The stories behind 3 of the best iPhone photos of the year

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iPPA awards
Dina Alfasi finds intrigue and beauty in her fellow commuters.
Photo: Dina Alfasi

Dina Alfasi sat across from a slim man on a bus who looked to her as though he was levitating and traveling someplace magical. With her iPhone, she made a picture.

What she captured was magic — and the picture made its own journey this week by getting published all over the world as one of the year’s best photos shot with an iPhone.

iPhone Photography Awards 2017 winners

Dina Alfasi

Alfasi won the People category of the prestigious iPhone Photography Awards, the first and longest-running mobile photography competition. It started in 2007, the same year the first iPhone was produced.

The man on the bus in Haifa, Israel, was among thousands of images entered by photographers from more than 130 countries. Cult of Mac caught up with three of this year’s first-place photographers to talk about their winning images.

For those who follow Alfasi on Instagram, the striking image that won should look familiar. As a way to pass time on the trains and buses she rides on her daily commute, she surreptitiously photographs her fellow passengers and publishes two beautiful feeds, MyDBusMoments and MyDTrainMoments.

“Once I started, I loved the result,” said Alfasi, an architectural engineer. “I’m always looking for the characters which something in them tells a story without words.

“With this photo, there is something magical about this situation. It looked like a painting of a man traveling towards a fantasy world high above the summer sky. I think that’s why this picture has managed to fascinate so many people.”

Brendan Ó Sé

Brendan Ó Sé of Cork, Ireland, showed how a pair of hands could tell a story as well as a face. His black-and-white image of a dockworker’s hands in Jakarta, Indonesia, earned him first-place honors in the Photographer of the Year category. He came in second to the category’s grand prize winner, Sebastian Tomada, who photographed children on the streets of Qayyarah, Iraq, near an oil well fire set by ISIS militants.

Ó Sé is a widely respected fine-arts photographer and is especially well-known in mobile photography circles. He was one of the original photographers selected for the first Apple World Gallery, photos that were used in the “Shot on iPhone 6” advertising campaign.

iPPA winners
The hands of a dockworker in Jakarta, Indonesia.
Photo: Brendan Ó Sé

Ó Sé was with another photographer in Jakarta when they came across dockworkers on break. He asked permission to photograph their hands, which were rough-hewn and caked in mud. They obliged.

“I recall how still they stayed as I got my few photographs,” Ó Sé said. “I made images of their hands and some of their feet. The textures of dirt on the skin both hide and reveal.”

Juan Carlos Castañeda

Juan Carlos Castañeda, of Astoria, New York, won first prize in a category called The America I Know with a painterly image from Standing Rock, North Dakota. The image shows veterans and Native Americans standing together to halt construction of the Dakota Access Pipeline.

The photo was made in a driving winter blizzard with temperatures near minus-30 degrees. Police officers were scheduled to evict protesters, but on this particular day, the Sioux tribe won a reprieve when then-President Barack Obama halted work at Standing Rock.

iPPA winners
Thousands gather to protest an oil pipeline at Standing Rock, North Dakota.
Photo: Juan Carlos Castñeda

“Everyone there stood until it was physically impossible to continue,” said Castañeda, co-founder of Human Pictures, a film company dedicated to social change. “Shortly after that picture was taken, everyone had to go back to camp and the officers on the other side of the bridge had to leave as well. It was a great reminder of who truly was in charge.”

iPhone photography changes the world

The iPhone just celebrated its 10th anniversary on Thursday. The device’s impact on photography and the camera industry has arguably made its greatest impact.

With each new generation of iPhone, the lenses, sensors and camera software improve. More and more, people consider the iPhone as the only camera they need.

Maybe the memory of clunky film cameras is still so fresh for some that we still marvel at the quality of images that come from an iPhone or another smartphone. At some point, it will just be photography and not iPhone photography.

Ó Sé is not so sure.

“I think people place too much importance on labels,” he said. “Photography is photography and it really does not matter what image-capturing device is used. I think as long as iPhones are used for multi-purposes and photography remains one of those, yes, we will keep using that term.”

For Alfasi, there may be no better camera. The iPhone is perfect because it lets her remain near-invisible as she follows her curiosity about the people she sees.

“The most significant change that happened to me was when I purchased my first iPhone (at that time a 4s),” she said. “It opened up a whole new world of photographing and editing to me. The iPhone always wins if it’s about size. The small size is such a great advantage, especially for street shooting.”

iPhone shines for video, too

Even for the filmmaker of the three, Castañeda, the iPhone is among the tools he uses when filming on location. Here is a short film he made in Haiti three years ago.

“I shoot in parallel with big cameras and the iPhone,” he said. “The intimacy that can be reached using (the iPhone) is priceless in many situations. I’m a firm believer that the best camera in the world is the one that you have with you.

“This camera sleeps by my side.”

The complete list of winning photographers and their images can be found on ippawards.com.