"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 to 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.
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