Sean D. Elliot/The Day
Shortly before Facebook went public in a now somewhat notorious Initial Public Offering the company acquired a small company by the name of Instagram, a widely popular smart-phone based photo sharing app.
Now, if you don't use Instagram, or don't even know what it is, then you probably don't have an iPhone or similar device. Something like 50-million people use Instagram. I am among them.
This despite a host of issues about the app as it applies to use in the field of visual journalism. The issue was first raised over a year ago around the use of a different iPhone app called Hipstamatic. New York Times photojournalist Damon Winter won a prestigious award from the University of Missouri's Pictures of the Year International competition with a series of photos taken with his iPhone and processed through the Hipstamatic app of U.S. troops on patrol in Afghanistan.
The POYi rules specifically prohibit digital manipulation of images entered except in a category specifically for such images yet the contest judges looked past the effect of the app, which alters the colors and focus of images to emulate images created by film-based novelty cameras popular with photographers looking for a different effect in their work.
Instagram does similar things to images. Users can apply any of a variety of filters to their images making them appear to have been taken with high contrast film, or old-fashioned instant cameras or old compact cameras. I have albums of photos at home of little square images fading and yellow just like some of the images created by this app.
As journalists we live by a strict code of ethics that prohibits altering the content of photos in any way that would deceive readers. The question then is raised; do the filters in the apps fundamentally alter the image's content in a deceptive way?
In the end the answer to that has been rendered by many experts in the field that it does not. The filters are both obvious enough in their effect as to not be deceptive and the alterations themselves are not changing the overall content of the images.
There are aesthetic issues that are separate from the ethical considerations, and I come down strongly that use of the filters as a crutch to make a boring photo more interesting is not a visual ideal to which I subscribe. When I'm working as a journalist my goal is to tell stories in as clear and accurate a way as possible. I want to create images that bring our readers into the story and to do that I believe in avoiding visual clutter and gimmicks.
There are also issues around intellectual property rights. Instagram, as well as Facebook and many other social media sites, require in the Terms of Service to use the sites that the owner of a photograph grant an unlimited license to the images which the site then can use as they see fit. This may not be an issue of great importance to most of the general pubic, but for photographers who make their living taking photos and then licensing those images it creates a conflict when an unlimited license is granted carte blanch to a site which fundamentally undercuts the copyright holder's control over how the image is used. Whether or not this is an unbearable obstacle is still in discussion.
And so, as I said, I'm using Instagram on a daily basis. If you follow me in twitter: @seandelliot you will get to see some of my work. You can also, if you use the app, follow my feed directly @sdelliot. In either case you'll have to be ready to see an occasional personal photo, my kids, my vacation travels or such, interspersed with images from my daily travels on behalf of The Day.
Sometimes The Day will include my Twitter feed into coverage of news events. Then you'll see not only my comments, but some of those photos through that interface.