A Photojournalist Comes Home to America

Photographer David Guttenfelder rediscovers what it means to be American through the lens of his smartphone.

As an international photojournalist, I’ve been to some of the most far-flung places on Earth. After 20 years abroad, I felt like my own country was a mystery to me. So when I moved back to the United States in 2014, I began to explore it as I would explore any foreign country—with my camera. Only I didn’t use a “real” one; I used my smartphone. 

I’ve always kept a small film camera with me for my personal projects—things I wanted to shoot for myself, without the pressure of external expectations. When I got my first smartphone, in 2010, I realized it was the perfect tool for this kind of thing: small, discreet, always in my back pocket.

But back then it was considered a toy. When I took one to Afghanistan, I was told that it was inappropriate to cover a serious topic like war with a phone instead of a “professional” camera. Fast-forward to the present. With more than 400 million users on Instagram, it’s a different world now. Photographing our lives with our phones has become a completely natural behavior.

In Adel, Iowa, my niece plays on a homemade waterslide during a Fourth of July party. My sister and her family live on a gravel road just a couple of miles from where we grew up.
In Adel, Iowa, my niece plays on a homemade waterslide during a Fourth of July party. My sister and her family live on a gravel road just a couple of miles from where we grew up.
Photograph by David Guttenfelder

Smartphones do present challenges and technical limitations. They’re not as responsive as my regular cameras, and the optics aren’t as sharp. But that’s OK; I want my images to be imperfect and immediate, to capture something both fleeting and timeless about the America that I’m rediscovering.

We tend to think that photojournalism requires access to other worlds, but all you really have to do is document your own life. Mundane daily things are worthy of being noticed and celebrated. If we look closely, we can see that our own communities are just as compelling as the wildest places on the planet.

David Guttenfelder is a National Geographic Photography Fellow focusing on geopolitical conflict and conservation.

Guttenfelder spent 20 years as a photojournalist for the Associated Press based in Nairobi, Abidjan, New Delhi, and Tokyo, covering news in more than 75 countries around the world.

In 2011, he helped the AP open a bureau in North Korea, the first Western news agency to have an office in the otherwise isolated country. Guttenfelder has made more than 40 trips to North Korea.

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