The Jakarta Post
Warning death knells tolled for quality photojournalism when major US newspaper Chicago Sun-Times replaced its entire photography staff with iPhone-wielding reporters in May last year.
But for Dita Alangkara, Associated Press chief photographer for Indonesia, trading his high-precision DSLR camera for an iPhone recalls the adrenaline-fuelled early days on the job ' before the deadline and technical demands of newsgathering turned photography into mechanical point-and-shoot.
Shooting with a cell phone camera is akin to discovering a new toy, says Dita, as its limitations ' slower shutter response, lower resolution and absence of long-range lenses ' ups the creative and technical ante.
He is one of four photojournalists behind the recently launched smartphone photography book NESW (short for North East South West) along with Kompas daily photographer Yuniadhi Agung; Mast Irham, European Pressphoto Agency's chief photographer for Indonesia; and Forbes Indonesia photo editor Ahmad 'Roni' Zamroni.
The pocket-sized book highlights street photography from a photojournalist's perspective, 'celebrating simplicity' by capturing quotidian moments on the sidelines of breaking news events: the graves of the colonial-era allied forces juxtaposed with modern skyscrapers, sunshine flooding the Mount Bromo volcanic crater, a glistening fishing net on foamy waves.
The four sections, named after compass points, represent each photographer's distinct oeuvre.
Roni, whose symbolic photographs contain irony, relished the grainy results on his smartphone that played up contrasting textures in black-and-white photography, which are sometimes lost on a high-resolution DSLR. 'We want to make a good picture with simple tools. That's the essence of how we frame our subjects,' he says.
His section documents poverty, opening with a grinning, gap-toothed boy bathing in a river to set the viewer at ease.
The photographs, he says, are meant simply to be aesthetically pleasing but reveal an underlying meaning when scrutinized.
Aspiring simply toward beauty is a 'catharsis' from the pressures of breaking news, says Yuniadhi, whose muse is shadows, colors and mirrors.
'The amazing thing about mobile photography is it's spontaneous. So you see something beautiful and [the photo] imperfect but it's just beautiful.'
Dita's work, meanwhile, applauds public transportation commuters ' 'heroes' in his eyes who, wittingly or not, help alleviate traffic and carbon emissions.
'The most butut (shabby) buses have the most interesting characters riding them,' says Dita, who took most of his photos onboard Metro Mini buses and bajaj.
'Just like Forrest Gump said, 'Life is like a box of chocolates' ' it's the same with public transportation. You'll never know what you'll get until you open it.'
One photo of stony-faced commuters on a TransJakarta bus benefits especially from the dust mote-like imperfections of Dita's iPhone camera, their faces appearing to be veritably carved from stone. Another snap shows a stooped beggar in a handsome bowler hat carefully inching down the aisle of a Metro Mini.
'In a public bus, everybody is equal whether you're rich or poor. We all rub shoulders, we all sweat and we all have to tolerate the heat,' says Dita.
Ordinarily considered the amateur's implement, the smartphone has several advantages over a DSLR ' compactness, for one, and complementary applications such as Apple's Hipstamatic, which emulates an analogue camera.
'With Hipstamatic you don't have to think about apertures or lighting. Basically, you change the lens or the film to give you different effects,' explained Dita. 'Every film has different characters and every lens also has different characters and if you combine different films with different lenses you get different output.'
Intriguingly, this voids the need to edit photos beyond cropping and black-and-white settings, because desired effects can be preset.
Initially, the project existed solely on Instagram and until now NESW's social media origins remain a platform for interacting with their audience ' in addition to their photography blog, seribukata.com, through which the book can be ordered.
'This book actually cannot be separated from social media because we use smartphones, we use Instagram. So it's really an interactive kind of book. If you [have a question about] the pictures, you can always inquire on the web so we can answer,' said Mast Irham, a former photographer at Media Indonesia who also works in monochrome.
The group's decision to release a print product is because while social media enables two-way exchange, attention spans are short when viewers can trawl through hundreds of photos within minutes.
'On social media someone clicks and sees for five minutes and then finish. But then the book is something that can be shared,' he said.
Inseparable from smartphone photography and social media is the 'selfie'; hence the authors' biography photos are mirror selfies ' with a photojournalist's creative touch.
Dita's, for example, is reflected on a skier's goggles taken while covering the Winter Olympics in Sochi, Russia.
'For me it's a symbol of absurdity,' says Roni, adding that the facility of 'liking' a picture on Facebook means we are able to appreciate art we don't necessarily understand. 'We don't know the meaning it's just nice to look at. That's why no meaning is meaningful.'
As for the questions smartphone photography may raise about the future of media, the four journalists, each with 10 to 15 years of experience, are adamant that even in the face of diminishing print subscription and advertising revenue at traditional media outlets, photography concerns the man behind the gun.
'It's a paradox, maybe. I want to say [to NESW readers] 'Come on guys, taking pictures is easy'. But if you look deep inside, it's difficult,' says Roni.
'We have maybe 10 years on the job as photographers. But we also want to show that in this day and age, people who have smartphones and are not photographers can take pictures.'
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