Benjamin Lowy: “The end of Instagram?”

Benjamin Lowy has covered wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, famine in Haiti and Darfur, and the aftermath of last year's devastating tsunami. Yet in recent years he’s been recognised for his work on the iPhone. He speaks with Olivier Laurent about the impact it's had on his work and his future

Olivier Laurent — 14 April 2014

KABUL, AFGHANISTAN - SEPTEMBER 11: An Afghan child jumps across a long sewage ditch in the old city on September 11 2011 in Kabul, Afghanistan. (Photograph by Benjamin Lowy/Reportage by Getty Images)BAGHLAN, AFGHANISTAN - SEPTEMBER 12: Two burqa clad women wearing matching yellow polka dot dresses beg for charity from passing motorists on September 12 2011 along a stretch of highway in Baghlan province Afghanistan. (Photograph by Benjamin Lowy/Reportage by Getty Images)KABUL, AFGHANISTAN - SEPTEMBER 24: Young Afghan men laugh as they play "bumper boats" with Multi-colored swan shapped paddle boats in Qargha Lake on September 24 2011 outside of Kabul, Afghanistan. (Photograph by Benjamin Lowy/Reportage by Getty Images)KABUL, AFGHANISTAN - SEPTEMBER 30: An Afghan balloon salesman poses on a hilltop cemetery overlooking the city on September 30 2011 in Kabul, Afghanistan. (Photograph by Benjamin Lowy/Reportage by Getty Images)TRIPOLI, LIBYA - JULY 3: Young Libyans swim on a rubble strewn stone cornish during a hot summer day on July 3, 2012 in Tripoli, Libya. (Photograph by Benjamin Lowy/Reportage by Getty Images for The Magnum Emergency Fund)ZINTAN, LIBYA - JULY 14: Omar, 26, sits in the car he drove to the front lines during last year's Libyan uprising. He refuses to fix his windshield "the sniper's round went past my head" (Photograph by Benjamin Lowy/Reportage by Getty Images for The Magnum Emergency Fund)MISRATA, LIBYA - JULY 17: Zakaria Muhammad, 28 was gravely wounded in April 2011 (Photograph by Benjamin Lowy/Reportage by Getty Images for The Magnum Emergency Fund)BENGHAZI, LIBYA - JULY 7: Libyan Federalists scream "Long Live Cyrenica," the ancient name of there state where Benghazi is based, as they flee an election polling station with voting cards and ballots to burn on July 7, 2012 in Benghazi, Libya. (Photograph by Benjamin Lowy/Reportage by Getty Images for The Magnum Emergency Fund)CONEY ISLAND, BROOKLYN - OCTOBER 29: Alberto Losano stands his ground in front of a massive wave as the storm surge from hurricane Sandy makes landfall on October 29, 2012 in Coney Island, Brooklyn. (Photograph by Benjamin Lowy/Reportage by Getty Images)BREEZY POINT, NY - OCTOBER 30: All that remains of a Breezy Point home is a porcelain Madonna following a massive five that consumed 150 homes during the super stone Sandy surge on October 30, 2012 in Breezy Point, NY. (Photograph by Benjamin Lowy/Reportage by Getty Images)BREEZY POINT, NY - OCTOBER 30: A New York City firefighter stands amidst the ruins of Breezy Point, Queens after the hurricane Sandy storm surge set off a massive fire that consumed over 150 homes. (Photograph by Benjamin Lowy/Reportage by Getty Images for Time Magazine)STATEN ISLAND, NY - OCTOBER 30: A man jumps over a puddle in front of the The John B. Caddell, a tanker ship, which ran aground on Staten Island during the Sandy storm surge on October 30, 2012 in Staten Island, NY. (Photograph by Benjamin Lowy/Reportage by Getty Images)#Sandy#SandyHurricane Sandy © Benjamin Lowy/Reportage by Getty Images#SandyHurricane Sandy © Benjamin Lowy/Reportage by Getty Images#SandyTRIPOLI, LIBYA - AUGUST 25: A rebel stands on the infamous "Hand of Gaddafi" monument in the Bab Al-Azizya compound a day after numerous rebel brigades defeated Gaddafi loyalists for control of the massive military and government center, on August 25, 2011 in Tripoli, Libya. (Photograph by Benjamin Lowy/Reportage by Getty Images)AJDABIYA, LIBYA - MARCH 25 : A scene during the civil war against Dictator Muammar Gaddafi's regime in Libya on March 25, 2011 in Ajdabiya, Libya. (Photo by Benjamin Lowy/Reportage by Getty Images)BIN JAWAD, LIBYA - MARCH 29 : A scene during the civil war against Dictator Muammar Gaddafi's regime in Libya on March 29, 2011 in Bin Jawad, Libya. (Photo by Benjamin Lowy/Reportage by Getty Images)

FLTR: What made you take mobile photography seriously in the first place?

Benjamin Lowy: It’s the camera you always have on you, and mobile photography grew because of that. And as somebody who makes a living photographing the world around him, I think that sometimes, when you’re in that professional realm, photography can become a chore.

When you first start photographing, you carry your camera with you everywhere – when you go shopping, when you go to the movies, when you’re on a date. You have it with you all the time and you take pictures of anything that’s in front of you. At some point, when you realise you need to archive these images, back them up, add metadata, add keywords and rename these files, photography suddenly becomes a job, and that drains your creativity. That’s when you stop carrying your camera with you.

Originally, when I first started shooting with the iPhone, it was always with me, in my back pocket. It freed me creatively. I wasn’t handed this rectangular thing for work; it was a different world. I could photograph my feet, my brunch, my dog. It didn’t matter. And I could automatically put it on a blog.

FLTR: Did that connectivity play a role in your adoption of the iPhone as a main photographic device?

Lowy: Yes. One of the things that made it interesting with the phone was the fact that when you’d shoot something, you could upload the image right away. You could express yourself in a different way than you’d do for work. That’s how I started in 2008. It wasn’t photojournalism – it was more an artistic outlet for me. But as my following grew online in 2010, I really started using it as a tool that allowed me to reach an audience right away. It became more of a work tool.

FLTR: What do you mean by “just another tool”?

Lowy: I love using my iPhone because it’s simple, but it is important to note that, at this point, it’s just another tool you have in your camera bag that you can use when it’s appropriate. If I’m walking around Kabul, then maybe using the iPhone was the right thing to do because it really helped me take interesting images.

Right now, we see close to 4000 images a day around us, in ads, in magazines, online, so how do you get your story about another bomb in Iraq, or women’s issues in Afghanistan, in front of an audience? It’s not that people don’t care, it’s that they’re inundated with so much stuff that you have to find a way to get past that. I think about pushing the envelope, using different aesthetics, or using tools that people never envisioned using before.

FLTR: You have more than 100,000 followers on Instagram, how does that feel?

Lowy: That came over time. I was on Tumblr for a long time, and I still am. I have about 300,000 followers there. And then Instagram grew in popularity. But while it’s great, it can also have the reverse effect, because you get so concerned about feeding that beast. At some point, all of these followers take over what you do. For example, today, I don’t post pictures of my kids being goofy on Instagram. It’s no longer a creative space for me; it’s a professional outlet. Now, I have to stop and think: “Can I post this image?”

On Facebook, I never say anything political. I’m very careful about that because I’ve spent a bit of time in Washington DC with both political parties. That’s one of the things I have to be careful about on Instagram and Tumblr. I have to be careful about how I represent myself, because it’s not longer anonymous. It’s quite ‘out there’. It definitely has a professional feel to it.

FLTR: It has become a main outlet to reach an audience. It’s part of your brand…

Lowy: Definitely. It’s intrinsically a part of my brand now – people know I do that stuff. And in this industry, when there are a lot more photographers out there, the name of the game is niche brand awareness. I went from being a war photographer to being an iPhone photographer – neither of which I’m really comfortable with. But it serves its purpose.

FLTR: Do you think these tools and networks have really changed the way we consume the news?

Lowy: In photojournalism, the name of the game is documentation. It’s about communicating with people one way or another. There’s no point in photographing an important story and not showing it. What would be the point? In the past, people would struggle to get their work seen – there was only one way to do it, and it was by getting published in magazines and newspapers. Now what’s great about these platforms is that you have a way to showcase your work.

FLTR: You mention that anyone can distribute their work now, and we’ve seen a lot of people who weren’t actual photographers emerge thanks to Instagram. Today, these people are being hired as photographers…

Lowy: I think it really is about the number of followers they have and not about the quality of their images. I’ve become friends with some of these Instagram hipsters, and we’ll be talking about a lens, for example, and how it has a fairly large aperture, and they’ll be like: “What does that mean?” Are you kidding me?! In some ways, the appreciation of quality is being degraded. It’s all about the number of followers; and for these brands that are trying to reach as many people as possible, it works.

You can have Instagram photographers that are doing this on the side, part-time, but I’m in this for the long term – I’m going to die with a camera in my hands, it’s all about a body of work. It’s about creating a legacy, a consistent vision of the world around me. And this is not dependent on the platform.

Once Instagram disappears, and it will, what’s next? I’m already getting bored of it. I think it has served its purpose. We need to find another outlet, especially since in a couple of years we’ll all be on a level playing field in terms of the number of followers, so we’ll have to look at something else.

FLTR: You say that Instagram isn’t a creative outlet for you anymore, so where do you turn to now to express that creativity?

Lowy: That’s the problem. Right now I’m questioning why I’m shooting. I’m slowing down; I’m not shooting that much anymore because I’m thinking about it. In the last three months, I’ve been on the road for assignments, so I haven’t had time to ponder what I’m going to be doing. When I was shooting at the Olympic Games, that was all shot with a high-speed camera. I was posting it on Instagram to create a taste of what readers could expect to see in the magazine. I did the Super Bowl for ESPN in the same way. I put images on their Instagram account to get more people to buy the magazine. Now I might just go to a different platform or create a pseudonym to post something completely different. I want to play with photography, but since this is such an established and professional platform for me, I can’t play around with it because that might turn the audience off.

Maybe I’ll create another name on Instagram and just post pictures of my brunch. Or maybe I’ll just start photographing cats.

Follow Benjamin Lowy on Instagram or visit his website.