Anxious Mobile Photography and its Alternate Modes of Vision

A look at ways of using the new aspects of mobile photography and its relation to the Internet

The past decade has shown the rise of mobile photography, or digital photography done with a mobile device that has image-editing, photo-taking, and internet-enabled-photo-sharing capabilities. I choose the term mobile instead of “phone photography” because this trend exists on non-phone devices such as tablets. While ‘mobile’ may be confused with ‘portable’ (and certainly, cameras have been portable for a long time), ‘mobile’ is fitting with the way in which mobile photographers have increased freedom in terms of storage with retaking photos and with time in the post-processing stage.

I want to write about some of the anxieties I feel underlie the practice of mobile photography. These anxieties tend to arise because of mobile photography’s place within the context of the Internet as primary mediator for its images. Additionally, I’d like to talk about the ways in which phone image-editing apps, some tied into the photomaking process as tightly as Instagram, expands image-making abilities, though just as easily increases the risk of the creation of ‘cliched’, ‘kitsch’ images. I’ll look at a few of my old photos in this process, as well as a few video games.

On some particular criticisms of mobile photography and its ease of accessibility

Once I take a photo, I have a variety of applications on my phone I can use to modify the image. These images can then be modified and uploaded to photo-sharing apps such as Instagram, which I will assume the reader is familiar with in terms of its basic premise.

While I have reservations about the closed platform of services such as Instagram and what that means for image-consumption, making, and privacy for its users, when it comes to discussions of the “threat to photography” that the rise of mobile photography poses, I have little desire to spend my time arguing against such a historically reoccurring, reactionary position. I will address this grievance with this quote:

… professional photographers have been grumbling about amateurs rendering their work obsolete since 1888, when George Eastman introduced the Kodak camera with the slogan, “You press the button, we do the rest.” (Source)

Likewise, there may be arguments that the image editing software on phones discounts a phone photograph from being a photograph. As far as this goes, let it be said that the ability to choose color or black and white film development, and the various settings on traditional cameras does not strike me as much different as deciding to convert a color phone photo into a black and white phone photo. While questions about ‘what is a photo?’, or ‘what is a video game?’ or ‘what is art?’ may be illustrative, I hardly consider them worthwhile endeavors if they are posed with the motivation of disproving authenticity of a particular set of photographs, games, art materials, etc. Usually such ideas serve to enforce a status quo of ‘good, authentic’ artmakers over a periphery.

It is no new knowledge that we live in an age where it is orders of magnitudes easier to become a photographer. Simply pick up a phone and use the camera app. If one is content to use a phone as the photographing device, gone are the days of scavenging for physical materials and a proper space for developing film. To be sure, mobile photography is not without its material consequence upon the Earth and its inhabitants. Mobile photography relies on the Internet for transport and storage, and thus heavily relies on the abstraction of the Cloud, or what are aisles of black, metal, energy-consuming server farms, whose parts are the end product of a chain of exploitative labor spanning from countries in Africa, Asia and beyond.

The anxiety underneath ‘unlimited storage’

In recent years the term ‘unlimited storage’ has become commonplace. Google’s Gmail service quickly began to offer what was an essentially unlimited e-mail storage space, in fact, in the late 2000s, the maximum storage indicator would continuously tick upwards. The sky is the limit! Nowadays, the storage is finite, but so large as to basically be unlimited. Other websites have unspoken hard limits for storage, but no normal human uploads enough data to reach these limits, so these hard limits are more or less unlimited. Google Photos is probably a recent example of this, it offers ‘free, unlimited photo storage’, as of the time of writing.

This notion of ‘free’ should be examined, wherever it appears on the Internet.

There is free and unlimited storage for the photos on one’s Instagram account. Other information for which storage is free includes my liked photos, followed users, followers, direct messages, captions, comments, hashtags. I can post captions with my photo, and can tag the photo with hashtags, such as “#blackandwhite” or “#food”, so as to categorize the photo.

It is common knowledge that advertisement forms much of the Internet’s lifeblood. Advertising works based on finding someone’s interests, and in Instagram, a user’s uploads, interactions with photos, clicked-on-hashtags, or photo caption s— all of these contribute towards Instagram’s ability to track your behavior, interests, likes, dislikes.

This is nothing unique to Instagram, rather, for most people, working on the Internet is to live under a constant state of invisible surveillance. As another example of this surveillance, photos uploaded to Google Photos can be collaged, turned into a video, automatically filtered, or even have their subjects and locations identified by the “Assistant” feature. Almost eerily, this feature renders explicit the fact that your photo storage is free because it is being used as a data for training a giant, image-recognizing machine learning algorithm. Likewise, the ability to search through my photos by keywords (that I did not tag myself) conjures similar feelings. This technology is a huge convenience, but not without a cost.

It is this sort of anxiety of feeding the machine that underlies every press and slide I make while uploading a photograph to Instagram, this machine which provides me convenience, but additionally promotes the belief that we should, as humans, continue to like what we already like, to maintain static and easily trackable interests.

The anxieties of mobile photography’s context within the Internet

If you have used the Instagram app, you may have noticed how there is immediate gratification in applying a filter to your photo. Certain color ranges become subdued, others pop out. A nostalgic flair, a cool flair, etc., seem to rise out of what may have been a plain photo.

Instagram, and many other photo-editing apps, provide a variety of settings that can be used to change the qualities of the photo. Depending on the photo, many of these settings can appear negligible, thus it is not surprising that as billions of photos are created, rough groups of photos that seem ‘basically the same’ begin to appear. Crisp, sharpened, black and white views of city streets with a horizon vanishing point — Polaroid-filtered pictures of a campfire at a beach — a tilt-shifted, contrasted, warm-filtered picture of an expensive ice cream sundae. Maybe it’s kitsch, maybe it’s a contemporary analogue to ideals of ‘salon paintings’. Whatever they may be, they are trends of some sort.

Combine this with a hashtagging system to tag and categorize photos, and the social gamification around accumulating ‘likes’ and followers, and it becomes apparent that the platforms in which photos circulate primarily serve to form a breeding ground of new forms of cultural signifiers. The platform of Instagram itself has done little to remedy our accumulation-driven culture: it is, admittedly, nearly impossible to not think about the reception one’s followers will give to a photo I choose to upload. Rather than posting just an photo of an ice cream sundae, the photo, in the context of Instagram’s social network, becomes a way of signifying that I have had the experience of eating such a dessert.

These invading thoughts, the tendency to be pushed down down paths of making ‘basically the same’ photos due to the reward of accumulating likes, followers and comments, or to signal particular experiences or beliefs — this anxiety — is one that the accessibility of mobile photography has amplified. This anxiety underlies the practice of mobile photography.

To be sure, these anxieties underlie much of the Internet and its social networks, which are often based around accumulating likes and followers — I am just sticking to the discussion as it pertains to mobile photography.

Additionally, the use of hashtags has its own flavor of anxiety: hashtags amount to a categorizing a photograph into relevant categories. I may try counteract this with writing a long caption before the flood of hashtags, so that my photo isn’t “just a few keywords,” but any added hashtags to a photo immediately places that photograph into a particular part of the network universe of photo hashtags. By tagging my photo “#blackandwhite”, it is associated with every other photo someone has called “#blackandwhite”.

This sort of categorical thinking may be dangerous towards the phone photographer, dangerous in the way one may categorize something as “Asian” or “Not Asian”, or as “Right” or “Wrong”. On the more positive side, it is very interesting to go exploring through hashtags, seeing what the popular consensus on what “#Japan” may mean, or what the ideal “#steak”, etc. Hashtags are also a (rather poor, but slightly viable) way of gaining an audience for one’s photographs.

The influences on raw mobile photos

As a phone photographer, I wish to become more aware of how the algorithms of Instagram’s image filtering, and its social media elements — limit and influence my ability to make a photo.

The dynamics of social media surrounding mobile photography are a inevitable force. While a raw mobile photo — perhaps, an offline photo — may be untouched by image modifications, the knowledge of what ways I can edit my photo, and where it will be posted — against my will, seep into what I am able to photograph — seep into the types of raw photos I can excavate. To put it more simply, as I walk in a city, and photograph, I may unconsciously be drawn, and turn a few degrees more towards, something that is slightly more of a visual spectacle than the other photo a few more degrees the other way. I am drawn because I have seen photos of buildings that have received many ‘likes.’ Perhaps this is the difference between the skyline and the building facade, the kitschy photo of a tired-worker-on-subway, and the worker’s foot on the ground. And so on. I may search for the hashtag “#city”, and see what popular city photos look like. This can corrupt my practice as well, moving me to want to make more romanticized and idealized images of a city.

Moreover, I know that my photo may only be viewed for a few seconds, due to the layout of Instagram’s main photo-viewing timeline. Thus I may be unconsciously swayed towards visual catchiness.

Of course, being influenced by consumption and environment, and being unconsciously swayed by the want for social approval is nothing new. But I bring this up because it has appeared under a new guise in the context of mobile photography, and thus should be dealt with accordingly. The new platform of mobile photography and the features of its mediating services create new influences on photomaking. I feel it is important to question the effects of ‘free’ services, and think of other ways of disseminating or consuming work.

The need for research in the use of mobile photography image-editing tools

With these digital tools, one may call the filtering and editing process “dressing up” the photo. However, I feel that this process is part of the creation of the mobile photo. As mentioned, the availability of these tools bubble through the subconscious as I take a photo. By familiarizing oneself with the common ways in which these tools are used, and sorts of trends that combinations of particular image-subject and filter-settings lead to, a phone photographer may find it easier to avoid falling into existing trends. Each filter has a finite number of settings — e.g., the ‘strength’ of a setting may range from 0–100, and some settings may impact the overall photo in less extreme ways than others. Because of this disparity, and because of the finite nature of the settings, even if one’s subject matter does not fall into a major social signifier such as nature, cityscapes, food, etc., through the image-editing process it is still very easy to make pictures that place visual pleasure first and are easily categorized under some sort of hashtag.

In this way, research into other photos — perhaps through the hashtag system — is an important job for the phone photographer. Likewise, so is a familiarity with the available post-processing tools and ways of bypassing their finite limits.

Mobile photography’s tools of intuition

Instagram, or more generally, any image-editing software, though technically external to the raw photo taking process, then, is partially a tool of intuition, much like other aspects of photography when figuring out how to set up a shot or developing a photo. In some ways, this image-editing software feels tightly tied to the process of mobile photography.

Often, the unrefined, private-facing and ‘extracted’ photo taken is but an early step in what will be the final, ‘refined’, public-facing photo, because as I am photographing the initial photo, I intuit that I will be able to transform the photo into something of my liking, via the use of the tools an image-editing program on my mobile device gives me.

I can also, while standing in a physical location, edit a photo right away, and use my thoughts about that edited photo to take a new photo. Truly, if we live in a world where we are free to ‘have it our way’, yet still fundamentally limited, we see the same in the infinite number of ways we can modify our photographs during the photo-making process, yet the same finite time window of taking a particular photo still exist.

When can are-bure-boke abstraction occur in the mobile photography process?

All this discussion leads me to talk about a few photos I took while on a recent trip to Taiwan in Japan in the late summer of 2015. Admittedly I had just been introduced to the works of Daido Moriyama and Takuma Nakahira, and was somewhat interested in emulating the アレブレボケ (are-bure-boke) style of roughness (let your groans out now…). I had also watched an interview with Moriyama — or perhaps Nakahira. Now, I am not particularly interested in continuing with the style of the photos I made, but I think they are worth investigating. So bear with me, for a few paragraphs more. (Certainly, Joni Kittaka and I’s 2013 game, Anodyne, is flawed in a number of ways, yet has plenty worth thinking about.)

Anyways, in some interview, something was mentioned about the use of black and white film and are-bure-boke as a means of abstracting forms in a photograph, i.e., as you threshold more and more colors to pure 0x000000 and 0xffffff black and white, you, well, get a series of shapes and forms. Where does this process of abstracting exist within the process of producing a final photograph?

In analog photography, it exists in the intuition of the technique of taking the photograph, and later, in the physical development of the photo print.

With digital cameras, you may edit the photo once you have access to a computer.

Nowadays, in mobile photography, I am able to quickly modify a photograph using apps on my mobile device. In this way, I have an effectively unlimited time period for modifying a photo, stretching from when I take the photo to when it is deleted, I lose it, or I die — and I have an effectively unlimited storage for trying to recapture different versions of a raw photo, and the turnaround time for editing a photo and retaking is very small.

Thus, by modifying one photo and then moving onto another photo while still ‘in the field’, the modified photo is able to influence what photos I will then take. In some abstract way, this is almost a ‘data-driven’ photography that originated with digital cameras but has evolved with mobile photography, one where my reactions to viewing previous photos quickly influence the successive photos I take during a particular photography session. This way of photo-making, in the context of the Internet, leads me to think about this in conjunction with how I might create a photo to optimize likes. So maybe we are all amateur data scientists and brand marketers.

Of course, the modification step can take place far after a photo is taken, like at night after a day of walking about, or years into the future. So with mobile photography, the process of abstraction through the use of black and white in a photo, from start to finish — is a process whose time span can range from the very short to the infinite. What was once done during the photo-taking process or through limited attempts in a dark room is now free from such time constraints. Utilizing the technique of visual abstraction has become easier! One may compare this to how we no longer have to wait hours for pictures to download, or wait hours for musical notes to play (as the first electronic musicians dealt with), or wait hours to run a punch-card program (as the first programmers once had to.) But as mentioned before, we should not forget that such technological progress comes with human costs during the technology’s chains of production.

It is something of interest to me, then, to look at techniques used in analog photography, and see if there are ways of replicating, extending, these techniques within the realm of fast-iteration mobile photography. It is a goal that is prone to the traps of modernism (the photos I will talk about fall into those traps — they have the attractiveness of blurry, black and white photos.)

Yet, with caution, I think these modified techniques can be used for socially and artistically positive ends.

Desired information and alternate modes of vision

A slight detour before we get to the photos.

In recent decades, there has been a rise in computer-aided technology that modifies our vision. A popular, physical life example are thermal-vision and night-vision goggles. Augmented reality software on game consoles and smartphones can project images in real-time onto the captured video feed of the device’s phones. There is the recent failure of the Google Glass hardware. More abstractly, the “CTRL+F” key shortcut, or any textual search function, acts as a mode of alternate, computer-aided vision, making desired information visible — bodies to murder in war, relevant sentences in a text file, etc. It is this notion of ‘desired information’ I want to talk about.

In many video games, particularly 3D games of the 21st century, there is a ton of visual content on the screen, and thus, the game must apply or offer filters so as to show the game’s player what the relevant information is. In this example from Metroid Prime (2001), the left image shows the ‘normal’ vision, as the player is fighting an enemy. In the right image, the player has used the ‘Scan Visor’ vision mode, which tags relevant environmental entities with orange squares. The player can then scan these to gain information on the entity, such as how to fight it. The game offers other vision modes, such as Thermal and X-Ray, which sort of work like you might expect — seeing heat, and seeing through walls.

In more recent games, such as The Witcher 3 (2015), activating “Witcher Senses” illuminates objects which can give you money and items in a gold outline. “Important” entities, such as things to progress the story, enemies, or clues, are outlined in red.

As far as game design goes, whether or not these modes of vision in 3D games is “good” is not something I want to discuss here, although for those unfamiliar with game design, it is something people are prone to argue about.

Back to the notion of desired information. What desired information do these games’ alternate modes of vision give us? In both games, the information tends to be “things we need to kill”, “things we need to collect”, “things that will help us progress the game”, or “things that would be helpful to know about.”, etc.

Thus these modes of visions reveal the driving forces under a game and the sorts of psychologies at play as a person plays the game. Collection, progress, exploration, etc.

Interestingly, one could even consider a raw photo from a game, and the alternate vision filtered version of the raw photo. If we consider these to be photos, which we can — systems such as the PlayStation 4 now offer the ability to take photographs at any time — then game photography also has its own notion of ‘post-processing’.

Photos from Tokyo September 2015

I think then, this idea of ‘desired information’ can be an interesting framework we can use when looking at or taking photos that have been ‘abstracted’ via some sorts of filtering.

Let’s look at a photo I took.

Formally, this photo is of a side room in the Tokyo National Museum of Modern Art. The center of the photo is a strange square-shaped alcove in the bottom of a wall, the photo is tilted 45 degrees to the left, to the left are blinds and to the right is is a small bench. This was an odd space with no apparent use except for rest.

Here is a different picture of the space, with no filtering. The room seems odd, right?

Because of how I processed the black and white photo, it is disorienting. Additionally, it appears pixellated because of the number of iterations I did of zooming in on the photo. The garbage around the borders is an artifact of that process. So far this has been boring talk — so what if the photo is pixellated!

Yet, the blocky pixels of the black and white photo is reminiscent of early 3D games on the Sony Playstation, such as this one from 爆走デコトラ伝説 (Bakusou Dekotora Densetsu、1998)

With the ability to quickly modify photos in the field, I can transform a photo into one more similar to an old 3D game, thus, leading me to think about the photograph as if it were a game — what sorts of things would possess ‘desired information’ in this game? What was a designer thinking making this space? How does this space treat the presence of a human body? I might think, “wow, the museum sure does not give people many chances to sit down.” And so on. I recall my feet hurting in the museum. Thus the notion of ‘this space seems odd’ is easier to investigate depending on how the photograph is taken.

Of course, this photo has the potential to be interpreted as black and white kitsch. And perhaps my example feels a bit contrived. But in avoiding falling into the trap of mobile photographing for ‘visual pleasure’, and looking at filters as ways of giving us ‘alternate vision’ in the way technology has done in many fields, maybe this can be a useful way for extracting unknown sets of information that constantly hover before us.

Here is another photo. The branches of the trees have been blurred into an almost flat surface. This is game-like in some ways. What has happened here is the space — a park — has been transformed into a ‘strange box’ of sorts.

Here is the raw photo:

The subject matter is relatively clear in both, but in the first photo, the way the ‘ceiling’ of tree branches work suggests some sort of protective or enclosing notion of public parks. It suggests safety, comfort, moreso than the raw photograph. On its own, perhaps the photo is weak. But applying these ideas to a series of photographs could be useful from a thematic standpoint. The word ‘filter’ is apt, then, these filters — blurs, zooms, contrasts, saturations — filter out particular emotions, the most obvious example being polaroid, ‘nostalgic’ filters, etc. Whether those emotions are created by the filters or pulled out of the photograph by the filters is up to debate. But creative uses of these filters can build the mobile photographer’s vocabulary in the process of looking, of thinking of ‘desired information’ that can be pulled out.

One more photo: this one is of a crosswalk. It has been distorted and filtered and as a result looks a bit like you might be viewing it on television or computer screen.

I can’t find the original (so much for unlimited storage), but it probably looked something like this:

In this way, the filtering pulls out (or adds…) a “TV-ness” to the photograph. It brings up notions of how particular actions or things can feel staged or routine. Surely we’ve all felt at one moment or another to be living in an illusion, some TV-like construct. The bodies of the men sort of blur together, pushing them into the abstract category of ‘person’.

The filtering and modifications to the photos change the spaces, change the ways we categorize the objects in the scene, change how we reason about it.

In conclusion

Whether or not you agree with this, or any of these photos, I hope we can at least agree that mobile photography is tightly tied to the Internet, existing in a state of anxiety with it centering around privacy, social elements and security. Additionally, mobile photography filters are an extension of the development of technology that provides alternate modes of vision, an extension which gives mobile photographers new ways of changing the way in which photos can be looked at and produced. Aided by the search-engine feature of the hashtagged network of photos on social media services, photographers, particularly mobile ones, have a variety of tools in which they can use when approaching the act of taking photos. Hopefully, this technology, more than being used for nostalgic or visual primacy uses, can be used for giving us new ways of expressing ideas about the world, by drawing out different sorts of ‘desired informations’.

Thanks for reading. I post photos at Instagram , and am on Twitter. More information at my website, with links to my games, music, and other miscellaneous projects. If you’ve read this far, and you know of any interesting writing on mobile photography or related things, or of relevant photographers, feel free to comment below. Soon, I hope to write some essays about game photography in specific.

Relevant links

More rigorously argued and explained notions of cultural constructs in the choices of filters:

A nice theoretical piece on Instagram —

More notes on Instagram

Article with a few examples of game-photography projects

On ‘virtual photos’ by Eron Rauch, who has photographed the GTA game series — (

Thoughts on mobile photograph

Uses of mobile photography