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Shaking It Up: A New Look At Afghanistan

Photographer David Guttenfelder has traveled to Afghanistan more than 20 times since the 2001 U.S.-led invasion, working for the AP to document the war and its effects on the country. (He might be most famously remembered for his photo of a Marine in pink boxers shooting at the Taliban.)

On his most recent trip he took along a newly purchased iPhone, and the resulting pictures caught my eye not for the dreamy, washed-out Polaroid look that has become ubiquitous in the world of i-photography, but because of the content. The photos themselves showed details of soldiers' lives that are usually too mundane to be transmitted on the news wires: Photos of dried poppies, a comb, a makeshift urinal, and even the flea-bitten skin of a fellow journalist were targets for Guttenfelder's tiny lens. And somehow ordinary items became beautiful, infused with a photographer's innate sense of light and composition and enhanced by his unique access to a foreign war zone.

Guttenfelder joins the growing ranks of professional photographers such as Kainaz Amaria, Matt Nager, and Todd Heisler who have added the iPhone camera to their toolkit. I caught up with him recently over e-mail to talk about his work from Afghanistan.

Picture Show: You carry a lot of expensive camera gear around — what led you to take these photos with your iPhone and what application were you using?

Guttenfelder takes a self-portrait in a mirror hanging on a mud-walled Afghan farm compound in Marjah in Afghanistan's Helmand province. David Guttenfelder hide caption

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David Guttenfelder

Guttenfelder: I had just gotten the phone a few weeks before I left for Afghanistan. I'd been using the phone's camera while in Tokyo and experimenting with the many different apps that replicate different kinds of camera formats. The one that I like best is ShakeIt Photo that crops the photo into the square Polaroid format. When I was a kid, my first camera was a Polaroid and I have played around with one ever since.

Do you think the iPhone app photo is just a fad? Or is it a new tool in the photojournalist's kit?

I guess some people would say that this type of thing is gimmickry. But photojournalism is constantly shifting. I don't think that we can so easily disregard all of the new tools available to professional and non-professionals and the impact this will have on photojournalism. I'm not going to say that this set of photos shows something hugely important about the war in Afghanistan, but I'm glad I offered them as a side project because they've sparked a small but interesting debate.

OK so anyone can download that application. How do you think your profession as a photojournalist makes you shoot differently than the average person with an iPhone?

Guttenfelder's equipment in Afghanistan's Helmand province. David Guttenfelder hide caption

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David Guttenfelder

Well, for one thing I took the camera to a place and into some situations that no average person would ever see. People can see the kind of pictures they make with their own phone cameras, but instead from a remote war zone.

Interestingly, I've noticed that Marines and soldiers are now shooting more photos and video themselves. They email them home or post them on their Facebook pages. I've even seen them set up a little point-and-shoot video camera next to themselves in the middle of a firefight. But usually they photograph the little moments during their down time to show how they live. The photos are little bits of memory, keepsakes from their long deployments, and a way of communicating with people back home. So, in a way, I was trying to create those kinds of real-life, non-newsy snapshots that Marines might shoot for themselves.

Most photojournalists working today, including me, are using similar equipment (very high end 35mm digital SLR cameras) so what we do sometimes looks very uniform. I like to try a new tool that helps me see photos I wouldn't otherwise notice.

David Guttenfelder has worked for the AP since 1994 based in Kenya, Ivory Coast and India. He now works from Tokyo as the AP's chief Asia photographer.