Pocket & palm photography: New frames of social witnessing


Just over a month since I last gave a public presentation at the American Centre, I spoke today (along with Anush and Iromi from The Picture Press) around the evolution of smartphone photography – calling it ‘Pocket and palm photography’ (download high quality PDF here).

I quickly went through a history of photographic technology from film to digital, and within digital, from the digital camera to phones with increasingly sophisticated optics. Building on this incredible evolution in technology, I explored key dynamics of an explosive global and local growth in smartphone photography. I then flagged the democratisation of photographic production, dissemination and consumption, the ubiquity of geo-tagged photos that is largely the result of smartphone cameras, the growth in smartphone camera apps and sophisticated software filters, the immediacy and ease with which anyone with a mobile Internet connection could share photos, the vastly reduced cost of production and as a result of increasingly inexpensive smartphone availability, the prevalence of photography amongst youth, and even younger children.

In some detail, I then explored some of the implications of these developments, and then flagged several key Sri Lankan examples of smartphone photographic platforms and communities (around, for example, Instagram) and what they chose to focus on.

Finally, I looked into the near future and submitted that what we took for granted as the capabilities of smartphone cameras today would tomorrow be worn or biometrically implanted, leading to vital questions around privacy, ethics and rights in an age where photographing was omnipresent.

“The Fires Within: Sri Lanka at War” – A waste of web media

Got an email from Steven Pong at Asia Society to take a look at The Fires Within: Sri Lanka at War, described as a “project, which attempts to document the humanitarian costs of the civil war, shows the work of photojournalist Ron Haviv, who has worked in conflict areas in the Democratic Republic of Congo, Afghanistan, and the former Yugoslavia in the past.”

I don’t like it.

There’s nothing original or insightful in the photos or the content and I don’t believe that journalists who parachute in, spend a little time in the war zones, take a few photos and then go on to make a splash internationally for their work are those who in any meaningful way contribute to fragile processes of peacemaking. Self-aggrandizement trumps the longer term commitment necessary to truly understand the subjects and their role as both victims and perpetrators of the violence.  

Ron isn’t a Kevin Sites. While Kevin Sites in the Hot Zone was a compelling series of narratives (incl. on Sri Lanka) Ron’s (photo)journalism seems superficial and of the sort that is the result of covering as much of terrain as possible in a few days without stopping, really listening, pausing to think and reflect and importantly, allowing the viewers to make up their minds about what a picture signifies without the burden of anonymous voices in the background egging them on.

Although Ron mentions that:

“I think the strength of photography itself is inherent in the way we, as human beings, our brains work; when you remember things you remember them quite often in the still image. The still image has this ability, much more so than moving video, to kind of remain with you and sear itself into your mind.” 

the presentation actually features video and other voices that aren’t identified. Although it’s not difficult to imagine why, I simply cannot identity with and in fact am angered by those (particularly journalists) who uncritically believe the suggestion that the LTTE is a “sole representative” of the Tamil people in Sri Lanka.

The problem with the likes of Ron is that having come into a war zone, they believe they go out with some nugget of wisdom or the truth that escapes the “natives”. So you then set out to make a piece with little or no consultation with local actors, leading to the a presentation such as this which juxtaposes the absurd with the sublime, severely vitiating the appeal of the whole. 

And paragraphs like this which appear on the Asia Society’s site simply don’t help,

“As he shared his experiences in the country, Haviv said he was surprised to see the areas controlled entirely by the Tamil Tigers, complete with fully functioning parallel institutions including schools and courthouses. He witnessed how the Tamil Tigers were attempting to create their own autonomous region by providing basic necessities, even as some of the population was coerced by the LTTE to remain in those areas.”

Ron seems to be easily surprised and given to accept what he sees without too much of questioning. As one photographer to another, my advice would be to switch the rose tinted filters to UV, which can bring to sharper relief the reality of the conflict on the ground and the degree to which the LTTE has destroyed hope for peace in Sri Lanka, just as much as the incumbent regime in the South. A photo presentation that captures the sad penchant for violence of both actors would be worth looking at.

This is not one.