Shift in power: David Guttenfelder on the impact and importance of smartphone photography

David Guttenfelder ended 2013 with the title Time Magazine’s Instagram Photographer of the Year. “The veteran photojournalist is a seven-time World Press Photo award-winner,” wrote Time’s senior editor Ishaan Tharoor. “He has traveled the world for the Associated Press, covering wars, elections and natural disasters in over 75 countries. But in 2013, Guttenfelder, the AP’s chief Asia photographer, won over a new audience after he became one of the first foreign photographers to be granted the ability to work in North Korea. And he featured some of his most striking, intimate pictures from the Hermit Kingdom on Instagram.”

Guttenfelder’s ‘behind-the-wall’ Instagram photographs of North Korea have been published across the world in publications as prestigious as National Geographic and Wired – bringing his follower count on the image-sharing service to 281,000. He is, by far, the most popular traditional photojournalist on Instagram and, he admits, it has come as a surprise. “It’s moved very quickly,” he tells FLTR in a Skype interview. “I first started using a smartphone on a military embed in 2010. We put the images on the wire and the reactions were mixed. Some journalists said: ‘I usually like this guy’s work, but what was he thinking?’”

The following year, Guttenfelder was on the jury of the Pictures of the Year contest. “We voted for Damon Winter’s work, which he shot using the Hipstamatic app on his iPhone. That created quite a backlash. But by 2012, that type of work was accepted. The smartphone has become a normal tool.”

For Guttenfelder, working with a smartphone has always been about finding a way to express his own feelings about photography. “I work for the Associated Press, where the parameters – what we are expected to do – used to be very narrow,” he says. “They needed one bright, tight and bold picture that said it all. And that can really take its toll on your photography. When you have to put 10 pictures on the wire every day, there’s an expectation that you hit the news every day; so it’s always good to have your own thing that no one is waiting for, that you can develop yourself. You have to find your own voice, and that’s why I’ve always carried another camera format with me.”


A telephone sits on a table in a restaurant in Pyongyang, North Korea
© David Guttenfelder

That camera used to be one loaded with black-and-white film. He also worked with a Holga and a Hasselblad XPan panoramic camera. “For a while, now, it’s been my phone,” he says. “The phone is a perfect tool for photographing things you would usually not photograph for the Associated Press – portraits or still lifes – these little things that you don’t normally pay attention to when you’re doing reportage. These little things might seem mundane, but they are important pieces of the overall picture of a place. They become an important part of the story.”

In 2012, when Instagram gained in popularity outside of the San Francisco Bay area, Guttenfelder didn’t hesitate to start his own feed. However, what started as “another fun thing to do” quickly became an important part of the photojournalist’s life. “A couple of things happen very quickly,” he explains. “The first was that I started to see what an important visual platform it was becoming and I didn’t want to be left out of the conversation. There’s a whole language being developed – everybody is a photographer – and photojournalists are not doing the most visible work, so the power structure is being turned on its head. It doesn’t matter if you’ve done 50 stories for National Geographic or if you’re a Magnum photographer. Instead, it was some guy photographing his dog that was defining what this new platform would be all about. I thought I could either sit on the sidelines and wonder where this was all going, or I could be part of it.”

The second defining moment was when the Associated Press signed an unprecedented deal with North Korea’s authorities, gaining controlled access to the secluded country. “This is a place that traditionally hasn’t been photographed,” says Guttenfelder. “When they opened up the 3G network for foreigners, everything changed. There’s been a lot of attention on the novelty of me shooting and sending pictures from a place where communication wasn’t allowed.” And after three years in and out of North Korea, Guttenfelder admits that his Instagram images have overshadowed all his other work. “I haven’t been interviewed about my non-Instagram images this year at all,” he says.

Direct Communication

Instagram continues to have a bad reputation within the photojournalism community, especially since the company announced it would open up its service to advertisers. Suddenly, many photographers pored over Instagram’s terms of service and realised they had given away an irrevocable, perpetual and worldwide licence to their images. Last year, a consortium of photography advocates led by the National Press Photographers Association called on Instagram to change its terms of service. The call has so far been ignored.

Guttenfelder, however, doesn’t fear the implications of distributing his work on Instagram. “This is just another communication tool,” he says. “For me, it brings attention to my work and gives me a reputation or some authority on the topics I’m covering, so I’m not worrying too much about the copyright issue or the value of it. Of course, I think a lot of photographers are worried about it, especially since Instagram made it easy for third parties to embed images in their articles. So, if you’re a freelancer and you cover a story with the idea of getting Paris Match interested in it, if they can pull it off your Instagram feed and embed it, there’s nothing much you can do about it. There are no clear rules about compensation, and it’s hard to navigate this side of the business.”



A bag filled with coloured water, that locals say scares away flies, Cambodia
© David Guttenfelder

For Guttenfelder, Instagram brings something that no traditional medium has been able to match before: direct access to an audience. “The Associated Press has a massive reach, and so does National Geographic, but with Instagram, I’m talking to people directly. They are commenting on my images, and I answer them, and that’s a very interesting thing. There’s an audience out there that maybe doesn’t read The New York Times and may be getting its news about North Korea or the Philippines from Instagram. That’s cool, especially since it’s a purely visual place. You and I have been thinking about photography for a long time, but a lot of people have been thinking about it just for the past few months – and this is exciting.”

Not only is Instagram rewriting the business model of photography, but, says Guttenfelder, it’s also rewriting the rules of photography itself. “I’m not just talking about the dimensions of the photos, or the fact that we’re shooting square images. There’s a new visual language, and not all photographers are comfortable with that. Maybe emerging photographers can jump right in more easily – someone like Matt Eich [a young photojournalist based in Virginia], who knows how to use Instagram, or the guys behind Everyday Africa [read our profile in FLTR 003], who are doing this amazing public service for Africa. They all are doing extremely important work. There’s also Alec Soth, whose view of Instagram I find fascinating. And [Gueorgui] Pinkassov, Jon Lowenstein, and Michael Christopher Brown.”

Guttenfelder doesn’t know where this is all heading, but there’s no doubt in his mind that smartphone photography will become an essential part of the photojournalism industry. “It’s going to be the way wire services and magazines work. It’s going to evolve.”

Follow David Guttenfelder on Instagram


This interview was first published in January 2014 in FLTR, the first smartphone photography magazine designed for the iPhone. Download the app now and benefit from a 30-day free subscription trial.

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