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Original author: 
Fred Ritchin

What do we want from our media revolution? Not just where is it bringing us—but where do we want to go? When the pixels settle, where do we think we should be in relationship to media—as producers, subjects, viewers? Since all media inevitably change us, how do we want to be changed?

There used to be a time when one could show people a photograph and the image would have the weight of evidence—the “camera never lies.” Certainly photography always lied, but as a quotation from appearances it was something viewers counted on to reveal certain truths. The photographer’s role was pivotal, but constricted: for decades the mechanics of the photographic process were generally considered a guarantee of credibility more reliable than the photographer’s own authorship.

But this is no longer the case. The excessive use of photographs to “brand” an image (whether of oneself online, of celebrities, of products, of major companies, or of governments), and to illustrate preconceptions rather than to uncover what is there (presidents are made to look presidential, and poor people are generally depicted as victimized), as well as the extraordinary malleability of the photograph due to software such as Photoshop, make photography more of a rhetorical strategy, like words, rather than an automatic proof of anything. Photographs must now persuade, often in concert with other media, rather than rely on a routine perception that they inevitably record the way things are.

The billion or so people with camera-equipped cellphones, meanwhile, make photography, like all social media, an easily distributed exchange of information and opinions with few effective filters to help determine which are the most relevant and accurate. The professional photojournalist and documentarian, now a tiny minority of those regularly photographing, often are unsure not only how to reach audiences through the media haze, but also how to get their viewers to engage with the often extraordinarily important situations they witness and chronicle.

This moment of enormous transition forces a rethinking of what photography can do, and what we want it to accomplish. For example, if a young person wanted to become a war photographer, we have hundreds of books showing how others have photographed war. But what if a young person wanted, instead, to become a photographer of peace? The genre, unfortunately, does not yet exist.

Perhaps, then, we might want to begin focusing less on the spectacle of war and more on those impacted by the consequences of war—as Monica Haller has done, along with many others. The all-type cover of her book, Riley and His Story, disputes any conventional reading: “This is not a book. This is an invitation, a container for unstable images, a model for further action…. Riley was a friend in college and later served as a nurse at Abu Ghraib prison. This is a container for Riley’s digital pictures and fleeting traumatic memories. Images he could not fully secure or expel and entrusted to me…. This is not a book. It is an object of deployment.”

The collaboration is intended to help Riley Sharbonno resurrect buried memories and deal with some of what he went through in a war that destabilized his life. There are pictures that he does not remember taking of events that he does not remember witnessing. Photographs, once rediscovered, sometimes assuage his guilt, providing a reason for what has happened. Some of the grand half-truths about war are diluted. But there is anger, too: “I want you to see what this war did to Riley.”

Similarly, Jennifer Karady revisits the enduring trauma of violent conflict in her collaborations with soldiers, working for about a month with each one to re-stage calamitous situations in civilian life that they had experienced in war. Finding a discarded tire on the side of the road in Virginia evokes memories of a possible IED, for instance, or looking out of a window in upstate New York while protected by sandbags recalls a vulnerability to attack—each of these pictures is made with family members participating. Karady views the procedure as potentially therapeutic for those involved, while helping to make the legacy of war somewhat more comprehensible to family and friends stateside. And unlike the imagery from so many war photographers, her pictures are not at all glamorous.

Some are also using their photographs to make sure that the violence is not forgotten by the broader society. In her project “Reframing History,” Susan Meiselas returned to Nicaragua in 2004 with nineteen murals created from her own photographs made during that country’s Sandinista Revolution twenty-five years earlier. She placed the murals at the sites where the imagery was originally made, collaborating with local communities in visualizing their own collective memories and also helping to better acquaint Nicaraguan youth with their own past. (Imagine then if it were possible to place photographs from Robert Frank’s landmark book, The Americans, made in the 1950s, on billboards around this country where the photos were made—given the critical nature of many of his photographs, it would be an extraordinary way to gauge societal change, or the lack of it.)

And some are trying to share the vagaries of war as they occur in a sort of real-time family album. Basetrack, created by Teru Kuwayama and Balazs Gardi, was an experimental social-media project that consisted of a small team of embedded photographers primarily using iPhones, which focused upon about a thousand Marines in the 1st Battalion, Eighth Marines, during their deployment to southern Afghanistan in 2010–11. They curated a news feed alongside their own efforts, employed Google Maps as an interface, wrote posts in addition to photographing, all with a view “to connect[ing] a broader public to the longest war in U.S. history,” intent on involving their audience, many of them family members, in the discussion. Trying to establish transparency, they created an editing tool for the military to censor photographs and texts that might put soldiers in danger, and asked the military to supply reasons for the censorship, which were then made visible when a viewer placed the cursor over the blacked-out section.

It was a relatively effective system, until in 2011, when the Facebook discussion became too difficult for the military to handle and the photographers were “uninvited” a month before the troops’ deployment ended. Apparently a good deal of the content that military officials found problematic was about relatively minor matters, such as parents complaining that their sons and daughters had to wear brown and not white socks on patrol. Now only the Facebook page is still active, with curated news and continuing audience discussions. One mother’s response to the project: “It has truly saved me from a devastating depression and uncontrollable anxiety after my son deployed. Having this common ground with other moms helped me so much and gives me encouragement each day.”

And then there are others who, rather than wait for the apocalypse, are attempting to see what can be done to help prevent it. In James Balog’s long-term photography project, “Extreme Ice Survey,” cameras are positioned in remote arctic and alpine areas, automatically photographing the melting of the ice to help more precisely calculate the impact of global warming, and to create a visual record of a planet in crisis. According to the EIS website: “currently, 28 cameras are deployed at 13 glaciers in Greenland, Iceland, the Nepalese Himalaya, Alaska and the Rocky Mountains of the U.S. These cameras record changes in the glaciers every half hour, year-round during daylight, yielding approximately 8,000 frames per camera per year.”

Or, if we want to make sure that the opinions of the subjects photographed are better understood, why not at times show them their image on the back of the digital camera, and ask what they think of the ways in which they are depicted, and record their voices?  An even more collaborative exchange of perceptions is that between Swedish photographer Kent Klich and Beth R., a former prostitute and drug addict living in Copenhagen whom he began photographing in the 1980s. In the 2007 book Picture Imperfect, his photographs, along with case histories and images from Beth’s family album as a child, are paired with an enclosed DVD of Beth’s daily life for which she herself was the primary filmmaker.

Finally, when making pictures, maybe they can serve another, more practical function. For French artist JR’s 2008–2009 project, “28 Millimeters, Women Are Heroes,” photographs were not only used to document the faces of women living in modest dwellings in various countries, but in Kenya he began to make the oversize prints water-resistant so that when used as roof coverings the pictures themselves would help to protect the women’s fragile houses in the rainy season

Countless innovators, often working far from the spotlight, are today creating visual media that can be useful in a variety of ways. Rather than simply attempting to replicate previous photographic icons and strategies, these newer efforts are essential to revitalizing a medium that has lost much of its power to engage society on larger issues.

And then what is needed are people who can figure out effective and timely ways to curate the enormous numbers of images online from all sources—amateur and professional alike—so this imagery too can play a larger role. As badly as we need a reinvention of photography, we also will require an assertive metaphotography that contextualizes, authenticates, and makes sense of the riches within this highly visible but largely unexplored online archive.

Fred Ritchin is a professor at NYU and co-director of the Photography & Human Rights program at the Tisch School of the Arts. His newest book, Bending the Frame: Photojournalism, Documentary, and the Citizenwas published by Aperture in 2013.

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Ruth Prieto

Safe Heaven

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This work is the second chapter of a documentary project about Mexican immigrant women in New York. Some of them have indigenous backgrounds so that Spanish is not their first language. I decided to document their lives during their free time at their homes.

Homes have deep emotional meaning. Through their homes we get to know them, their motivations, their thoughts and aspirations along with the conditions they live in that reveal how much they have achieved and struggled. They have painted and decorated their rooms according to their own personal story and choice. I am exploring the notion of safety and confidence in relation to space. This project is a new interpretation of immigration using color as a unifying metaphor of diversity and acceptance. Each woman will be identified with a color palette so that a mosaic of color represents diversity and the beauty of it.

With these images I want to present different moments in what could be one person’s story. My motivation for this project is to create a dialogue about migration and xenophobia to develop solutions to related social issues. Through these images I go beyond the public scenario offering a deeper knowledge of the living conditions of one of the major labor forces in the US.

Furthermore I want to communicate in a level that is common to all: the bittersweet journey of life in which moments of struggle and joy take place.

This project is an extraordinary window to the live of Mexican immigrant women where they can be masters of their own world, where they can control their time and their choices, where they have a safe heaven.

 

Bio

Ruth Prieto Arenas was born and raised in Mexico City. She studied Communications and worked as a juniour account executive in visual media. Later on she worked in the film industry as a production manager and script supervisor. She was an intern in the cultural research department at Magnum photos in New York in 2011.

Ruth graduated from the program in Documentary Photography and Photojournalism at the International Center of Photography in 2012.

She has published her work at Picnic, Ojo de Pez (to be published in summer 2013) and in the book New York Stories a collaboration between the International Center of Photography, and Ostkreuzschule für Fotografie in Berlin.

I began this project with the curiosity to understand the process that Mexican migrants go through when crossing the border. Being Mexican myself, allowed me to form a bond with my subjects so that we could build a connection that translates into the intimacy of my images. I am focused on women because of their central role in the development of the Mexican family and because I look at them as icons of identity and culture. Moreover, I think it is important to create projects that motivate a dialogue about migration and xenophobia to develop solutions to current social related issues.

Currently I am still working on this project with the great support of the Magnum Foundation’s Emergency Fund.

 

Related links

Ruth Prieto

 

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In many ways, Yida is the South Sudan of popular imagination. Small Cessnas, ferrying medicine and other essential supplies, land on a tattered airstrip lined with beleaguered faces. The sprawling landscape is scorched and unforgiving. What little vegetation existed has been slashed and used by the camp’s more than 20,000 inhabitants to build basic shelters. Modest huts, made entirely of wood and thatch, dot a landscape that seems wholly unfit for human settlement.

The refugee camp in Yida rests approximately 18 miles south of the new and contested border between Sudan and South Sudan. To its north lies the embattled state of Southern Kordofan, where southern-aligned rebels wage a bitter and protracted insurgency against the northern government. In recent months, northern forces, operating under the command of Sudanese President Omar Al- Bashir, have employed brutal tactics to suppress the rebellion to no avail. An indiscriminate campaign of aerial bombardment has forced a mass exodus of Nuba civilians, more than 100,000 of whom have taken refuge in camps like Yida.

As fighting in Southern Kordofan and other adjacent border regions intensified in recent weeks, aid agencies in Yida reported a sharp rise in the number of new arrivals. Many come by foot, having walked for days to escape the high altitude bombers that have become a hallmark of the war. While Yida offers relative security, its extremely isolated location creates concern among aid agencies over their ability to provide adequate services for the rapidly swelling population. Food and water are scarce, electricity and phone networks are non-existent and political dynamics within the camp are contentious and secretive. The impending rain season threatens to turn the camp into a muddy and chaotic bastion of want and disease.

During the week I spent in Yida and neighboring camps, during which I provided visual media support for an Amnesty International research mission looking into wide-ranging human rights concerns in the area, I experienced alternating waves of inspiration and dismay. In nearly three years of covering South Sudan’s precarious transition to independence, I have yet to encounter a more welcoming, perseverant and intellectually driven community as the one I found in Yida. Despite dire circumstances, I met countless individuals who maintain an awe-inspiring thirst for education, a pursuit that many view as paramount in the battle against injustice and the marginalization of the Nuba people. Tea, coffee and assistance are offered at every turn and dignity defines the social landscape.

While their lives and aspirations have been compromised by this conflict, the mood among Yida’s refugees remains defiant. Many express support for the transformation of the Sudanese government, through forceful means if necessary, in order to bring about a system that more aptly embraces the country’s profound ethnic and racial diversity. “I ask myself why, for centuries, [the northern government] has been pushing us down,” wondered Issac Malak, a refugee from Southern Kordofan who arrived in Yida with hopes of finding employment. “There is no justice in Sudan…and I think of getting back my rights by all means that I have.”

With fighting in Southern Kordofan raging on and rains set to arrive in the coming weeks, the situation for refugees in Yida and other border camps is extremely precarious. “We pray for strength and peace,” says Abdul Rahman, a pastor in one of Yida’s six parishes. When I attended his service last Sunday, the pews of his thatch-roofed church were filled people who sang in tones that seem to put hope ahead of sorrow.

Pete Muller is a photographer based in South Sudan. He was named LightBox’s 2011 Wire Photographer of the Year. See more of his work here.

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Kevin Systrom is the cofounder and CEO of Instagram, which Facebook just acquired for $1 billion.

Reports say Systrom will make $400 million in the deal.

Instagram is a photo-sharing app that launched just a couple years ago, and already has 30 million users.

We'd love to talk to Systrom about the deal, how he got to where he is today, and his plans going forward.

But we can't.

kevin systrom

Facebook is going to IPO next month, and that means its executives – now including Systrom – are required to honor the SEC's "quiet period" rules.

Fortunately, Systrom is not just a wildly successful CEO, he's also a Quora addict. He's answered over 50 questions on the site. Also, Systrom did a Q&A with Business Insider's Matt Rosoff last fall. 

Below, we've collected (and lightly edited) some of the best questions and on-record-answers from those resources to compile a Q&A with Silicon Valley's newest $400 million man.

How and when did you begin coding?

Depends what you mean by coding. I've been programming here and there since I was in middle school. In high school I was excused from my foreign language requirement so I could take more computer science classes. The first real class I took was in Pascal, and then later in c++. Independently I started playing with MySQL and PHP, but never did anything significant.

My freshman year at Stanford I took CS106X which was the first year's worth of CS in 1 quarter (it's usually two). I wouldn't say I did so well... I looked around and saw so many fantastically smart folks in that class and decided I was better off majoring in something like business. Looking back I wish I had stuck with it. It turns out that no undergrad class prepares you to start a startup -- you learn most of it as you do it.

So anyway, long story short, I only took one CS class at Stanford, and instead of majoring in it, I coded basic projects on the side for fun (a student marketplace, an internet radio station, etc). At Odeo as the intern I picked up Ruby on Rails but forgot it quickly as I took a marketing job at Google.

Only at my next job at Nextstop would I say I went from being a hobbyist to being able to write code that would go into production. The lesson I take from this all is that a) don't give up so quickly if it's something you actually enjoy and b) 99% of what I do on a daily basis I learned on the job -- classes/majors can prepare you to learn on the job, but *doing* the work is where you learn what you'll use every day.

What do the different image filters on Instagram actually do?

Our filters are a combination of effects – curve profiles, blending modes, color hues, etc. In fact, I usually create them in photoshop before creating the algorithms to do them on the phone

How does Instagram choose names for their filters?

I wish that I could say it's more interesting - but often it has to do with the inspiration for the filter... a type of film, a photo we've seen, or simply what we were doing at the time.

At what point in Instagram's product development did square photos become the standard?

From day one. We realized that if we were going to do photos, that we'd have to be different and stand out. Square photos displayed really well in a feed format and frankly we just liked the aspect ratio better. It wasn't much more complex than that.

How old are you?

I was born Dec. 30th 1983

Do you code at Instagram?

Yes. I've been doing mostly backend work lately – python/django stuff.

How did Instagram get its name?

A long week of searching for something that combined the 'right here right now' aspect of what we were trying to accomplish with the idea of recording something in your life (hence the suffix -gram). 

We also wanted something relatively unique. We had a bunch of other names that were in the running, but there were lots of other apps with names that were too similar. Another characteristic was whether or not you could tell someone the name and they could spell it easily.

How long was Instagram in development for before launch?

KS: It's hard to answer this question, because there's the client and then there's the server. Most of the server code was taken from Burbn. (For those who never used Burbn, Instagram looks/feels/acts a lot like burbn, only it's focused on posting a photo). That code took many months to develop, refine, and turn into libraries that we can use internally on just about any project. We built them knowing we'd likely reuse them in other experiments down the road. We learned *a lot* along the way that made Instagram act the way it does currently.

The app itself took about 8 weeks. 

How many developers built the original Instagram app?

KS: It was just two.

What is the history of Instagram?

KS: Instagram is an app that only took 8 weeks to build and ship, but was a product of over a year of work.

The story starts when I worked at Nextstop. While I was there working in marketing, I started doing more and more engineering at night on simple ideas that helped me learn how to program (I don't have any formal CS degree or training). One of these ideas was combining elements of foursquare (check-ins) with elements of Mafia Wars (hence the name Burbn). I figured I could build a prototype of the idea in HTML5 and get it to some friends. Those friends ended up using the prototype without any branding elements or design at all. I spent weekends working on improving the prototype for my friends. At a party for the Hunch folks I ran into a bunch of people who would basically make starting Burbn a reality. At that party were two people from Baseline Ventures and Andreessen Horowitz. I showed the prototype, and we decided we'd meet up for coffee to talk about it. After the first meeting, I decided to take the dive and leave my job to go solo and see if Burbn could be a company. Within two weeks of leaving, I raised $500k from both Baseline and Andreessen Horowitz, and started work on finding a team.

Mike Krieger and I started talking and he decided he liked the idea of helping start the company. Once he joined, we took a step back and looked at the product as it stood. By this time, we had built Burbn into a (private) really neat HTML5 mobile web app that let you: Check in to locations, Make plans (future check-ins), Earn points for hanging out with friends, post pictures, and much more.

We decided that if we were going to build a company, we wanted to focus on being really good at one thing. We saw mobile photos as an awesome opportunity to try out some new ideas. We spent 1 week prototyping a version that focused solely on photos. It was pretty awful. So we went back to creating a native version of Burbn. We actually got an entire version of Burbn done as an iPhone app, but it felt cluttered, and overrun with features. It was really difficult to decide to start from scratch, but we went out on a limb, and basically cut everything in the Burbn app except for its photo, comment, and like capabilities. What remained was Instagram. (We renamed because we felt it better captured what you were doing -- an instant telegram of sorts. It also sounded camera-y)

And now, from Matt Rosoff's Q&A…

Why do you think the app took off so quickly?

KS: We took a very basic action that everyone does in the world, taking a photo, and we put some meaning behind it, some reason behind it. The reason is suddenly all your friends can see that photo immediately, in an instant. But also we make the photo more beautiful. It doesn't take very much to convince people to do what they do every day anyway and then do it through you're product. Really we're just taking people and shifting them from taking photos anyway to taking them on Instagram.

But then, because of the encouragement through making photos beautiful, people are taking way more photos than they would have otherwise because there's a reason to share them.

But what advice would you give somebody to get that initial notice and get that spike in usage?

KS: It's interesting because I've started to work more closely with startups trying to do exactly this, and a lot of people think it's a marketing game. But really, if you build a quality app you will naturally rise through the ranks. I don't know how many apps are in the App Store, but everyone knows a fraction of a percent are really well done, quality, thought out apps. There are a lot of apps that are fun to use, they're utility apps, they're fine. But there are a fraction of apps that are in the cream of the crop. You just need to be in the cream of the crop to get noticed.

I think far too many people focus on how many emails can I send the user to get them to come back at the end of the week. If you build something beautiful and useful they will come back. And sure, you should also do those things, but I don't remember the last email I got from Google saying "hey, you haven't been back to our site in a while."

There are gimmicks, paying for downloads and stuff. But we've never spent a dime on marketing. Great products sell themselves.

What does your average user look like? Do you have a few "whales" who are taking tons of photos and then a bunch more casual users, sort of like Zynga with games?

KS: You can split it up into personas. There are definitely people who don't take any photos but like photos and comment on photos. Like people who joined for Justin Bieber -- a lot of them are there for one reason, and the reason is Justin. At the same time, there are people who subscribe to thousands of people and not only like and comment on their photos but take beautiful photos as well.

What do you think of native apps for mobile phones vs HTML5 apps? I talk to some people who think HTML5 is the way to build one app that works on multiple platforms.

KS: I don't buy it, mostly because we started off as HTML5.

What I don't buy is just your statement. I totally buy HTML5. It's great for some companies. For instance, I think it's awesome for bigger brands who are not technology companies to invest in HTML5. It's much more accessible, the refresh cycle's much smaller, it's just better for the organization to spend their time doing what you do well. If you're a larger brand, having the flexibility to do HTML5 is also great.

But to do what we do, there's no reason why we should do it in HTML5....We were HTML5 when we wereBurbn. But there were so many stumbling blocks getting it out to consumers, the second we went native it was the best decision we ever made. I think that's true, for folks to have a strong consumer experience that needs to be completely polished. I don't buy the cross-platform thing.

What about writing in HTML5 and then wrapping it for each different platform?

KS: Why would you do that? You might as well learn Objective C. I think the big stumbling block is a lot of developers are worried that they don't know this other language so let's build it in HTML and JavaScript. But it turns out if you spend a couple of days learning Objective C, you can get really far. The experience is great, too.

You also hinted at moving beyond photos into video?

KS: I've been mentioning this a lot lately because I don't want people getting stuck with the idea that Instagram is a photo-sharing company. Instagram is a media company. I think we're about visual media. I explain ourselves as a disruptive entertainment platform that enables communication through visual media. I don't think it's just photos. There's a reason we don't allow you to upload photos on the Web as albums. It's not about taking all these photos off your DSLR putting them into an album and sharing them with your family. It's not about that. It's about what are you up to right now out in the real world, how can you share that with everyone. It's about what's happening out in the world. It's about can I consume media from folks like Taylor Swift. That's really interesting to people. What's not interesting to me is becoming a photo storage platform.

Video requires a lot more resources.

KS: Everything does. So does Web. We get six million visits a day to our Web site. Imagine us launching a Web site [for sharing], how much more infrastructure would we need? All of these things are commitments. We have to see where they make sense in our lifecycle?

Are you a photographer?

KS: It's funny, I was a photographer before I was a programmer. But in high school I basically got them to waive a bunch of science requirements so I could take more computer science. I got to college and decided I didn't want to concentrate on computer science for some random reason. But I've always done photography, in the darkroom, and I've always really been into digital photography. If you go on to my Flickr page, you'll see a photo that looks like an Instagram photo, from about 2007. I've always been into taking my photos, cropping them square, putting them through a filter in Photoshop. We just reverse engineered how to do filters, now we opened it up to the masses....

I've done all our filters except for a few. We worked with Cole Rise, one of our users, who did a fantastic job on Amaro, Rise, and Hudson. He did the first three on the list and they're awesome, I use them 24/7. But we're definitely itching to get new ones out there. We talked about doing limited Christmas holiday ones, or whatever, but we're not Angry Birds Seasons or anything like that yet.

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