fine art is not about technical features; just look at the beautiful pictures taken with a Holga. Besides, like digital cameras, camera phones are increasing in resolution. (In Japan, NTT DoCoMo offers camera phones at 2 megapixels. Casio has introduced one at 3.2 megapixels, though it’s not actually supported yet.)

I am most curious about how camera phones will affect the pictures that people choose to take. Does the fact that you can instantly transmit and publish a picture change what you want to take a picture of?

There is a gallery in San Francisco that initiated and mounted a show called The Mobile Phone Photo Show (MPPS). According to the gallery’s Web site (www.rxgallery.com/mpps), the installation will capture and process thousands of mobile phone photographs sent in by participants from all over the world.

I contacted Kurt Bigenho and Gregory Cowley, co-curators of the show, and asked what insights they had gained. Kurt responded via e-mail with his findings.

He said they have received over 1,400 photos so far. His first observation was that the majority of the photos—about 65%—were of predictable content—primarily of friends and family, typically a single person centered in a vertically-oriented photograph.

The second most common theme was landscapes, “These unofficial postcards: a river in Poland with kids playing in it, a cobblestone street in the Czech Republic, jungles of Vietnam. I suspect there’s a desire to inventory and to distribute [my underlining]. The person uses her/his phone to connect to a place, and then shares/distributes a glimpse of that place to the (MPPS) project. So first comes a person’s connection to her/his own life, then a sharing of the ‘icons’ of her/his life to others, to strangers.”

This parallels the observations of a friend who asked this important question, “Would camera phones be so popular if you couldn’t broadcast the pictures to others? How much of the popularity of camera phones is tied to the popularity of photo blogs?” He told me about the site Text America (www.textamerica.com) where people submit camera-phone pictures. Sending pictures to Text America guarantees a big audience. Granted, there are probably as many photographers being shown as there are viewers looking. But the pictures are likely to be seen by many people, and perhaps this gives the photographer an added sense of motivation and validity.

Kurt Bigenho’s e-mail continued with observations about the urge to communicate one’s excitement in exploring the visual world, especially with street signs and found street graphics. “The impression I have is that participants are out exploring the city and finding interesting evidence of communication, and then in turn communicating these findings to the project,” he wrote. “Finding and sharing...(This is an) exploration of place and a found aesthetic (think FOUND magazine)...photographers aren’t making objects themselves, but simply ‘commenting’ visually. There’s a cast-off, ‘I may never see this image again’ quality.”

When we buy a camera phone, it may start out as a fun accessory. But as we adopt (and adapt to) these new toys, their playful quality will quickly be overshadowed by the permanent and integral place they assume in our lives. Their entrenchment will change the way that all of us—as individuals, consumers and professionals—communicate, which will in turn change the way we know the world. CA

© W. Richmond 2004

Wendy Richmond (wendyrichmond.com) is a visual artist, writer and educator whose work explores public privacy, personal technology and creativity. Richmond has taught at Harvard University, the International Center of Photography and the Rhode Island School of Design, and she serves on the BRIC Artists Advisory Council and the MacDowell Fellows Executive Committee. Her latest book is Art Without Compromise*. Richmond’s column began in 1984.
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