One of the grand claims made for mobile photography by many people is that it has democratised photography. Previously an elite pastime for those who could afford expensive camera equipment, photography is now at the fingertips – quite literally – of everyone with access to a mobile phone camera.
Mobile photography, or iphoneography as it was originally called, has existed as a photography movement since around 2008*, when people first discovered that the photos that their mobile phones (they had yet to become “smart”) took were actually, if not good, then at least not too bad. And even if their pixel count and the quality of their lenses did not compare to even the most basic point-and-shoot camera at that time, the fact that the mobile phone camera was the camera that everyone had with them meant that many pictures that just wouldn’t have been captured were now coming to light thanks to these new devices. If an interesting scene suddenly presents itself unexpectedly before your eyes, you reach for your mobile phone camera. The best camera is the one that’s with you, as they say. We’ve heard this so many times it’s become a cliché. But it’s important because it gave birth to a whole new sub-genre of street photography. By its very nature, street is candid and it has been given a new lease of life by the new intimate access that mobile devices give its practitioners. And many of these practitioners are only photographers because they found a smart phone camera in their hands. For many, this is the only camera they have ever had. “We are all photographers now” is another cliché we hear a lot around mobile. And although having a camera in your hand doesn’t make you a photographer, you do need one if you want to become a photographer.
Mobile devices have expanded the photographer population perhaps ten times over. Which means more competition amongst photographers and anyone with talent now has an outlet for it to flourish. This is one reason some “big-camera” photographers have resented the influx of this new photographic blood. But the interests of these men (and they usually are men) lie in keeping themselves as high up the photographic league tables as possible (more competitors mean they slip down) and in preserving the strange idea that photography is mainly about understanding (and affording) its equipment. The uncomfortable truth for many of these old-school photographers is that the new breed of photographers produce better pictures than them. Their images stand up on the basis of the three eternal key variables of good photography that don’t rely on equipment: subject, colour and composition.
But not only has mobile photography allowed more people to become photographers, it has allowed photographers to do more photography more of the time. So even if you have a 50-hour working week, your creativity can find an outlet on the bus home from work or, indeed, at any other waking moment of your life. Not only does it not matter if you can afford a good camera, it also doesn’t matter (much) if you don’t have a lot of spare time. Every spare moment of your life can now be given over to photography if you want. This, and the emergence of easy-to-use editing apps, was the reason why a community of stay-at-home mums emerged as a real creative force very early in mobile photography’s existence.
Another way photography has become more democratic thanks to mobile devices is the freer exchange of ideas and information on the mobile-based sharing platforms. Young photographers can now take inspiration from the images they see posted by professional photographers on social media. They can also even learn techniques and tips if they engage with more experienced photographers online. Previously this knowledge could only be gained behind the doors of technical colleges or from books.
So yes, everyone is a photographer now and we are flooded with images. But isn’t that a good thing for photography? It means more competition and more choice. In my view, many of the world’s leading photographers of tomorrow will have found their passion for photography with a mobile phone camera in their hand. And they will have learnt their craft by taking photos of what they see around them every day of their lives on their mobile phone cameras.
*For a timeline of mobile photography, see “A History of iPhoneography” under Life in LoFi’s Resources.
About the author: Richard Gray is @rugfoot on social media. He runs Instagram accounts for Islington Assembly Hall @islington_ah, where he is also the house photographer, and the Terry O’Neill Award @oneillaward