Refining Observations

Refining Observations: An Interview with Michael Christopher Brown by Andre H

In a world where nearly everyone is a photographer, and we are inundated with millions of images a day, its hard to keep track of who’s who, and, more importantly, the critical stories being told throughout the world. You all may recall earlier this year when I sat down with Ed Kashi to discuss mobile phone photography. It was during that interview that Ed introduced me to another photographer who was also using the iPhone to tell important stories. What later caught my attention was that this particular person had recently been accepted as a nominee into the legendary Magnum Photos with a portfolio dominated by mobile Phone images. Exciting, right? After reviewing his images, I wanted to know more, as I’m sure you do. So, lets do it. Everyone, Michael Christopher Brown.

AH: So tell us, who are you, what do you do, and why photography?
MCB: I use photography in areas of conflict. Photography, because it is the best way for me to communicate.

AH: Where are you right now? What story or project are you working on as you respond to these questions?
MCB: Thailand. I just photographed a friends wedding and am in the north now with my girlfriend. These past couple months I have not done much photography wise, just working on updating the stock archive and looking forward to a project in the fall.

AH: The explosion of mobile phone photography is beginning to settle now as it finds its place in the photography ring? What are your thoughts? Is mobile phone photography a blessing or a curse?
MCB: Well it depends how somebody uses the phone – in certain situations the phone helps and in other situations it hinders. But with respect to the mobile phone as an additional tool for photographers and artists, it is a blessing.

AH: As a working pro do you feel the mobile phone has leveled the playing field between dedicated pros and the average enthusiast? Why, why not? Is really just another tool, or is it something much more?
MCB: Taking professional looking photographs is easier and faster with the advent of the iPhone. There are tons of apps that make your picture looking ‘pretty’ in a matter of seconds, without having to learn Photoshop or other complex computer based imaging applications. So yes, it is possible for an average enthusiast to compete with a pro. But pretty pictures are not always good pictures, so in general it is not about the recording device that levels the playing field; It is about the developed eye and craft and the way a project is assembled that separates the pro from the enthusiast.

AH: When you’re not out in the field covering conflict what other types of subjects or genres are you shooting?
MCB: People I know, family and friends. I am not inspired now, as in the past, to do much street photography or photography of others I do not know beyond the projects that interest me.

AH: When did you first start using a smartphone professionally? What were your first thoughts on the process? How much have you changed since that first time?
MCB: I began using the phone in late 2010. I was attracted to the simplicity of operation, the size, the high ‘aperture’ (everything was in focus) and how, when using certain applications, the images would look like medium format transparency or color negative film in a matter of seconds. The quality was much lower than say 6×6 medium format, as it is still, but the benefits seemed to outweigh the drawbacks. The phone was particularly useful when photographing people, as it still is, because the public perceived a phone differently from that of a camera – they did not see it as an effective visual recording device so they were unafraid. This opened the opportunity to take certain kinds of pictures, for example the Line 2 subway series on my website. Most of the people in those images were unaware that I was taking their picture, generally from several inches away.

AH: How has the mobile phone camera changed the way you perceive photography and the world around you? How has the your mobile phone work changed the way the world perceives your work, and the issues you cover?
MCB: I used to take photography too seriously and the camera controlled certain aspects of my life. Removing the camera created a certain independence and I was able to see the world from another perspective, perhaps one more true to who I am. I am not sure if the mobile phone work changed the way the world perceives the work, perhaps the photography world but not necessarily the world in general. Images of war are images of war and for the most part it is about the content and if it is 35mm or Medium format. But I hope with this soon to be published book, Libyan Sugar, that I will be able to share something a bit different, at least with the photography world, and that the Libya work will be perceived a bit differently (more than just a body of war work created with a phone) as a result.

AH: You were recently nominated into Magnum Photos, an organization known for their traditional ways of shooting film. How will this affect your use of the mobile phone in your work? Was this considered in the acceptance process?
MCB: The portfolio submitted included only phone pictures from Libya and Congo, though I am not familiar enough with the details to comment on the acceptance process. So far it is a great relationship and I hope it continues into the years ahead. I applied because I have the utmost respect for the agency, the work of Magnum photographers was what inspired my initial interest in photography as a primary and worthwhile means of communication, but my acceptance will not inspire any further or lesser use of a phone.

AH: Can you please give me a brief breakdown of what the story was you pursued in the Congo. Why did you feel it was important? Why was this body of work submitted for consideration to Magnum over another story?
MCB: Initially I went for TIME magazine, working on a story about conflict minerals and the effects on the population in the Kivu provinces of the D.R.C. I proposed the story for TIME, to be included in their first every wireless technology issue. I photographed in Uganda, Rwanda then the D.R.C. in part of July and August, then returned again to theD.R.C. in November when the M23 rebel group took the city of Goma. I returned again in March and stayed until June, documenting mostly the population. Much of the conflict is never seen and inaccessible due to the fact that they do not want press there, it happens in the jungle and away from the main cities. I felt it was important for TIME as it showed where much of these minerals necessary to mobile technology was extracted from, and that it was important to show those involved and effected by that extraction. I submitted it to Magnum, along with the Libya work, as it best showed the direction my work was heading. Also I just spent a couple weeks in Egypt and plan to return to continue photographing the aftermath of the military takeover and the Egyptian population.

AH: How do you think mobile phone photography will continue to change the professional visual storytelling world?
MCB: Well it is not necessarily phone photography that is changing visual storytelling in the mobile world. It is the applications, the delivery platforms, and as they evolve so will visual storytelling.

AH: What is the “standard script for war reportage?” How is the iPhone changing that?
MCB: That phrase, the standard script for war reportage, may be looked at in different ways. It might, among other things, refer to the equipment being used, to the approach to war reportage in terms of the distance inspired by the equipment, or both. In this case it was both, but the importance of that work is not so much that a phone camera was used. The work takes on another meaning in book form, where the images set the stage for an experience expressed through journal entries, skype/email conversations and sms/facebook messaging. That experience takes place during the Revolution and it is about a young man going to war for the first time, searching for that age-old desire to not only be near a conflict but to get as close as possible to it in order to discover, quite purposefully, something about war and something about himself – perhaps a certain definition of life and death. So the 80 or so Libya iPhone images on my website does not do justice to that body of work. The book is sized and presented more like a novel than a photo book, and one has to go through the text to get the full message of the work. So this is all to say that it is not about the phone camera but the type of work a phone camera may inspire.

AH: You continue to shoot with hipstamatic? Even though it is known for its slow processing time, what’s your rationale forusing it in conflict zones? Why not another app? Other photographers covering conflict have been scrutinized for using heavy filters and hipstamatic when covering news worthy topics. What are your thoughts on walking this fine line between photojournalism and the fine art world?
MCB: Hipstamatic used to be very slow, about one picture every 15-30 seconds. But I enjoyed that process because it slowed me down and enabled a different way of seeing. I miss the slow version. Now one can take nine frames before having to wait for it to process, and it is interesting how the process has become lazy as a result. I did contact Hipstamatic at some point regarding the heavy filters, the splotches and vignetting, which I think looks terrible, but they were not interested at the time. When another friend and colleague then contacted them later, they worked with us to create a better lens and film though I have yet to try it out.

AH: What’s your work flow when using the iPhone. Break it down for us. What’s app(s) do you use in what order? Do you post only to IG or other photo sharing sites?
MCB: I have used the app 645 Pro. I like it because there is a spot meter and the exposure and focus can be locked, but it is slow compared with Hipstamatic. I still defer to Hipstamatic as I have yet to find an app that has less ‘shutter lag’ than Hipstamatic, though the regular camera on the iPhone 5 is now as fast if not faster than Hipstamatic, but it does not have the square frame. I post mostly to IG and sometimes will use IG to share on Facebook and Tumblr.

AH: Explain your initial reaction of being one of the 5 photographers chosen to cover Super Storm Sandy by TIME magazine with a Mobile phone. Had you already been using an iPhone to cover conflict? Was it business as usual for you, or did you have to change your workflow?
MCB: I had used a phone before on assignments, in conflict and at the time had just finished a job for TIME in the Congo using a phone. Sandy was the first time I was given an assignment to post to Instagram and I was assigned to specifically cover Manhattan. Though I could not venture out to the coast where the most intense wave action was happening, I was able to find enough to photograph, sometimes due to the Instagram comments of followers.

AH: Please explain your thought “shooting with an iPhone is similar to keeping a notebook.” What does this mean?
MCB: During the photographic process, I don’t take the phone as seriously as the camera and that makes a big difference. It starts with the physical aspects – it weighs less, has no moving parts and slides effortlessly into and out of the pocket. Then there is the photo bag – there is none, and there are no other lenses, memory cards and such to worry about. There is just one button and the world. Much like a notebook, just a pen and the world.

AH: You’ve mentioned that the limitations of an iPhone can also be beneficial? Please explain.
MCB: Well a vice is a virtue. From an artistic standpoint, the limitations are the limitations of any other camera with one lens. Because the photographer is given one focal length and ‘look,’ making a cohesive project can be easier because, beyond a certain physical distance that is then necessary, determined and perhaps predictable due to the lens and vision of the photographer, the photographer is not only mindful of the end result, how a scene will appear photographed before actually photographing the scene, but becomes a non-participant at the technical end of the photographic process. So throughout the process a photographer is never a technician, but an observer, and this role reduction refines the observation.

AH: You were quoted “ I am convinced that a photographer’s professionalism lies in the approach taken to the work, not the equipment used.” Some people may argue this point especially those who spend thousands of dollars on high quality ‘glass’ and other equipment. Why do you feel the approach is so much more important than the equipment?
MCB: I was partly referring to photographing people, when approach is everything. Body language, what you say and how you say, largely determines access and the way in which people respond, not equipment. I was also referring to the vision of the project and, in reference to the above, that equipment can negatively interfere with the quality and intensity of observation.

If you want to learn about the stories behind some of the best photos of mobile photography enthusiasts, you can check it here.