Using Mobile Photography as a Powerful Documentary Tool

Considering the influence evolving technologies and daily habits have on how we tell visual stories today, we speak with Michael Christopher Brown about his experiences documenting a raging conflict with a mobile phone.


© Michael Christopher Brown, from Libyan Sugar

Since the advent of camera phones, millions of people have become prolific image-makers. Stats speaks clearly: while in 2013 “only” 660 billion images were produced, during the course of 2017 we reached the incredible amount of 1,200 billion photos taken (data via Statista). These numbers suggest how new technologies are influencing the way we communicate our emotions or record our daily activities. Yet that's just one side of it. The way we engage with mobile cameras is continuously evolving, and for some of us they are becoming a more powerful storytelling medium.

The democratisation of photography had a considerable impact on the industry and its main players as American documentary photographer and former Magnum Photo associate Michael Christopher Brown points out: “the industry has been flipped on its head, good for photography in general but hard for many to adjust in terms of making a living in the new environment." It has, though, created new opportunities. For his body of work, Libyan Sugar, Brown covered the 2011 Libyan Revolution with his mobile phone. “The best way is to adapt and try to find one’s place in the new setting” he comments.

The fact that Brown’s work was shot only with his camera phone is also quite emblematic. During the Arab Spring, social media and smartphones were the instrument that supported the uprisings. It was the first time in history that democratic access to quick communication and tools to document in real time were having an impact on the faith of a region.

© Michael Christopher Brown, spread from the book from Libyan Sugar.

Brown was part of that revolution within the revolution, with his mobile phone representing a powerful tool to get as close as possible to the conflict. “It is the fastest way to visually portray what I am attempting to communicate. It doesn't influence the way I move and interact with the world, while leaving me more freedom to move, react and make images.”

The project was published in 2016 and eventually won the Paris Photo First PhotoBook Award. The volume is a compendium of Brown’s images, journal entries from his road trip through the war zone, and written communications with his family and colleagues. “Making a book takes time and it took several years for the book to come together” he says. A long, powerful and intimate journey, that started with some quick mobile shots. It is perhaps one of the best examples of how stories of such importance can be told with a smartphone.

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In this series of articles, PHmuseum gets to know the experiences of photographers who have produced a successful body of work with their smartphones. To challenge yourself and become part of our research project on the mobile phenomenon, apply to our first Mobile Photography Prize. The Final Deadline is 13 June.

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