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Weekend Wrap: The week cell phones made a difference

June 19, 2009

Despite objections about quality, perhaps this week proved there is something to be said for camera phones—on a personal and global level.

My daughter just got back from an 8th grade class trip to Washington, DC, and all she brought me were some lousy cell phone photos.

As a photographer who first picked up a camera as a tot and developed his first roll of film at the tender age of ten, and as this girl's father, I felt shame. Where, oh where, did I go wrong?

It's not for lack of trying: I bought her a shock-proof, waterproof  (and, I thought, excuse-proof) 8MP Olympus compact a couple of years ago, which she used briefly. Then she got the latest cell phone (which happened to have a 3MP sensor) and that was basically the end of the Olympus. She cared little that image quality was poor—she felt it was good enough to take pictures of friends and send them as text attachments. And she could shoot videos. So what if they were a bit jagged?

My pleas to bring her 8MP camera with her to Washington fell on deaf ears. She rarely asks for prints, and keeps all of her photos electronic. She already had her iPod with her, and didn't want to juggle three devices. Besides, as with so many 14-year-olds today, she considers photos to be just as ephemeral and disposable as a phone call or a text message. It’s an attitude change about photography that I find hard to fathom.

Besides, as she pointed out to me, 3MP files can be turned into acceptable 4x6 prints. And, more importantly, she figured out how to send photos to her Facebook account from her phone. With her DC trip coming up, she argued, she could send photos to Facebook so I know what her group was doing. Can't do that with her compact digital camera, she argued.

The kid had a point there.

Off to Washington

And then, off my child went to DC. The first stop was the Holocaust Museum, where only a few days before, an antisemitic madman attacked the facility and killed a guard (thus justifying my nervousness about her going). But as soon as my daughter arrived in DC, she started posting pictures on Facebook. She posted a shot right after visiting the Holocaust museum, which let me know she was OK. When her friends surprised her with a birthday cake later that evening at dinner, she photographed and posted that as well.

Finally, reassured that she was safe, I was able to enjoy her trip vicariously through her cell phone and Facebook.

Meanwhile, a half a world away...

At the same time that my daughter was in Washington DC, hundreds of thousands of students a few years older than her gathered a half a world away to protest what they felt was a rigged election. Armed with nothing but their cell phones, they recorded still images and videos and documented peaceful rallies and brutal government responses including beatings and killings. And then they uploaded these powerful, inspiring, and sometimes graphic images and used Twitter messages from their phones to let people know.

They cared little that image quality was poor--it was good enough to give viewers all over the world a powerful document of history in the making. And they could shoot videos. So what if they were a bit jagged? Millions of people are viewing those pictures right now and experiencing the events in Iran vicariously through the protesters’ cell phones and Twitter feeds.

When my daughter uploaded photos from her cell phone, my wife and I were watching.

Protesters in Iran continue to risk their lives by posting photos from their cell phones, and the whole world is watching.

Maybe there's something to these camera phones, after all.

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