If you are a regular reader of Antigravity, then you already know how I feel about cell phone cameras. At best they’re mildly annoying, especially at shows; at worst they’re a self-imposed big brother, a surveillance state brought about by the consumer class. Jules Bentley covered this well in our January cover feature, “Watch Me Do My Thing: Surveillance in New Orleans,” which contained this choice quote: “Pointing a camera at someone isn’t as threatening as pointing a gun, but it’s still a hostile action.”
As the occasional photographer myself, I’ve thought a lot about this inherent hostility. It’s evident in the language we use to discuss photography. We take photos; we shoot them. We capture. Good photographers are aware of the psychic violence a pointed camera does to a person, which is what separates them from someone who simply understands its mechanics. To read light and focus a lens is one thing, to gain the trust of your subject is something else entirely. Good photography celebrates the vulnerability of capturing an image, rather than exploiting it. Annie Leibovitz gained the trust of John Lennon and Yoko Ono enough to photograph them naked; she didn’t wait in the bushes like paparazzi.
In the media world, the general distrust of photography is corralled by a rigorous system of access and restrictions. For a professional photographer shooting an event or a person of some fame, that can mean a lot of paperwork for a few minutes in a photo pit, where they must jockey with other photographers for a unique shot. Meanwhile, a sea of cell phones rise above the crowd and shoot at will. I’ve railed against this kind of activity in the past so I’ll just calmly lament how, in this snap-happy culture, a true photographer who has gone through the trouble to acquire thousands of dollars worth of equipment and followed permission protocols can be trumped by an amateur a few rows back, who posts an endless stream of low quality pics to their social media. As an editor of a print publication, I can’t help but resent how impossible it is to surprise anyone any more. It’s also eroding the photography industry, as major media outlets like SPIN use cell phone pictures—and worse, video—for their content. Why pay someone when you have a crowd willing to give it up for free?
But look, I don’t really begrudge the digital age. Everything is relative; I’m sure the painters’ unions of yore cried foul when daguerreotypes were first introduced. Art will always be achieved by the mediums available, and it’s pointless to get caught up too much in the details.
I think the photographers we are featuring in this year’s photo issue have done a great job of capturing some amazing moments and people in 2014 (and I hope that there are still a few surprises for you in these pages). Some of them, like Eric and Amy Martinez, work with 35 millimeter film to document the people and moments in their own lives as a way to express themselves where words might fall short. Others, like Annie Pennell and Joshua Brasted, have sought out their images as professionals battling it out in photo pits all over the country.
If you’ve ever experienced the thrill of capturing a great shot, then you already understand what it means to pull that proverbial trigger. It’s almost like you know you just got away with something. So I’m not looking to destroy Instagram or insist that we all build darkrooms in our houses. I’m just asking that whether you’re a seasoned pro or a casual spectator, when you point that lens at something or someone, take a brief moment beforehand and simply ask yourself why you are taking that picture—and more importantly, how are you going to give it back? —Dan Fox