Cellphone-ography: The Good, the Bad and the Ugly

The February issue of ELLE had an article of mine about photographs taken using cellphones. Since the March issue has hit the stands and there isn’t a link to the article, here’s the text.

Snap Shot

When you have a camera phone at your disposal, there’s more to behold than meets the eye. From art to lechery, it’s all happening through the lens of a phone near you.

If legends and myths of Europe are any indication, spying on women has traditionally been dangerous business. In Greek mythology, the poet Tiresias was blinded when he stumbled upon the goddess Athena as she bathed. When the Anglo-Saxon Lady Godiva rode naked through Coventry, the one who ogled at her was a tailor named Tom — thus giving birth to the term “peeping Tom” — and he was struck blind. In India, on the other hand, voyeurism has long been an accept- able pastime. When young Krishna watches gopinis bathe in the Yamuna and steals their clothes, it’s a harmless prank. A woman unaware of the male gaze upon her is almost always the beginning of a love story, whether the hero and heroine are mythical charac- ters like Arjun and Subhadra from the Mahabharat or Rajinikanth and Shriya Saran in Sivaji – The Boss (2007). What has changed in the 21st century is that voyeurism now has tech support: The camera phone.

Cameras began appearing in phones in the late 1990s, and by the 2000s, they were all the rage. Now, every model has a camera and some, like the iPhone, take photographs that are as high resolution as the images taken with a regular digital camera. The craze for phone photography isn’t unique to India. Even news companies, like the American media organisations National Public Radio and CNN, make use of such photographs and the increasingly sophisticated lenses on camera phones have inspired some people, like Kainaz Amaria, to create works of art.

Washington DC-based photographer Kainaz began taking photos on her iPhone in 2010, soon after she came to Mumbai on a Fulbright scholarship. The images became something of a “visual diary” of Kainaz’s time in India. “When I look at a particular image I can remember the day, time, they way I felt when I made the frame,” she says. “I can remember the smells and what feelings triggered me to make the frame.” The phone’s camera had its limitations but it also offered a certain degree of freedom. Sitting opposite the woman in a local train or driving past a girl in Varanasi who looked all set to time travel to the disco era, Kainaz was able to use the unobtrusive iPhone to capture the confidence, quirk and the natural grace in the people and places she saw around her. “When you approach most people, more often than not they don’t mind and in India in particular, they happily welcome the attention,” says Kainaz.

There was also the advantage of being able to take photos of people without them being aware of it. For example, the candour and unaffected quality of the images she took while on Mumbai’s local trains make them particularly eye-catching. One shows a woman listening to her iPod while travelling. Kainaz was drawn to this unknown woman’s confident body language. This commuter was an everyday Mumbai girl but completely contrary to the stereotype of the submissive Indian woman. The camera phone was discreet. Unlike the camera, it didn’t alert Kainaz’s subject or make her self-conscious.

The images in photographer Fabien Charuau’s series, Send Some Candids, on the other hand, reveal a very different angle of the camera phone’s potential. Send Some Candids is made up of photographs Fabien procured from the internet, from dubious websites and message boards. All of them are of women and all of them have been taken on camera phones. Fabien has 10,000 photographs in his collection and it is barely the tip of India’s candid photography iceberg.

“It started when I saw a guy take a photograph of my wife on the street with his phone, and there was nothing I could do about it because he was quite far away,” says Fabien, who is a well-known fashion photographer and making his first forays into art. He noticed men were clicking everywhere. “On my shoots, on the road, in buses, there is always a mobile phone, like the light boy’s phone, taking pictures. I started wondering what they did with these photographs.”

Fabien’s hunt led him to pornography sites, many of which are devoted to this brand of candid photography. The women in the photographs were almost always unaware of how they were being shot. “Most often, men take photos of family members or women they don’t dare approach,” says Fabien. Many of the photographs are blurred. Sometimes, faces are removed so that the woman is turned into an anonymous and eroticised body. “There’s so much frustration. It really shows you the imbalance between the sexes at the street level. More than the results, it’s the fact that they can click and invade the privacy that is important to these men. That’s their sense of power. Taking the photo, it’s like a visual rape.” It’s interesting to note that in the course of his research, Fabien didn’t find similar websites dedicated to women taking photos of men.

On the message boards, along with lewd comments, Fabien found detailed tutorials, teaching members how to take such photographs. “Some of them are very technically sound and in many, you see a lot of the techniques from street photography,” says Fabien. For example, much like photographer interested in capturing a public space without artful poses, the candid photographer finds a vantage point and waits for the right moment. “The intention is completely different but the way it’s shot, the tactics are disturbingly similar,” Fabien admitted.

With Send Some Candids, which was part of an exhibition in Mumbai last year and can be seen on Fabien’s website, Fabien turned the tables on candid photographers. Just as they insidiously invade the woman’s privacy, Fabien infiltrated into their space and exposed them to scrutiny by effectively stealing their photographs, appropriating them to create his work of art and putting them up for public display. With camera phones clicking in abandon and people developing apps like X-ray – point it at a photo of a model in a catalogue and the app reveals her in her underwear – Fabien’s artistic response is the only possible retaliation. There is nothing one can do to prevent photographs being taken or being shared online. “The only comfort, if you can call it that, is that if someone has taken a photo of you, you’re among hundreds and thousands of photos,” says Fabien. “You can’t control photography. The only thing you can do is try to stare them down.”

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5 thoughts on “Cellphone-ography: The Good, the Bad and the Ugly”

  1. I really like this artist idea.

    I dont want to give up my shitty little block of a phone for just that reason. It’s sly. [slyer than a new bigger iphone] You can slip it in your pocket or hold it so it doesn’t look like you’re taking a photo. Sometimes if there is something or someone odd (like on the tube) I can take a photo surreptitiously. Downside – poor quality images, no control over depth of field, little over light and movement.

    btw is this a new blog?

    1. More of a catalogue for articles published than a blog. But yes, it’s new.

      Incidentally, the dodgiest photos are taken on crummy, little phones that are far from smart.

  2. Hmm..thoughtful. And sometimes, just having a cell with a camera gives people that ‘authority’ to capture anything and everything. Or so they think! After all, a camera is but an extension of our eyes, and what we cannot get enough of seeing, we capture. For posterity of perversion..

    Reminds me of that line from Bruce Almighty – “Free will is the only thing I can’t control” (Morgan Freeman says, as God) 🙂

    Lovely post.

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