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Photojournalism & The Smart Phone

Japhet Weeks, a multimedia journalist and Yuli Sollsken, a photojournalist, are a couple that live and work together in Cairo, Egypt. I was following Japhet from some months but never realized about Yuli. When I discovered that they are a couple, doing amazing images, each one from a particular view of the same event, subject sometimes, I couldn’t help but wanting to interview this cool American duo that happens to live in some of the most dangerous zones in the world. What could be a problem makes it a source of inspiration for doing their documenting work in a beautiful and unique way.

To make it short I will let them tell us all about it. – Fabs Grassi

F:  Fabs  J:  Japhet  Y:  Yuli

F: Can you tell the readers, briefly how you both got into photojournalism? And then, working together?

J: Yuli and I met in China in 2004. We were both studying Mandarin. She was trained as an anthropologist and I as a historian. We lived in China for about two years together. I wrote and Yuli focused on taking photos. This was before iPhones of course so nothing mobile from those days.

We always wanted to work together. It just sort of happened naturally. But over time, it takes hard work to work together in what are often stressful environments.

F: How much do you use mobile photography in your daily work?

J: When we are out on assignment we both take photos on our iphones. I’m a video journalist and Yuli is a photojournalist. For me, mobile photography is a way of capturing a still moment. Usually I have to frame things up on my video camera and let the action play out. Mobile photography lets me freeze particular moments I find compelling — it’s a very liberating feeling for a video person really.

Y: Most of my published work is done on a Leica (using film) or a Canon 5D Mark II (sollskenmedia.com) but when I’m out in the field I often take iPhone photos which I file immediately for clients.

J: Outside of our “professional” lives, we take a lot of mobile photos because we both feel they are a way to capture a place in a very honest way. Most people in Egypt don’t expect us to be snapping pix on our phones, so we see them in their daily lives, unvarnished. For us mobile photography is a sort of compulsive collecting of sorts. Yuli as an anthropologist and me as a historian. We are cataloging daily life in all the places we’ve lived and traveled to: Russia, the CIS, Europe, North African and the Middle East.

The couple getting ready to capture the action in Amman, Jordan.

F: As photojournalists,  do you approach your subject differently when you are in an action scene like those protests in Cairo to something like the Chernobyl series that are more documental work?

Y: There’s a lot more chance involved with mobile photography then there is with my regular camera work. When I use my DSLR or Leica, I know pretty much what kind of image I am going to get in terms of framing, dof, etc. I often shoot with hipstamatic on my iphone so I hav a general sense of what the image will be like, but there is always that moment of expectation when your waiting for the picture to “develop” before you know what you’re working with. Honestly, I think it’s brought a little bit of the magic of photography back to me.

But another factor in using mobile photography for me is the immediacy in terms of sending it out/publishing it. Sure a DSLR gives you images on the spot — no need to develop film like with the Leica. But you stil have to get off your camera onto a computer before you can edit and file. When I’m at a big protest, the iphone let’s me capture a compelling image and more or less immediately publish it. That’s game changer for professional photogs I think.

  Yuli’s image during the Egyptian Elections’ protests

J: In the field, I’m working with big video camera. And at the end of the day I have hours of footage that need to be logged. Interviews need to be transcribed, and sometimes translated. The Chernobyl project is for a full-length documentary film — The Babushkas of Chernobyl — that will hopefully come out this year. But that means that the end result won’t be visible to people for a while. So mobile photography allows me to tell the same stories I’m filming, without all of the months of production time that it will take for those stories to get out in their finished form. Also, I would never run around with a DSLR hanging from neck because it would get in the way of filming, so the small size of the iphone lets me take stills while still mostly focussing on video.

Japhet’s documentary portraiture in Chernobyl

F: Do you think Instagram or any other mobile photo sharing platforms can be like Twitter for breaking news/real time coverings, especially after Hurricane Sandy?

Y: I think this is already the case. A lot of great photogs in the US were documenting Hurricane Sandy. Japhet and I publish from protests in Egypt. And if you search hashtags while events are breaking you’ll find professional and non-professional photographers alike sharing their images. A lot of the great work on Instagram isn’t breaking news. It’s compelling street photography from places like Tehran or Tajikistan or North Korea. But as more professionals embrace it, I think we’ll start seeing more, great, realtime images.


Japhet’s photo from a young protester Eid – wearing an Egyptian flag mask- on Tahir square protesting against Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi.

J: When I was in Libya for their latest parliamentary elections, Ben Lowy and I were both publishing realtime images to Instagram.

 Japhet’s image of a Libyan rebel standing guard at an intersection as the Libyans head to the polls 07.07.2012

F: Glad you mentioned it Japhet! How important is mobile photography for the actual and the next generation of photojournalists? What Ben Lowy said : “I think it (iPhone) engenders a greater sense of intimacy with subjects because you’re not putting a big camera in their face.” plays in everyone’s mind already?  Here he clear says that he is much more for the story telling/ documental aspect than to the perfection that DSLR brings. What do you think about it?

Y and J: We totally agree. Cell phones allow us not only to be more intimate but also more immediate. Big cameras (video or still) tend to make people nervous. Some even feel like their lives aren’t “important” enough to be photographed or filmed, so you’ve already altered reality with big, imposing, professional gear. Mobile photography — at least for now — seems “less serious” and this means that people are willing to open up more and be themselves. That makes the photos better I think. Because really we get hung up on quality and talk about megapixels and resolution until we’re blue in the face, but the most important thing is a compelling story.


Yuli’s documentary portraiture in Chernobyl

F: Continuing on this topic, more and more news organizations are using Hipstamatic or Instagram images.  Do you feel that its “cheating” if you use Hipstamatic to tell a story? Or how far would you go in post processing your photos?

J: Look, Richard Koci Hernandez(a fellow juxter), who was a teacher of mine at UC Berkeley, said recently that we’re kidding ourselves if we don’t think that choosing a certain F-stop or ISO isn’t a filtering process. Ultimately, any photo you take is filtered. It’s filtered through your lens, and in post when you chose to vignette or not, etc. As a journalist I’m trying to convey the truth. This is obviously a very complicated process because of all the choices that are made before the viewer sees the final photo. Why did I go to one protest and not another. If it’s not an aerial shot, I can make the viewer think a venue is more packed than it really is. So when I go about filtering, I try to alter the actual image as little as possible. I want the colors to reflect what I see. And I don’t want to vignette too much to force the viewer to look in a certain place. I try to frame it in such a way that what I find is most important is clearly visible.

 

Japhet’s image from Anti-Morsi protesters photographing themselves beside a Republican Guard tank.

Y: I don’t feel it’s cheating at all. It’s just another tool in the toolbox. Purists once thought digital photography was cheating, but no one is saying that now. The skepticism around mobile photography will fade too and we’ll start worrying about other things when we have cameras tiny enough to fit onto contact lenses!

F: I really love to see in these images, how one is clearly a man’s image and the other, a woman’s image. When you are together, shooting, do you feel that you are looking for different subjects, different stories? I would like you two to talk about these images below:

Japhet, please talk about this moment:

J: This was taken at a protest on Tahrir Square in Cairo are Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi gave himself unprecedented powers in order to push through an Islamist constitution. The constitution eventually passed in a referendum, but many Egyptians tried to stop that from happening. I don’t know who these two men are in the photo beyond the fact that they are two opposition demonstrators who ran into one another at the protest and embraced. I snapped the image with a video camera in one hand an iphone in the other. I like the image because it shows an intimate moment and an emotion other than anger or outrage at a massive protest. It seems also like a moment in parentheses amid a lot of chaos.

Yuli, please talk about this moment:

Y: These images were shot at the same protest as Japhet’s image. The top image is of a man holding a koran and christian cross. The bottom image is of two muslim women chanting. The recent opposition protestes included muslims and christians coming together to criticize the government and the proposed constitution. I wanted to tell that story and it seems that a diptych like this one did the job.

As a woman, I think it’s easier for me to take pictures of women than it is for Japhet. So though I am not intentionally focussed on woman, I often find myself in situations where I’m photographing them. Also, at these big protests, there is the threat of being harassed by men, so sticking with women is never a bad idea.

F: Besides your photojournalism work, do you have other creative projects? How did you guys ended up doing the Chernobyl series?

Y: We would love to exhibit our Instagram work but haven’t gotten around to reaching out to anyone. The Chernobyl series, as mentioned earlier, is part of a documentary film project (The Babushkas of Chernobyl) for which Japhet is the director of photography. The film is planned to be this year.

F: Is there any tips you can give for those who want to get into documental/photojournalism?

J and Y: It’s hard work. I think you really have to be committed to doing it or else, you’ll lose motivation.

Japhet’s documenting protests of the Presidential Palace in Cairo

F: What was the most dangerous situation you (alone or together) had been through?

J and Y: The most dangerous thing we do every day is drive around in Egyptians cabs!

J: I was in Damascus in December and though it was relatively safe in the Syria, there was always the possibility of something going pear shaped. Here’s a link to some mobile photos taken there and published on MSNBC’s photoblog.

Y: Reporting from big protests in the Egypt always has an element of danger.

Thank you both for your time and for the amazing work you both deliver to the world. And take care in those Egyptians cabs!!!

For more info: 
Japhet Weeks:  Vimeo / Instagram
Yuli Sollsken:   Website / Instagram

5 Comments

  1. What an incredible article. Extremely inspiring! I appreciate their philosophy and approach, as well as the amazing images produced. Thank you all for sharing this.

  2. Well done Fabs, really enjoyed reading this.

  3. Great article!

  4. Nice! A good read.Thanks,

  5. Well done Fabs, great interview for a very interesting topic!

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