Communication on the go: making expressive pictures of people using their cell phones.

Author:Douglis, Philip N.
Position:Photocritique - Column

With the arrival of cellular technology, the telephone has moved beyond the constraints of the home and office to the freedom of the hand and the street. For photographers, this change has proved to be a windfall. When any of us make or take calls on a cell phone, we are often multitasking, carrying on conversations with invisible people while simultaneously navigating the diverse challenges of life. The relationships between people talking on their cell phones and their surroundings can express context more effectively than a boring, cliched image of someone rooted at a desk with phone in hand. Twenty years ago, bulky mobile telephones were in the hands of a privileged few. Today, sleek devices are ubiquitous: Everyone uses them, often in spontaneous ways--a fact that gives photographers opportunities to make images rich in human values and incongruous in nature. (Interestingly, the cell phone has also become a digital camera, allowing anyone to instantly produce their own images and transmit them anywhere.)

In my first example (above right), I selected an advertisement-filled backdrop to provide the context of an urban street scene. I waited for people to enter my frame, photographing their behavior as they passed. The two people in this image ignore the ads, although one of them might well be dreaming of a foaming latte. The other person stops in his tracks, deeply absorbed in a phone conversation. A subway entrance provides a specific location: New York City's 28th Street. This photograph expresses a moment of intimate conversation amid the clutter of urban life.

I made the second example (opposite page, left) on San Diego's Pacific Beach. I photographed this person from a distance, sitting by the sea, hunching forward in a nearly collapsed beach chair. He was talking on a cell phone while a pair of surfers played in the waves in front of him. His body language expresses tension, yet the environment incongruously suggests a place for relaxation. I composed the image so that the supporting context helps tell the story. The diagonal tire tracks in the sand echo the diagonal position of the chair's back and draw our eyes to an anxious man who seems caught...

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