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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Comments (27)
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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:


  • 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 (

    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:


    - 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.

  • Ramona Palooka Reyes says:


  • Nicole Small says:


    - the art of pho­tograph­ing every­thing and see­ing noth­ing


    Mis­ter Wim Wen­ders, in 2000 (the dig­i­ti­za­tion of chan­nel arte start­ed) in an inter­view in the news­pa­per you have said that it does not mat­ter in what res­o­lu­tion the pho­tog­ra­phy is, but what is impor­tant is what we say­ing with it.


    The oppor­tu­ni­ty to be able to reg­is­ter the giv­en moment is genius.


    Like noth­ing to hide.

  • Knox Bronson says:

    Obvi­ous­ly, Wim Wen­ders is unaware of my site, pix­el­sa­tanex­hi­bi­tion dot com … thir­ty thou­sand curat­ed iPhone images … I have hung prints in gal­leries for a total of two years hang­ing time … last show was years ago, admit­ted­ly.

    The term he is look­ing for is iphon­ism or ipho­neog­ra­phy …

    I agree with about Insta­gram. No one looks at pic­tures any­more and you can’t find them again.

    But you can on Pix­els ~ The Art of the iPhone

  • Knox Bronson says:

    To clar­i­fy, by “hang­ing prints,” I mean juried col­lec­tions of iPhone imagery. :)

  • Joe Dalmas says:

    Phones have killed noth­ing. There are plen­ty of tal­ent­ed peo­ple using the new tech­nol­o­gy to do amaz­ing things with it. So what if pho­tog­ra­phy is no longer the priv­i­lege of those who could afford a thou­sand-dol­lar cam­era and only view­able in big city art gal­leries?

  • Ed Sassler says:

    In Daniel Kahneman’s book, Think­ing, Fast and Slow, he describes fast (type 1) think­ing as pas­sive — view­ing the world around you. Slow (type 2) think­ing engages active thoughts. Pho­tog­ra­phy is type 2, it’s a cre­ative process of mak­ing an image. Most peo­ple use a phone cam­era as a way of cap­tur­ing what they see, it’s very much type 1.

  • Gary Gumanow says:

    Just call it dig­i­tal imag­in­ing.

  • joanne Billesdon says:

    HI Wim Wen­ders, with the old insta­mat­ics it was called tak­ing snap shots

    I see your point, not that it’s wrong or any­thing of the sort, just seems to have lost some­thing, maybe the space to look with so many images.

    The ametuer can take inter­st­ing pic­tures as well as the pro­fes­sion­als but your right who sees it.

    A lit­tle like music, there so much of every­thing, like going into a crowd­ed shop with the clothes so tight­ly packed there no room to see,

    i recent­ly got some prints made and it was so nice to see them, i had for­got­ten how that felt, i’m try­ing to think of a word that could describe this instant grat­i­fi­ca­tion with the image which has become the norm maybe snap­shot soup
    or digi­gravy i dont know.

  • Maria says:


  • Harris christopoulos says:


  • Héloïse Berns says:


  • Mary Maghrak says:


  • Vilém Flusser says:

    Tech­ni­cal images

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