Filmmaker Wim Wenders Explains How Mobile Phones Have Killed Photography

Smartphones have made us all photographers — or maybe they've made it so that none of us is a photographer. A century ago, merely possessing and knowing how to use a camera counted as a fairly notable accomplishment; today, nearly all of us carry one at all times whether we want to or not, and its operation demands no skill whatsoever. "I do believe that everybody's a photographer," says celebrated filmmaker Wim Wenders, director of movies like The American FriendParis, Texas and Wings of Desire, in the BBC clip above. "We're all taking billions of pictures, so photography is more alive than ever, and at the same time, it's more dead than ever."

Wenders made this claim at an exhibition of his Polaroid photographs, which we've previously featured here on Open Culture. In a sense, the Polaroid camera — easy to use, near-instant results, and highly portable by the standards of its era — was the smartphone camera of the 20th century, but Wenders doesn't draw the same kind of inspiration from phone shots as he did from Polaroids. "The trouble with iPhone pictures is that nobody sees them," he says, and one glance at the speed with which Instagram users scroll will confirm it. "Even the people who take them don't look at them anymore, and they certainly don't make prints."




Having worked in cinema for around half a century now (and for a time with the late cinematographer Robby Müller, one of the most respected and idiosyncratic in the industry), Wenders has seen firsthand how our relationship to the image has changed in that time. "I know from experience that the less you have, the more creative you have to become," he says, asked about the preponderance of photographic filters and apps. "Maybe it's not necessarily a sign of creativity that you can turn every picture into its opposite." Still, he has no objection to camera-phone culture itself, and even admits to taking selfies himself — with the caveat that "looking into the mirror is not an act of photography."

If selfie-taking and everything else we do with the cameras in our smartphones (to say nothing of the image manipulations we perform) isn't photography, what is it? "I'm in search of a new word for this new activity that looks so much like photography, but isn't photography anymore," Wenders says. "Please, let me know if you have a word for it." Some commenters have put forth "fauxtography," an amusing enough suggestion but not one likely to satisfy a creator like Wenders who, in work as in life, seldom makes the obvious choice.

Related Content:

Wim Wenders Explains How Polaroid Photos Ignite His Creative Process and Help Him Capture a Deeper Kind of Truth

Wim Wenders Reveals His Rules of Cinema Perfection

See The First “Selfie” In History Taken by Robert Cornelius, a Philadelphia Chemist, in 1839

Lynda Barry on How the Smartphone Is Endangering Three Ingredients of Creativity: Loneliness, Uncertainty & Boredom

Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities and culture. His projects include the book The Stateless City: a Walk through 21st-Century Los Angeles and the video series The City in Cinema. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall or on Facebook.


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  • T. J. Rafferty says:

    Phonography. Or, in the video format, Phideo.

  • Vaughn Hamilton says:

    It’s still called photography. (I applaud the creators of this activity because it gets us all thinking, so please don’t get me wrong. Looking for new words is a good activity and might just result in a more precise language.)
    Like “typing” on a cell phone is still typing.
    Or like composing an email is still mail.
    Those of us who have long enjoyed exploring the beautiful depths of photography and letter-writing need not look down from our high horses on those who do what we do. One of the joys (and frustrations, I’ll admit) of a democracy is sharing the world and its goodness with people who all do basically the same things but in different ways.

  • Spudboy says:

    Fauxtography

  • Jim says:

    All good points, yet there is still plenty of good photography happening that includes image creation and printmaking, in digital, film and alternative forms. The environmental benefit of digital is eliminating all the film and processing of uncountable snapshots that ended up in a drawer or a box up in the attic! Still teaching after 40 years in the field, I am missing the practical science and use of the mind that true photography brought to the general population.

  • Jeff Gates says:

    I am a photographer and writer. In 2013, I wrote “Uneventful: The Rise of Photography,” in which I came to similar conclusions and posed some questions about photography’s future (https://medium.com/endless/uneventful-the-rise-of-photography-242fa15fe4c4).

    When I was getting my MFA in photography and graphic design in the early 1970s, photography was trying to convince the art world it was worthy of being included in that world (as were the Pictorialists in the early 20th century). Now, it has surpassed the more traditional art forms, like painting and sculpture. It is ubiquitous. Wenders said, “…photography is more alive than ever, and at the same time, it’s more dead than ever.”

    I would say photography is everywhere and nowhere.

  • Jay says:

    Those that photograph for the sake of the image, to capture the moments with more in mind than a Snapchat or other social media post, will keep photography itself alive for themselves and for those that wish to experience what has been captured.

  • J.M. Keulers says:

    The smartphone has another interesting capacity. People take pictures all day round of everything they do. One would think to be able to remember, to have a souvenir of that moment. But since they have not consciously experienced the moment (because they are busy taking pictures) the souvenir has no meaning. Our most amazing camera are our two eyes that see things and store them into our memory, from where they can return and bring back those moments of our life we have consciously lived even years later. A smart phone has a delete button for when the memory is full. Our brain comperatively has an endless capacity. Even a smell can bring back a memory and make us travel in time. The smart phone kills people’s capacity to be in the moment.

  • Mitch says:

    I agree with you Vaughn. Some people are able to produce what some would call “art” from these photographs, either either by projection or print. Depends on context and what the individual intends.

  • Barbara Hobbie says:

    Flitography

    – photos taken on the spur of the moment/often on the move/and flitting from one subject to another.

  • Andrew says:

    I’d avoid naming a faux version of photography or any variation of the word photography.

    People use their cellphones and portable devices to capture instances. Instagram seems like a great term for the act of taking and sharing this type of picture. In fact you could call the entire culture of capturing pictures, audio, video, and short pieces of text as “instancing” or just “capturing.” When I take a cell phone photo that is usually my goal. To capture an instance of where I was at and doing at a particular time knowing that it’s there to be stumbled upon in the future.

  • Dietmar Kohl says:

    Well i call them Iphoners or Iphonie yes thats what i said too that Everybody is a photographer the smartphones are the kodak Brownie of our days transmitting our impressions there are still some real photographers out there photography is not dead yet but he is right about that many of those images are never seen or even printed.

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