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February 16, 2011

War Vs. Summer Camp: Hipstamatic Debate Just More Distraction Game?

A Grunt’s Life” was a lighter feature story within the context of The Times’s larger “Year at War” project, following the First Battalion, 87th Infantry of the 10th Mountain Division in northern Afghanistan. This essay was not a news story. The reporter, James Dao, and I had racked our brains trying to figure out how to tell the story after having been on so many missions that often go nowhere and have no clearly defined story arc.

We spent so much time with these men. They had become so comfortable with us that we were given a rare and honest glimpse into their lives. For us, it sometimes resembled a summer camp with guns more than a military operation.

– Damon Winter/Lens Blog


What App Did You Use in the War, Daddy?

It doesn’t bother me all that much that Damon Winter shot “A Grunt’s Life” using an iPhone with a Hipstamatic app (backstory and Winter’s response).  What does bother me is how much the impassioned debate surrounding the aesthetics of Winter’s images takes place at the expense of their content.  I’m not saying the Hipstamatic debate doesn’t raise issues over how, and how seriously the viewer percieves the content. What I am taking note of is how the this debate is taking place, in large part, at the expense of the actual editorial content. In my mind, this discussion then becomes just one more instance where the Afghan War, and specific visuals that have found their way into the media stream — toned or not toned, bordered or not bordered, more or less blurry– are  either ignored, taken for specimens or, almost comically subsumed in a formalist debate over whatever-the-heck-war scene feels more real or surreal.

Looking at these photos, what I can’t help seeing (and wishing others did, too) is how our view of the war is mediated and co-opted by: the largely unquestioned practice of embedding, the predominance of the “human interest” story at the expense of a news narrative and any contextualization of the larger battle, and the pull to be fanciful.

Considering the photos themselves, I’m not sure what the photo above is supposed to tell us of the war.  Is it about power and deification — the American fighter in Afghanistan as Transformer? or our team’s moral or spiritual impetus in the embodiment of pure light?  Or, are we aliens? Cool and awesome isn’t doing it for me.

I’ve got two hang ups with these images. First, they exemplify the major payoff for the military in the canon of post-9/11 war photography, the photo setting up an intense emotional identification with U.S. soldiers divorced from their identity as the embodiment of the U.S. war machine.  Second, these photos play on another trend in war coverage over the past few years, which is the transformation of the soldier and killing agents (the gun notwithstanding) into innocent man-child. “The boys sleeping” has been a popular motif. Often, these photos have a homo-erotic resonance to them, although it’s much more comfortable thinking: “puppies.”

Perhaps the color saturation and the “back yard” feel of the Hipstamatic app does amplify the sense of fancy here. Because the mundanity of troop life in Afghanistan has been a greater rather than lesser narrative in the war coverage, however, what I mostly get here — and it’s worthy to some degree — is the message that the visual diet of this war has equated all too much with stretching dogs and roosters.

(Photos: Damon Winter/New York Times. Caption 1: Private First Class David Gedert put on his gear in the early morning sunlight in a seized compound where Delta Company 2nd platoon stayed and fought for six days in Nahr-i-Sufi in Kunduz province in Northern Afghanistan. Caption 2: After marching for five hours through the darkness of the early morning the soldiers gathered together to rest in a tiny room after setting up their fighting position inside a seized compound. The soldiers packed in close together to use each other’s body heat in the coldest part of the morning. Caption 3: PFC Christopher “Bunga” Daniel rests with Specialist Joshua Chamberlin, the platoon medic at the compound. Caption 4: Red, who follows 2nd platoon around on patrols, made his way to the village two miles away from the ANP district headquarters and spent several days with the men there. Here he stretches, next to a litter loaded with MRE trash and water bottles ready to be taken out of the compound.)

  • karen h

    Given the context of this analysis, Winters’ “They had become so comfortable with us that we were given a rare and honest glimpse into their lives” is an incredible sentence.

  • bob sacha

    Bravo for focusing the discussion on the content of the photos and away from the sideshow mania of the technique.

    In an ideal world (already a big jump) makes me wonder what would you have liked to see in this type of reportage that would have been fresh and surprising?

  • Tom White

    I’ve mentioned in this debate that I actually think in certain cases the app effect helps read the content and I appreciate the use of style when it does compliment and lead to the substance. The problem for me, as a teacher of digital photography and photoshop techniques to photojournalism students is that the ethical guidelines of what is acceptable (as defined by organisations such as the AP and The NY Times own contract) would preclude these from being treated as ’straight’ photojournalism and would instead mean they should be labeled as ‘photo illustration’. It is difficult for me to tell a class they can’t/shouldn’t process their camera’s files to look like this when the front page of a major newspaper is publishing post produced, stylised photography as news journalism.

    I have great respect for Damon’s work (and he has often experimented with photographic techniques) but I have to take issue with his claim that because the app applies a consistant effect then it is ok to use it and that renders the debate moot – it is possible to turn the app off and shoot ‘unfiltered’!

    It is a fine line though, as I also agree with the argument that to a certain extent this effect is the same as choosing to use a specific film, camera (holgas constantly cited!) etc to create a stylised image.

    In an academic context, in my classes, this debate matters. Perhaps it matters less so to the ‘man on the street’.

    But enough of that. I just wanted to state that I believe the debate around the style is an important one and one worth having, especially in the light of potential digital manipulation of imagery and it’s effect on journalistic standards.

    Thank you for actually bringing the content to the discussion. I happen to agree with the analysis, but the trend to portray soldiers as ‘childlike’ and to allude to homoeroticism has been around since at least the time of the ancient greeks. So in this case, there is a long tradition at work here.

  • isabella

    I feel this is just another way to romanticize war: show it as special and glowing, soft focused and other worldly. It is not journalism. It is art with an objective. Just as the news stories about war events should remain clear and impartial, the accompanying images should too. If you want to make war a “hip” event, take it to the galleries where it is understood that the images are manipulated for emotional impact. Because Winters’ embed was so uneventful, he feels compelled to glam it up. Otherwise, it would be just a true story about the boredom of war.

    • bartcopfan


  • g

    Interesting takeaway from this is the amazing amount of plastic trash this war is producing.

    • momly

      Seriously. With the exception of the poultry, that could be my house after a few weeks collecting. That dog even looks like MY dog!

      I didn’t look at the text when this first loaded; I just looked at teh photo and thought this was a new video game.

  • duckrabbit

    It is journalism … just through a different kind of lens then we are used to. The world fed to us through the media is a construct, it’s just that we often don’t notice it unless we read this wonderful blog.

    Michael is bang on.

    Let me put it another way. We are at war. There is a fucking war going on. People are dyeing. Others are making money, but the photography world is debating apps.

    NYT’s please sort out your policy so that we can teach our classes (agree with Tom).

    Michael thank you SO MUCH for saying this. God bless you.

  • GlennP

    First of all, there are no colorblind soldiers – US soldiers, at least.

    That said, any camera is just a box with a lens, but this “app” gives a false view of the world the photographer is alleged to be reporting on. You see, when the photographer manipulates film outside the bounds of accepted photojournalist policy, it is called editorializing.

    In the civilian world, that practice is accepted as “art,” but in the world of journalism, it’s called making the photographs all about you, the photographer.

    The photographer has already admitted that he had no idea what he was reporting (in the reporting biz, that’s called “having no hook,” or, “not a clue”), so he offered us this art school project. He may as well have presented us with a portfolio of Pet Dogs of Afghanistan.

  • Nina

    The images are beautiful, sensual and conjure feelings of romantic love. They have zero journalistic value and function more like a huge kiss to their subjects and the DOD. Michael nailed it once again. Anyone else see the hipstamatic app as a way to feminize the subject matter through soft focus, pinks and muted greens?

  • stephen ferry

    I do not know whether the look of this app could be achieved by a string of photoshop moves or whether it is native to the iphone, but this conversation is just like the one that should have been had over the use of the Holga and other plastic-lens cameras in documentary work.

    Maybe because forums like the Bag did not exist a decade ago, but there was not much debate (that I am aware of) over the political/social/ideological meaning of the plastic camera movement back then.

    Teru Kuwayama is one of the best practioners:

    His work with Holgas and the like may romanticize – whats wrong with a litte love? – but, to my mind, does not mystify the moral equation.


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