When journalists use mobile phone cameras, it’s usually for one of two reasons: They’re either writers with no other options or photographers exploring a gimmick. That’s what makes Michael Christopher Brown’s use of iPhones for serious photojournalism so interesting. He’s a classically trained photographer with plenty of "real" cameras at his disposal, and he’s fairly uninterested in the quirky filters and special effects that are so often synonymous with mobile phone photography. He uses the phone because in some situations it’s simply the best tool for the job.
"With the phone, I enjoy the ease of operation," Brown says, "which is inspiring. It allows me to forget about certain elements of the picture-taking process. Everything technical is decided; you just need to press a button. I was bored with 35mm and never liked using bulkier medium- or large-format cameras. I like small cameras and was looking for a different way to take pictures, a tool to help further the distance between myself and photography.
"At some point in 2009, I noticed I was a different person with a camera in my hands, that it had dictated important decisions in my life and that I wasn’t being true to myself in some ways. Using a camera phone—which felt more like a notebook—was more about being absorbed in the world than in the world of photography. And it changed how I moved and thought, which became more spatial and personal than technical and traditional. I was able to walk in and out of certain situations and make decisions while not feeling a sort of responsibility to the craft—only to make ‘notes’ if need be."
Brown relocated from New York to Beijing three years ago, where he enjoyed the simpler life and "getting back to the roots of why I initially picked up a camera," he says. Brown felt he had lost his direction, becoming more camera operator than reporter. So he started using smaller point-and-shoot 35mm film cameras, and eventually his mobile phone. "It was about making the camera, and thus, photography, more insignificant in order to rediscover it for myself."
Although the device itself may be insignificant, its effect is anything but. The phone actually opens doors, where the serious photographer burdened with larger cameras may find access barred.
"I like not taking myself seriously as a result of this process," Brown says. "I’m more a citizen, collecting what interests me, coupled with the fact that people don’t really consider a camera phone to be a professional camera, which often enables more access with a phone and less of an in-the-spotlight reaction."
Brown’s vision is nothing short of remarkable. His iPhone photographs capture moments that not only would have been more difficult with a traditional phone, but which would be impossible without a tremendous understanding of what makes a photograph work. This is particularly important for a photographer working with a phone—the device that has single-handedly democratized photography and conditioned humans to expect a certain satisfaction from a snapshot.
"The resistance is mostly generated from the vernacular," Brown says, "the countless millions of people using camera phone applications that utilize excessive color or exposure manipulation to, in general, create not ‘good’ photographs, but ‘pretty’ photographs. What is a good photograph? The boundaries of a good photograph vary widely and depend on who’s looking at the picture and for what purpose. In some ways, I don’t think the good photograph exists, or that it even matters. What matters is the degree of power the photograph contains for a particular use, and if it’s powerful enough. Anyway, this prettiness is often excessively dramatic, and this has, in a sense, damaged the opportunities for those interested in making serious work with phones. But strong work is strong work, and eventually it’s recognized as such."
It may be easy to say that Brown’s iPhone photographs are strong work solely because of the photographer’s vision—which certainly sets his work apart. But the fact remains that these photographs are successful on some level because they were made with a mobile phone, not in spite of it.
"The phone is simple," Brown says. "I don’t need to think about the process of photography or enter the mind-set of photographer, concerned with lenses and apertures and shutter speeds, to use it. Everything is decided and I just need to press a button. In war, one shouldn’t spend a fraction of a second more thinking about equipment, and the phone is easy in this way."
While documenting the civil war in Libya, Brown utilized his phone to better become a part of events rather than remaining apart from them. Access was granted, doors were opened, subjects invited him in. From that, Brown made remarkable photographs.
"In Libya everyone used phones to take pictures and videos," he explains, "so what I was doing was no different, in a way. Though as a foreigner, I was perhaps taken more seriously, as it was assumed I was there to record the revolution in some way. But I wasn’t seen as a photographer; more often, Libyans and even photographers and journalists took me as a writer. On more than one occasion, I was accused of being a spy. Eventually, in sensitive situations, I would often carry a notebook and pen in one hand so people would assume I was a journalist."
Libya wasn’t Brown’s only use of the iPhone as a camera. While photographing in the Democratic Republic of the Congo for TIME—his first smartphone-only assignment—the device was invaluable. "There’s a long history in the DRC of foreigners taking things," Brown explains, "extracting resources at the cost of the Congolese. This goes for not only mining, but also photography. It’s probably the most visceral I’ve ever photographed, but also the most complicated. The moment one takes a picture of something that might offend a Congolese, unless one is careful, protesting immediately begins. Using a phone lessened that reaction somewhat, but the fact was, I was a tall, white American taking pictures of a long-defeated population. Often, I would take pictures without appearing to take pictures, which I don’t see as stealing, but as a necessity in recording an important story."
There are drawbacks to working with smartphones as cameras. Brown has lost a few images t
o operating system crashes, and the slow speed of the device dictates the speed of the photographer. But even those drawbacks are benefits in the right hands.
"The limitations became virtues to an extent," he says, "as the process dictated the images which could be made. The processor is much slower than a traditional digital camera, so there’s more waiting involved, but as a result, I take fewer pictures and am more focused on what I’m taking pictures of. When I used 35mm exclusively, I would often take several thousand images per day. Now, I might take several hundred, if that, using the phone. The limitations changed the approach to photography, creating a sort of intensity to the content of the pictures, which didn’t exist before. When breathing through a smaller hole, the breaths become more precious.
"As the Leica democratized professional-looking photography," Brown says, "so has the camera phone. It flipped the world of professional photography onto its head because anyone with a phone can take professional-looking pictures. Even a child can compete with a professional. And this is great because what’s important about photography has less to do with the technical aspects and more about what a photograph provides for the maker and viewer."
Go to www.mcbphotos.com to see more of Michael Christopher Brown’s photography.