Object of the Year 2006

 

THE CAMERA PHONE

 

 

 

On 20 January 2005, as George W. Bush was sworn in, Colin Powell used his mobile to take souvenir snaps of the President. In April, thousands of mourners took photos of John Paul II’s coffin with camera phones held high above their heads. In the same month Prince Charles banned all mobile phones from his wedding, and Saudi Arabia proposed 1,000 lashes, 12 years in jail and a fine of SR 100,000 for those who use camera phones for ‘immoral’ acts. Just hours after the London 7/7 bombings, grainy camera phone footage emerged of commuters escaping down smoke-filled tunnels.

 

The rise of the camera phone has been rapid and stealthy. In 2002, 4% of mobiles sold had cameras; by 2004 it was 38%. Strategy Analytics predicts that by 2010 the figure will be 78%; already in Japan 97% of mobiles have cameras. When camera phones were introduced, many claimed they had no need of such a facility. Yet it seems that easy access to a technology can sometimes simply create a demand. Increasingly, mobiles are being sold as dual-purpose alternatives to digital cameras.

 

Already, camera phones have revolutionised news photography. Nearly all of the iconic news photos of the c20th were taken by professional photographers using professional equipment:  from the liberation of Buchenwald, to the lone protester in front of the tanks in Tiananmen Square. Towards the end of the c20th, other image sources entered the news:  from the amateur video footage of Rodney King’s assault, to the haunting CCTV images of Jamie Bulger being led to his death.

 

However, the news photographs that have already defined the early years of the c21st have nearly all been taken by amateurs using digital cameras and camera phones: the outrages in Abhu Ghraib prison; Prince Harry in Nazi regalia; Saddam Hussein in his underwear; the horror of the London bombings, and so on. Camera phones are the ultimate tool of photojournalism – combining a compact and discreet means of taking pictures with a simple method of immediately transmitting them anywhere in the world.

 

It is only a matter of time before the remaining issues of picture quality and image size are solved by improvements in lens and software design.

 

The ubiquity of camera phones is not without its problems. Schools, health clubs, swimming pools and strip joints have all joined Prince Charles in banning the devices fearing breaches of privacy. A more disturbing trend is the use of camera phones to record footage of bullying, violent assaults (so-called ‘happy slapping’), and even (in at least one case to date) rape. The victims of such attacks suffer the added violence of knowing that their abuse can be texted or emailed as ‘entertainment’.

 

And, as demonstrated by the execution of Ken Bigley and others in Iraq, it seems inevitable that more terrorists, kidnappers and other criminals will seek to exploit new imaging technology like camera phones – either posting images of their acts on the net, or blackmailing the media into broadcasting their pictures.

 

Just as internet Blogs are increasingly blurring the distinction between amateur and professional journalism, it seems inevitable that camera phones will ‘democratise’ the news images the world sees – for good as well as ill.