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Ben Lowy: The Walkley Interview

This article was first published in the April/May issue of the Walkley Magazine out now. Register now for Ben Lowy’s Head On mobile phone publishing workshop (May 21-22)

Benjamin Lowy brings a small camera to big stories. His celebrated work supports the concept of professional mobile phone photojournalism and has been validated on the cover of Time magazine. Here he discusses his experiences breaking ground in the medium in the lead up to his visit to Australia in May to run workshops and exhibit as a guest of the Head On Photo Festival. Interview by Lyndal Irons.

I was experimenting with the medium of phone photography for a long time but I hadn’t turned it to journalism until 2010. A lot of it was about escaping. Photography was no longer a hobby. It was a client driven job illustrating a story or documenting within the constraints of the American or Europeans schools of photojournalism.

An editor asked me to shoot film with a Hasselblad Xpan. While the film was getting processed, I made prints at home of iPhone pictures and gave them to the editor. They didn’t run the pictures — the film turned out okay – but they were impressed.

Phone photography was controversial at first but it was because it was different. There were issues at the time concerning image makers dealing with new technologies and what the internet meant to all of us. It became incredibly divisive and the diatribes were quite bitter. One argument said that it distorted reality but I think that is stale. If a flower was put in a middle of a room with 20 photographers we would all take the picture in a different way, either because we are using a different tool or because we are a product of all our life experiences that inspire us to take a picture a different way. Is that flower in that room any less real because we all took different looking images?

I don’t use obvious Instagram filters on my iPhone when I shoot with Hipstamatic (it processes the images automatically, thus I’m not actively choosing what look is applied). Along with several other photographers, I approached them after working in Libya to develop a filter for photojournalists because I wanted to quieten down all the buzz. At the end of the day toning and contrast and saturation is … the line is very fuzzy. If you look at World Press (the organisation that awards photojournalism every year) I don’t think they are in any position to say this does not work and this does. No one has set a definitive line. In writing they have, but certainly not in practice.

When photography came out painters were complaining that photography had no skill. When colour film came out, black and white photographers said it is for the masses, it’s not artistic, it’s not what real artists use. But at the end of the day it is the thing you record that you share with the world around you which is of value.

In the Ben Lowy filter we took out the crazy vignetting and splotchiness. There is a bit of extra contrast and grain and it is cooler toned and that is about it – it is straightforward.

The idea behind my work for the last ten years is creating an aesthetic bridge that connects with an audience, brings them into the story I am working on and delivers the content. When I started using Hipstamatic no one knew what it was. Now everyone does their cats and brunch with it, it’s lost a little of its flavour. Is it still worth using a phone versus using a higher resolution, faster, DSLR? That is a question I will be answering for myself soon enough.

Still, the iPhone isn’t intrusive. It doesn’t make a clunking noise when I take a picture. I can meet my subject’s eyes I can talk to them as I am taking the picture, before I take the picture, and after. Sometimes the camera acts as a barrier – and some times you need that if something very horrible is happening in front of you – but it also takes you out of the situation.

It is hard to make people in New York or Sydney care about what is happening in any place that is thousands of miles away. We have different realities and you can’t make everyone care about everyone, everywhere else. We’d be sitting around in a circle crying all day. But I think there has to be a way to slightly connect with people and bring them into the lives of their fellow man. You can mix in religion and culture and the nuances begin but for the most part everyone is really the same and we don’t get to see that. Sometimes if I take a picture with my phone and people back home and people over here all have the same kind of tools, there is some sort of similarity there. People are able to latch onto it, even unconsciously. And that is important.

Register now for Ben Lowy’s Head On mobile phone publishing workshop.

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