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."