Facebook's Photo Community Manager Is a War Photographer
May 1 2014
Four months ago, Teru Kuwayama was appointed photo community manager at Facebook—not a job you'd normally associate with a war photographer.
Kuwayama has not only risked his life to document what goes on in war zones; he's a senior TED fellow and a firm believer in using social media for journalistic purposes. In 2004 he co-founded Lightstalkers, the online forum for reporters, photographers, and filmmakers, and in 2010 he launched Basetrack, a project that documented the deployment of a Marine battalion and used Facebook to share photos and stories with the soldiers' families.
I caught up with Kuwayama to talk about all that and Instagram in space.
VICE: I guess I should start by congratulating you on your new job.
Teru Kuwayama: Thanks! I made it through 20 years as a photographer without actually having a job, so I'm still not quite sure if being honestly employed is something to be congratulated on. But it's definitely an adventure. I'm not a domesticated animal, so this is a totally new experience for me. It was definitely an experiment on both sides.
What's it like working at Facebook?
It's a fast-moving company, and things change rapidly. I'm really a point of contact, somebody that can speak to the photography community and explain to them what the company is trying to do, and vice versa. I sometimes feel a little bit like what the US military once called a “terp,” or an interpreter—translating between Americans and Afghans.
A lot of photographers don't trust Facebook. Most of the agitation seems to be focused on loss of image rights, downloadable images, and the automatic deletion of metadata as soon as it's uploaded to the site. What would you say to them?
There’s sometimes an assumption that the platforms are out to get you, but that's just not the case. Sometimes people [who work at platforms] aren’t aware of the concerns, and the complexity of dealing with those concerns is bigger than people realize. When you have a platform that's being used by over a billion people—having it be 100 percent satisfactory for everyone is a tall order.
“A lot of photographers” is basically referring to professional photographers, who make up a really small percentage of the people uploading photos to Facebook. We tend to think of ourselves as the most important class of photographers, but in the hundreds of millions of photos getting uploaded each day, we’re statistically insignificant. But a lot of these questions are actually being worked on, particularly the metadata stuff.
What exciting developments do you see in the future?
I think still photography and motion photography may find some interesting convergence in these new short video formats. There’s technology like Oculus Rift that literally opens a new dimension of sensory perception. I also think it's interesting how much social media isn’t immediately visible. A lot of communication occurs in groups or messaging apps, so you no longer see quite a lot of the things that once might have lived on people's Facebook walls.
That means people are getting more conscious of their privacy.
Yeah, but it's also increasingly possible to contact people or groups more specifically—[which becomes] more desirable as the online population expands. This is one of the fundamental distinctions between traditional media and social media. It's about the individual's personal connections and accessing those social graphs. With the proliferation of these private messaging apps you’re seeing the potential for that to become more granular and targeted.
I'm curious to see if some new form of journalism will evolve out of that. Like a shift from sending one message to millions of people to sending very specific messages directly to individuals. Who knows? That's the fascinating thing about where I am now. I'm literally seeing so much of this being engineered or prototyped before my eyes.
What are some of your favourite Instagram accounts?
One of the most amazing ones is NASA—there’s literally Instagram in outer space! Another great account I follow is TSA—it's pictures of the stuff that's been confiscated at US airports. Also Asim Rafiqui's, which is a family album of portraits of relatives of detainees at Bagram. It's far from the stereotype of the web as a collection of kittens and cappuccinos; it’s a really powerful example of what a social media platform can be used for.
What effect do you think Facebook and the platform it's providing are having on journalism?
What even is journalism? We're associating "capital J" journalism with a very formal concept and construct deriving from the newspaper age—almost as an aesthetic. What happens on social media platforms is the most fundamental form of journalism you can imagine: It's people sharing their thoughts and experiences.
One of the interesting opportunities of social media is that it's allowing individuals to tell their stories and do their own communicating without having to go through the filter of someone who's deemed a professional, and that's a disruptive idea that's discomforting for a lot of professional journalists and organizations.
But there will always be a need for the professional journalist.
There's unquestionably a need for those core concepts of ethics—honesty, accuracy, and transparency. But I think we'd be fooling ourselves if we said that newspapers and journalism schools, simply by virtue of existing, were enforcing those concepts across the world. What’s equally important is that every individual starts to think in the way that we associate with professional journalists. Analyzing the information they see, asking themselves, "Is it true?" and "What can I compare this to and what other perspectives are out there?"
Not very long ago, news organizations might have looked at blogs as interesting sources of opinion, raw pieces of information that could be contextualized and taken as leads in a way. Now I think that people often look at news organizations in that way. They can see very clearly that different news organizations have different points of view, even though they might call themselves fair, balanced, or neutral.
Does this have anything to do with why you started Basetrack?
Basetrack was a few years ago, but what hasn’t changed is this: America is engaged in the longest war in its history, and you find that, overwhelmingly, the American people don't know anything about Afghanistan and can't identify or articulate what we're trying to achieve there.
Myself and the Basetrack team were really interested in seeing if there was an alternative to the way we traditionally worked. We effectively launched the experiment of being our own publishers. We were all used to working for mainstream news channels that went out to millions of people, and here we all were, targeting a few thousand family members surrounding this Marine battalion.
But it was one of the most intense experiences we ever had in terms of engagement and having people reaching out to us constantly. I remember a time when we showed up at a little outpost in southern Afghanistan and found a box of cookies that had been shipped to us from a Marine’s mother. That didn’t happen when I worked with news magazines.
When did you start shooting with iPhones?
The Basetrack project was the first time I used iPhones as cameras, and that's because it's so functional. It's small, that touch screen interface makes it surprisingly dust-proof, and it takes good pictures. There’s this spectrum of apps that comes with the device and the fact that everybody can do post-production is amazing. Everybody has a dark room in their pocket and a publishing platform built into the device—that's all remarkable. It's also accelerated the learning curve so much that people can ramp up on a much faster cycle.I think this is the first really functional digital camera. For the first time it’s really “point and shoot.”
Do you have any modifications to yours?
The phone I'm talking to you on is the one I used while embedded in Afghanistan and has a protective case that was designed by Balazs and Peter Gardi during the Basetrack project. It’s called Strikecase.
What were the hardest things about shooting with a phone in these conditions?
I honestly haven't hit too many barriers with it. My perspective probably isn't typical in that before I was using a mobile phone as a camera, I used mostly Polaroids, Holgas, and a panoramic camera called the Widelux. These are all archaic, totally manual cameras that had so many technical limitations—so in comparison, a mobile phone is one of the most sophisticated cameras I’ve ever used.
Which of the iPhone images you took in Afghanistan stands out the most for you?
This turkey image. During an operation to clear this town that had been occupied by insurgents, a Marine unit was using this compound as a sniper position and to hold these detainees that had been picked up in the area. I think this is the image that sticks out to me as it was shot at the height of the counterinsurgency push in Afghanistan, which was described at the time as a "hearts-and-minds approach" to convince the local population to support the local government. This is a cycle that happened constantly—people being detained, having bags put over their heads, and having their houses occupied by foreign forces. There were a lot of hearts broken and a lot of minds were lost.
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