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Ed Kashi on the Evolving Role of iPhones & Other Smartphones in Photojournalism

By Jeff Wignall   Thursday October 13, 2016

Snapshot:
Name:
iPhone 7,7 Plus
Camera:
12-megapixel iSight camera
Video:
4K video
Display: iphone 7:
4.7" Retina HD; iPhone 7  Plus: 5.5" Retina HD
Weight: iPhone 7:
4.87 ounces (138 grams); iPhone 7 Plus 6.63 ounces
Capacity:
32, 128, 256GB
Full specs:
Here

Ed Kashi

Photojournalist Ed Kashi has had a life so packed with assignments, personal projects, accomplishments and adventures, that in reading about his 30-year-plus career, you kind of start to wonder how he carved out time to eat or sleep. He has, for example, produced seventeen essays for National Geographic magazine (often spending a year or more on a single essay), produced eight books of his work, and has covered topics as diverse as the impact of the oil industry in Nigeria, the protestant community in Northern Ireland, the lives of Jewish settlers in the West Bank, conflicts between the Shiites and Sunnis in Iraq, the impact of early onset Alzheimer’s, climate change, the relationship between sugar cane and Chronic Kidney Disease in Nicaragua and the plight of Syrian refugees.

Kashi’s work is marked by his ability to enter the lives of his subjects in an immensely trusted way and to share their stories with an intensely sympathetic eye. The key to getting his subjects to accept his presence at such an intimate level, says Kashi, is the time spent studying the situations he is walking into and the impact on the people who are enduring them. “I do my homework, I read about where I’m going, I familiarize myself with the subject and that’s important,” he says. “People often ask how I get the cooperation and the trust of my subjects because my work is very intimate and sometimes it just has to do with the fact that I can speak with them about their lives and their issues in a way that they realize that, “This guy took the time to understand our situation.” It also helps to open doors and relax people when you are knowledgeable about their lives.”

In addition to National Geographic, Kashi’s clients include: GEO Germany, Fortune, Human Rights Watch, International Medical Corps, MediaStorm, MSNBC.com, NBC.com, the New York Times MagazineThe New Yorker, Open Society Foundation, Oxfam, Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and TIME magazine. He has won numerous awards including honors from Pictures of the Year International, World Press Foundation, Communication Arts, America Photo Images of the Year and the PDN Editor’s Choice Award. His photos are in the collections of George Eastman House, the International Center of Photography, the Museum of the City of New York, the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, the New Orleans Museum of Art, the San Jose Museum of Art, the Ulster Museum, Belfast, Northern Ireland, as well as many private collections.

Kashi is also a member of the renowned photojournalism agency VII. In addition to his still work, he is also a filmmaker, speaker and educator and in 2002, in partnership with his wife, writer and filmmaker Julie Winokur, founded Talking Eyes Media, a non-profit company that has produced numerous award-winning short films, exhibits, books and multimedia pieces exploring significant social issues.

I recently spoke with Kashi (on the eve of a trip to France, naturally) about his long career in photojournalism and, in particular, his observations about how the iPhone and other smartphones have become a serious journalistic tool. You can follow Kashi’s blog here and following him on Instagram: @edkashi

PPD: Tell me about your agency, VII. How did that come about and who is involved?

EK: This fall we’re celebrating our fifteenth anniversary. I joined in 2010. VII is one of a small handful of collectives or photographic cooperatives. I would say that Magnum and NOOR are our counterparts and, of course, Magnum is in a place of its own just given its history and the amount of time it’s been around. VII was founded and continues to be based upon trying to take advantage of the new digital workflow and the mobility and the freedom that we have, as well as authorship and point of view to our work.

While VII was founded by a group of photographers mainly covering conflicts, we’ve really broadened since then in these 15 years and particularly in the last five years where we’ve started to take on members that don’t do conflict at all. We’re sort of aesthetically and artistically expanding our ranks as well as the subject matter that our members cover.

PPD: To that point, it seems to me that the subject matter that you and other members are covering is extraordinarily diverse. The members must be extremely quick studies to keep up with such rapidly-changing topics. How do you gather so much knowledge of these situations?

EK: Given that I’ve been doing this for a while, there’s a certain amount of knowledge that I’ve gotten from my experience in the field, as well as the scholarship that is integral to what I do. I’m genuinely interested in the world, which is why I do this work. But more specifically, it’s a combination of just reading up and being briefed on the particular issue that I’m covering or the place I’m going. It’s a combination of reading things and talking to people and, of course, when I’m on the ground, learning a lot. But I’ve been doing this for nearly 40 years now, a solid almost 30 years of geopolitical work, so again, I’ve built up a lot of knowledge. I sometimes feel completely ignorant and no matter how much I think I know or how much I’ve learned, even things I think I would be considered somewhat of an expert on because of the in-depth nature and how I work, I still feel I have so much more to learn. Doing this kind of work, you can become that classic person who knows a little about a lot of things.

PPD:  Do you use a fixer when you’re traveling and could you explain what a fixer is for those who might not know?

EK: Yes, all of the time. I’ve come to not really like that term, it doesn’t fully describe what they do, but basically it’s someone who wears a number of hats. They are, of course, an interpreter, although sometimes you might need a fixer in a country where you speak the language, but they are also someone who can get you access. They are sort of your ambassador, your liaison into the place, into the culture, into the people. I always say that the greatest fixer is someone who can get me into the prime minister’s office, but he or she can also get me into the home of the poorest person in the country and do it with dignity and humility.

Often your work is as good as your fixer and I’ve certainly had some amazing fixers, but I’ve also had fixers where it was not good and it ended in a kind of divorce. There is a certain co-dependency in the relationship. I’m certainly dependent on them, though they may not be dependent on me.

PPD: There must be trust issue involved between you and the fixer, yes?

EK: Very much so. Another incredibly important element to remember is that when you’re working in places of conflict or unstable security, that you can leave and your fixer can’t. That’s why I try to be extremely respectful and responsive when they say no we should not go to that place or we shouldn’t go to that neighborhood or we have to leave now, or we can’t stay past sunlight, I listen, I don’t push back too often.

PPD: You are one of several serious photojournalists who are using iPhones and other smart phones for assignments. Were you an early adopter of cell cameras from the start?

EK: Not immediately, but I would say in the grand scheme of things I was an early-ish adopter. There are some folks, like Benjamin Lowy, who adopted it a bit earlier than me. It’s interesting that when Time did the Hurricane Sandy coverage, the people that they tapped were me, Ben, Michael Christopher Brown who got into Magnum as an iPhone photographer, Andrew Quilty and Stephen Wilkes. A number of us, in 2012, were known as photographers who were adept at and working a lot with the smartphones.  So in the grand scheme of things, yes, I was an early adopter, but there were definitely folks before me.

PPD: You recently began shooting with an iPhone 7, too. How long have you had the iPhone 7?

EK: I’ve had it about two weeks. It’s only been out about three weeks, so I guess that makes me an early adopter.

PPD: Have you noticed any changes or improvements over the iPhone 6that you liked?

EK: I haven’t done any seriously hard field tests with it, but from my initial time with it, it seems that it is a better in low light and it’s a little more responsive. But at this point I haven’t noticed a dramatic difference. I have noticed that there is more sharpness and the contrast range seems more subtle, which is a sign of more information in the file and it’s quite quick too.

PPD: Do you think that everyone having a cell camera like the iPhones will change the face of photojournalism?

EK:  I think that in the same way that everybody is a citizen journalist, everyone is a photojournalist. Everyone has a smartphone, but that doesn’t mean that you’re really a photojournalist. It just means that you have a device that lets you capture things on the fly and in some cases those images can have a really great impact and capture truly important moments. Having said that, I’m not concerned about smartphones robbing me of my job. It certainly has allowed media companies to get free or cheap content, but we will always need people who have an understanding of the context of the subject matter they are looking at, and who are working at another level of image quality and sophistication.

That’s not to say that an amateur can’t take a camera and make incredibly sophisticated pictures. But I just think that on a consistent basis, when it comes to long-form storytelling and when it comes to really serious issues that are complicated and require a very fine and deep understanding of what you’re looking at, that’s where folks like myself retain their value. And also, our ideas are what set us apart.

PPD: What kind of situations would you turn to your iPhone rather than a more traditional camera, and why?

EK:  There are times when I might choose to work with just my iPhone or I’ve been commissioned to shoot with only my iPhone. Working with a cell phone has an advantage in that you look less pronounced, or less threatening, that you’re obviously a professional. Smartphones help to a certain degree in being able to travel incognito. The bottom line is that my iPhone is something that I have with me all of the time. The reality is that if I’m out working and I’m on an assignment, it’s unlikely that my iPhone is going to be my primary capture tool unless I have been commissioned to use it. It’s a secondary tool. But on the other hand when we are finished talking I have to leave to drive into New York City and I’ll have my phone with me and if something happens and I feel compelled to capture it, I now have a great camera to capture it with because again, I always have the phone with me.


PPD: Have you’ve been getting regular assignments where you’ve been asked just to shoot with the iPhone?

EK: I’ve received 10 or 15 commissions over the last four years to shoot only with my phone. For a couple of years I’ve done shoots for UPS, for significant fees—just to shoot with my phone. I was hired to shoot both stills and video with phones for their social-media channels.

PPD:  I know that you recently taught an iPhone workshop in France, can you talk a bit about the workshop?

EK:  For the past two years I’ve been doing a National Geo smartphone photography workshop twice a year in New York City. I was going to France for an exhibition of new work of mine in St. Brieuc in Brittany and a colleague in Paris suggested that if I was going to be there that we do a one-day smartphone workshop. The workshop was essentially a truncated version of what I do in the National Geo workshops. Basically I show some work that I’ve produced using my smartphone and it’s a mixture of playing with my phone, the visual journaling that we all do, then the creative stuff that I only do with my smartphone like double exposures, things that I would never ordinarily do with my regular camera. Then I show them my advocacy work, which is primarily what I do at this point, the journalistic work and the documentary films.

The idea is that in a short presentation I’ll try to give a sense of the breadth and the scope of what we can accomplish in both personal and professional terms with these little amazing devices. Then I’ll also go over some of the apps I use, like post production using Snapseed, then I cover dissemination using Instagram, Facebook and Twitter, though Instagram is the primary one that I use.

The last stage of the workshops is what I call “the neurosis” of social media where I talk about the comments, likes and how many followers did I gain or lose. I say that tongue-in-cheek because that’s not the primary reason that I use such apps. I’m not super obsessed with those things, other than the very real and practical fact that I have a few hundred thousand followers, and editors, curators and art directors actually pay attention to these stats, and that if I had a million followers it would significantly change not only my ability to reach people but also to make a living at it and create more opportunities. In today’s world of professional photography or photojournalism, Instagram has very real impact on your career, even if you’re well known and have been around for a while.

PPD: How was the workshop received?

EK: The workshop was great. We had folks who came from London, Luxembourg, and some Americans traveling who detoured to Paris for it! The day went by in a flash, but we went over apps, looked at my images and theirs and they were sent out on a three-hour shoot in the Luxembourg Gardens, so we reviewed that work as well. There were a couple of French TV reporters who were interested to learn more about using their smartphone cameras because they are now being tasked with making images for social media around their television reports. That was interesting to note.

PPD: Can you talk a bit about your company Talking Eyes Media?

EK: Talking Eyes Media is a nonprofit production company that my wife Julie Winokur and I started in 2002 when we were still living in San Francisco. It was in response to producing the project Aging in America which we had worked on for eight years and we had received a lot of grant money and we both realized this was more likely the future of how we could product long-form serious issue-oriented work by going for grants. We thought it would be great to have a nonprofit to sort of funnel that money and use as an engine, or a home for creating the work, as well as to maximize the money we received so we would not have to pay out grant money in taxes or to a fiscal sponsor.

So now it’s 14 years later and what’s interesting is that virtually 90-percent of the money that Talking Eyes Media gets are from commissions, they’re not from grants. The purpose of Talking Eyes is to work in a multi-platform manner where we produce everything from feature-length documentaries to short documentaries to books, exhibitions, multi-media pieces, working in various storytelling formats to work on projects that deal with issues that are either of geopolitical or social importance. Projects that are generally meant to do good here. We are able to take on projects that are not just about showing how bad the world is, but how issues are being addressed, how they are being tackled.  

It’s worked out so far, but it’s not always easy, it’s a very tough environment right now coming out of the editorial. We’ve found new ways of both creating work, primarily in video and film, and we’ve found different sources of support so that we can survive and produce great work.

PPD: Getting back to phone photography for a minute, how do you see iPhones and other smartphone cameras fitting into the photography world?

EK: I think that the point is this new tool is both something you can play and create with in a fabulous freeing way, but it is also a serious tool that you can use to produce impactful work and that you can also make money with it. It’s not just an outlier tool but something that is very serious and very powerful and incredibly exciting as well. It’s particularly exciting that you can reach people instantaneously and you can have a two-way dialogue with them. There’s something very intoxicating and very addictive even, to that.

So often I’ll work for over a year producing a story and maybe a year later it comes out and by the time it comes out, it’s amazing, but it’s not the same because there’s already a distance from it. But with these tools, with smartphones and social media, it’s so immediate.

New Product News:

Sony a6500. Sony has introduced the new flagship camera in its mirrorless APS-C camera line-up, the Sony Alpha a6500. The camera features a 24.2 MP Exmor CMOS sensor, a wide sensitivity range of ISO 100-512005, 11fps continuous shooting (up to 269 frames at 24.2MP) and five-axis image stabilization. The camera also employs Sony’s 4D FOCUS system that boasts the world’s fastest autofocus that can lock focus on a subject in as little as 0.05 seconds using the world’s highest number of phase detection AF points2 (425). There’s also a touchscreen LCD and for video shooters, the new camera offers 4K movie recording with full HD 120fps shooting and 14-bit RAW output for still images.

Lensbaby Trio 28 for Micro 4/3. If you’ve been reading this newsletter for a while you know I’m a big fan of Lensbaby gear, so I’m happy to read about the new Lensbaby Trio 28 for Micro 4/3 that will be released later this month. This is a manual-focus lens (as are all of the Lensbaby lenses that I know of) with a focal length of 28mm and a fixed f/3.5 aperture. It features three selective focus optics in one compact lens and enables you to play with these three effects: Twist, Velvet and Sweet Spot. (You an see my review of the Velvet here, just in case you missed it.) The Trio focuses from 8-inches to infinity. I’m going to see this in person next week at Photo Expo and hopefully I’ll snag one to test soon.

HOYA SOLAS 52mm ND-8 (0.9) 3 Stop IRND Neutral Density FiltersHoya has introduced a new line of Infrared ND filters called the SOLAS IRND filters. The filters are available in standard sizes from 52mm to 82mm and in densities of .3, .6, .9, 1.2, 1.5, 1.8, 2.7 and 3.0; that is 1~6 plus 9 and 10 stops light reduction. The filters are said to maintain excellent neutral color balance with no spectrum spikes or color shifting due to IR. Let the long-exposure surf shots begin!

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