At the age of 34, Ben Lowy is both young and old for a conflict photographer.
“A colleague of mine, a German AP photographer, was killed [in Libya] recently. She was sitting in her car and someone just came up and shot her.”
The conflict photojournalist and iPhoneographer is matter-of-fact when he says this. The tears for his fellow war correspondent have long since been shed and dried up, replaced by pragmatism forged in the crucible of war.
“People in Libya have been told: ‘If you see a white person with a camera, kill them. They’re probably a journalist.’”
The ruthlessness of this statement is not lost on the room – a collection of media and Apple PR people, gathered in Sydney for the Head On Photo Festival.
You get the sense that each time Lowy tells this story, the father-of-two has likely considered that it could have just as easily been him.
For the Time magazine photographer—his Instagram photo of a wild sea made the cover of the Hurricane Sandy issue of 12 November, 2012 — Lowy looks and acts like just another guy, except for one thing: His photographer’s eye.
They say: The best camera is the one that’s with you. With the advent of the camera phone, this is truer than ever. For people like Lowy, the humble iPhone photo has been elevated to the level of art.
“Don’t think that iPhone photography is separate from photography; it’s all the same thing,” says Lowy.
“At the end of the day, it doesn’t matter what tool you used; the image is what counts. Getting that decisive moment, that expression on someone’s face; that’s what counts.”
The camera phone has seen many remarkable advances, but none more so than in recent years, with the advent of smartphone apps.
For those who can remember, the first camera phones were bulky devices, increased in size and mass due to the addition of camera circuitry, lens and sometimes a flash.
While the pixel power in those first widely available camera phones is laughable by today’s standards, no longer is the thought of publishing these photos an unrealistic dream.
Newspapers and magazines around the world are now doing what websites have been able to for years; using smartphone photos to tell stories.
Don’t think that iPhone photography is separate from photography; it’s all the same thing
Now every smartphone user can instantly communicate photos and video to the world, en masse, via any number of social media apps. It’s power of media that until recently the consumer was yet to experience.
More than just a smartphone camera in Lowy’s pocket, his iPhone has also proven a lifesaver. When a large DSLR camera would draw too much unwanted, and potentially deadly, attention, Lowy’s iPhone was always at his side.
“There were definitely some moments in Libya, when I was in a hairy situation, when I’m glad I had the phone, because of the anonymity it offers,” says Lowy.
“I could just pull it out of my pocket, take a quick photo and disappear into the crowd.”
Take a browse through any one of this online galleries and you can’t help get a sense of the opportunistic moments that have been captured; fleeting and glorious, existing for but a moment and photographed in the blink of an eye. When a large SLR would have proven slow to set up, Lowy’s camera phone was there.
The dominance of Apple’s iPhone is hard to ignore. While market share for other mobile companies (Samsung, LG et al) indicates otherwise, the iPhone is actually the most popular camera in use today, as measured by flickr.
In fact, the four top favourite cameras of flickr users are all iPhones (but who’s counting). The five top camera phones are likewise all iPhones, which makes Apple the number one camera brand above heavyweights like Canon, Nikon, Samsung, Panasonic and Sony.
While some people debate the merits of camera phones and the potential impact they have on privacy, the anonymity Lowy mentions has allowed him to approach many delicate situations in a sensitive way, giving him the ability to help victims bring their story to the world.
This was the situation during Hurricane Sandy when he was sent to cover a fire, which had burned down some 200 homes in Queens. Lowy arrived on the scene to find “a bunch of people who lived there, who were crying.”
“No one died, but their homes were gone. There were a bunch of photographers from Reuters and AP who were just clicking away, and people were getting visibly upset.
“So I just stayed on the sides and waited until they were shooed away and left. Then I took a much longer, quieter moment to take a picture on my phone, in silence, without a big camera, because it was subtler.”
A champion of iPhoneography since 2008, while his peers may be reticent to view camera phone photography as authentic, Lowy has achieved feats many would find hard using even a traditional SLR camera. The difference, as always, is in his mindset.
For anyone considering a career in photography, chances are your camera phone has already given you a start. Lowy’s advice for you is simple:
“Don’t worry about what you think people will want to see; show people who you are. Your pictures are the biggest window into your soul.
“When you present that work to people, you should show them who you are, what your photography is about. There’s a piece of your soul in everything you do. You have to stay true to who you think you are.”
Sydney’s Head On Photo Festival showcases the work of 900 photographers and finishes on Sunday, June 8.
All photos taken on the iPhone 5s.