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Society, Politics & Law

Seeing life through a lens: the age of image-makers

Updated Wednesday, 27th February 2019

From critiques of the ubiquitous selfie to proclamations about the end of privacy, the impact of the camera phone continues to be the subject of fierce debate.

Camera phones entered the marketplace in 1999(1)combining two technologies and industrial sectors– imaging and communications. At that time few imagined how people would seize their potential as image-makers and the difference this would make. Since then camera phones have brought significant changes to art and culture, businesses, markets, politics and society – arguably, democratising photography and putting an end to an era of celebrity photographers(2).

Anyone with a smartphone can now take a high-quality photo and share it on Instagram or other social media sites to great acclaim.  Some images go viral, trigger debate about world events, even shift public awareness. Whether images can change the world though is open to question. From critiques of the ubiquitous selfie to proclamations about the end of privacy, the impact of the camera phone continues to provoke fierce debate. Certainly, the images produced and shared on social networks are shaping how we present our public and private selves, how we engage with friends and family, and how we see the world.

A phone camera in the hands of roughly 3 billion people - or 40% of the human population -means exposure to aspects of life that were previously hidden from public view. The compact portability of the camera phone allows for people, secretly, to record images that bear witness to crimes and misdemeanours, as well as wars and conflicts. There is no place to hide for authoritarian despots or protesters

The camera lens doesn’t just change what we see - whether we see things close-up or from a distance, it changes our relationship to the world because it changes how we see. 

We carry an archive of photos around with us and most of us have only ever used a phone camera. This is changing the nature of photography. The time we spend taking, sharing, manipulating and gazing at images provoke many questions – are we seeing life through a lens?(3) Are social media platforms like Instagram turning us into voyeurs or narcissists or simply better photographers? Who controls what we see and what we don’t see? Can the digital traces that we leave behind ever be fully or finally erased? What can we do to protect our privacy and prevent the harmful effects of surveillance?

The instantaneous production and circulation of some images on a global scale have certainly brought changes not only to the ways world events are captured on camera. The camera lens doesn’t just change what we see - whether we see things close-up or from a distance, it changes our relationship to the world because it changes how we see. Susan Sontag has written eloquently about how news images of war encourage us to see human suffering from a distance with detachment(4).

Public debates rage unresolved about whether exposure to images of violence and death inure us to the pain of others or heighten our consciousness of suffering and empathy. There are no easy answers to such vexed questions, but we must consider carefully the impact of different contexts of the production, circulation and reception of images, and not presume effects on audiences. However we respond to these questions, there is no doubt that the modulation of our proximity and distance to the world, to what we see and how we see, has been transformed by the ubiquity and portability of the camera phone.

Photo of a young man with his mobile. On his mobile is a photo of a baby. Copyrighted  image Icon Copyright: Credit to Knut Bry Courtesy of Knut Bry

The war in Syria has been the most documented in history, much of it captured and shared on smartphones. Indeed, while phone cameras have become important tools for many of us, for Syrian refugees they have become an essential tool. The Open University’s research(5) and teaching(6) and co-productions such as Exodus: Our Journey to Europe, investigated how smartphones are changing experiences of migration(7). We have documented how the smartphone is both a resource and a threat. It has become as important as food or water for Syrian refugees on their journey to safety(8). At the same time, when images of war crimes, torture or abuse on refugees’ phones get into the wrong hands, incarceration, torture and even death can follow. The smartphone enables surveillance by hostile forces on an unprecedented scale.

But smartphones have creative uses too. A new wave of refugee cinema is emerging forged by refugees who use images shot on their mobile devices to produce powerful documentary films. Outstanding examples from Syrian refugees include Silvered Waters. This harrowing film recombines footage from thousands of Syrians’ mobile phones to create a powerful story of life under siege and pose some searching questions. Its multi-authored, multi-layered narrative conveys a sense of the Syrian people themselves telling their stories. To watch an interview with the director, click here

The poster for For Sana, a documentary on channel 4 Creative commons image Icon Poster: For Sama (film) (2019)directors Waad Al-Kateab, Edward Watts. Produced by PBS Frontline, Channel 4 News, ITN. under Creative-Commons license Poster for the film 'For Sama'

For Sama is a tale of love and war, family and friendship, courage and fear - of what it is like to live and work in a hospital in Aleppo under siege. It is a poignant filmic letter from a mother to her baby daughter Sama – full of courage, determination and hope.

These films combine an acute emotional and political intensity. They afford to close up insights into the horrors of war. They offer intimacy, authenticity and a new style of social realism, based on direct and immediate experiences. These films challenge mainstream representations of the Syrian war.

The camera phone also allows for new film forms to emerge. Midnight Travellers captures the epic journey to security of an Afghan family with compelling factual accuracy and with a depth of emotion and humanity that is extraordinary. It bears witness to the suffering endured with humour and love.

These films made with mobile devices are reaching new audiences and are widely available on Netflix, Channel 4 and/or YouTube. They are winning prizes and acclaim in international film circuits because they allow for new vantage points, they shift the frame, they move the gaze. They combine facts with feelings. They generate new knowledge and insights, creating empathy, compassion and solidarity. These films attest to the agency of image-makers in an interconnected world and make us aware of what we see, what we don’t see and above all, how we see.

Explore further: To learn more about the digital witnessing of war, watch a beautiful and inspiring short animation film that captures the poignancy and potency of images of war and its aftermath: 'Witnessing War and Conflict Animation'




(1) The first camera phone available on the market was the Kyocera Visual Phone VP-210, released in Japan in May 1999. The estimated number of mobile phones globally is constantly changing. See relevant statistics (accessed 14 February 2020 

(4) See Susan Sontag (2013) Regarding the Pain of Others. Accessed 14 February 2020 

(5) See Syrian Refugees and the Digital Passage to Europe: Smartphone Infrastructures and Affordances and Mapping Refugee Media Journeys   

(6) A new Open University Module Understanding Digital Societies (DD218) will begin in October 2020 and is a compulsory module in BA (Hons) Social Sciences and BA (Hons) Criminology and Sociology. In particular, see  Block 2 Chapter 4’s chapter on Migration, Diaspora and Transnationalism in the Digital Age by Crilley and Gillespie.

(7) Details of Exodus: Our Journey to Europe  and of The OpenLearn associated teaching materials 

(8) See






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