by Rungroj Yongrit and Diego Azubel*
Rungroj Yongrit: Each day whenever I’m commuting around town it seems that all I see is people staring at their mobile phones. On one particular day while traveling on public transport, I looked around me and noticed that all other passengers standing next to me were on their phones, and I felt like a nobody. It crossed my mind that no matter what I did, even if I behaved in a strange manner or did something absolutely crazy, nobody would really notice me. No one would even move their heads to look at me.
Not long after this, I met up with Diego [Diego Azubel] and funnily enough he told me he was working on a picture story about people’s addiction to mobile phones and suggested we did it together, which we did.
Diego Azubel: Even though we find ourselves surrounded by fellow commuters immersed in their mobile phones or tablets on every single journey, we soon realized that shooting this story wasn’t as easy as we had imagined. It seems very straight-forward when one travels and all there is to see are people staring down at a small screen. But as soon as we lifted our big cameras and looked through the viewfinder, one or more commuters in the frame reacted to it and the perfect picture came out like an average shot. We both agreed that the main problem was the size of our cameras, big DSLRs that tend to have an intimidating effect on most subjects. If we had used small cameras we would have been able to get much better images for this particular story.
To make our story as comprehensive as possible, we researched everything from mobile phone usage statistics to new illnesses derived from mobile phone usage all the way to accidents or even death caused by people not paying attention to the world outside their screens. We tried to visually capture as many angles as possible to illustrate all of these aspects, and for this we needed to take our time. We would make countless train journeys photographing commuters, stand for hours at busy intersections shooting motorcycle passengers and even drivers using their phones, take pictures of pedestrians crossing major roads while typing messages, sit at restaurant tables trying to catch couples appearing more interested to chat with their online friends than the person they were having a date with… And when we took a step back to observe and document it all we realized it was much worse than we had initially felt it to be. At any given moment, there are more people using their phones inside a train than those who aren’t. Almost at any restaurant table there will be a phone sitting next to the diner’s plate or worse yet, there will be someone checking for new messages.
Rungroj Yongrit: Not so long ago, I read a Thai story called “An Electricity Blackout Day” by Prapas Cholsalanon. The story is about a young, newlywed couple. The husband works during the day, and his wife is on night shifts, and they keep in touch via their mobile phones. Since they can’t share meals, she sends him pictures of the food she eats and never forgetting to retouch her own pictures with application to make her look beautiful. One day, there is a power outage in the city. The wife goes home and finds her husband in her house in total darkness. They don’t recognize each other and start accusing the other of being a burglar. Panicking she leaves the house and tries to call her husband but due to the outage there is no signal. The story ends with the husband running after her with a stick in his hand trying to hit her. I did not think it was too far fetched a story.
As photojournalists, we do not only capture news and sports photos but also look at what is going on in human life. Not every story has a photo but every photo has a story behind the photo. When you look at these photos or you look at people’s addiction to mobile phones: what do you think? Are you part of this?
Diego Azubel: As I stand in the train feeling overwhelmed by the amount of lit screens around me, I often need to remind myself not to pull out my own phone. We all have become so dependent on our phones that we are now unable to stand in a train, sit in a taxi, or wait for the bus without having a phone in our hands.
A couple weeks ago, I saw a man abusing a woman outside a train station, and to my surprise everyone around me was standing with their phones either filming or texting, but nobody did anything to stop the abuse. Not even after I intervened. What seems to be happening now is that people feel more powerful or useful by sharing events on social media rather than effectively taking action. Technology, mobile phones in this case, can surely be a great and useful tool towards a better society, but when we spend so much time behind it, it often becomes the one thing that stops us from being an active part of it.
*the authors of this story, Diego and Rungroj, are both epa staff photographers based in Bangkok, Thailand.