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Photography in Grand Theft Auto V - my glass eye • words
GTA V photos

Death in the leafy suburb of Rockford Hills

I absolutely love GTA V. After what I felt was an increasingly tedious, humourless attempt to draw some ‘maturity’ into the series in GTA IV (which I eventually got bored with and never finished, nor did I bother with any of the DLC), GTA V has captured my imagination entirely and I’ve spent about 60 hours to date in the game having an absolute blast both playing the story and just ‘living a life’ in the state of San Andreas, albeit a legally questionable one.

Something I’ve started messing around with recently, now all the Rockstar Social Club servers are finally working, is the Snapmatic photo app on the in-game mobile phone. Not only is there more than enough craziness in the scripted action to snap, the world Rockstar has created is so realistic that it’s perfectly possible to spend your entire time photographing the game’s inhabitants and their autonomic adventures – and misadventures.

What you snap comes down to what you feel like. Earlier this week I decided to take advantage of the fact it’s not real by creating works of ‘art’ from the act of ‘murder’ – I’d find a nicely framed, artistic-looking shot, populated by some non-playable city dwellers just going about their day (walking by, snapping their own phone photos, reading a paper, window-shopping, chatting on a corner, whatever), then I’d brutally slay them in the messiest way (usually a sawn-off shotgun) and snap the otherwise aesthetically appealing photo.

GTA V photography

A death on the steps of a Rockford Hills church.

gta v snapmatic

Dead busker outside the Oriental Movie Theatre

After a few shots this got a bit too easy so I started focussing on just the blood splatter, framing otherwise arty shots that were unmistakable adorned with the lifeless corpse and/or arterial spray of some poor unfortunate passerby. Dexter would love it.

But it’s not just me. Check out the Snapmatic photo-sharing page on Rockstar Social Club and you’ll see tens of thousands of gamers taking photos ranging from obvious selfies to more artistic and amusing moments frozen forever in between committing multi-million dollar heists. Here’s a few of my own less gruesome snaps around the city:

GTA V snapmatic photos

An abandoned mine entrance in the side of a mountain – you’ll find a Letter Scrap here by the way.

snapmatic photos gta V

Michael snaps a selfie downtown. Kifflam!

gta V monkey mask

GTA meets Planet Of The Apes

gta V photography

Emergency indeed – a little too late for these unfortunate victims.

Whoops, how’d that last one get in there?

In short, having fun with the phone-camera in GTA V is most definitely A Thing That People Are Doing. Which brings me to…

Petapixel’s humourless commenters

Mashable highlighted Fernando Pereira Gomes, just one of the many hundreds of players who are really making the most of the Snapmatic app, a real-life street photographer who has turned his own visual style to the streets of Los Santos to very pleasing effect. I love the shots he’s found in the city, they’re great. They go a long way to demonstrating that this city has a life outside of the scripted events of the storyline. Like I say, this chap is far from the only one doing this, but he’s a good example.

Petapixel picked up the link from Mashable and ran their own story on it, which is where I came across it this morning. And then I got into the comments.

As a rule internet comments are a worthless cesspit of self-entitlement, arrogance and bigotry, with a good dash of deliberate trolling thrown in to stir it all up. True, there are those who may just want to add their opinion to a balanced discussion taking place, and that’s great. But I’d say the majority of internet commenters simply want to unleash double-barrels of snark, correcting opinions they consider wrong, and do so with the fervent belief that only their opinion matters and That’s The End Of That.

As it was with the comments under the Petapixel story which are loaded with “this isn’t photography!” and “there’s a name for this: copyright theft” (eh?), and “um, this is called making a screenshot and requires no skill” and “so can I take photos of other people’s creations in a museum and call it art?” and “he didn’t use a camera, therefore it’s not photography” and “photography is defined by exposing chemical film to light actually” and “so if I screenshot Zelda: A Link To The Past, does that make me an aerial photographer?” and so on, and so on.

Enough, you tiresome bores!

I’d like to say this to everyone posting guff like that:

Get over yourselves, and do something about your shoulder-mounted chip against anyone who dares to question your personal definition of what photography is. Seriously, what does it matter? Why not put all that energy into creating something of your own that meets your terribly narrow definitions rather than attempting to piss all over someone else’s fun?

Rockstar put a camera in the phone that the player uses in the game. Switching into the camera roots you to the spot and gives you a zoomable, panable, tiltable viewpoint with which to frame and take a photo, in-game, which is then shared on their real-life photo sharing website at the Rockstar Social Club.

Correct: no chemical film is exposed to light.

Correct: no physical device that looks like or could be described as an actual real-life camera is ever in the user’s real-life hands.

Correct: the world that is being ‘photographed’ is entirely artificial and coded from the ground up by Rockstar.

But so what? The world they constructed is so beautifully made that emergent activity outside the realms of the scripted action happens all the time, all over the map. Cops chase villains, crash their cars, and engage in gunfights with them. Thieves hold up ATM users. Tourists stop in the street to snap photos. Hawkers try to sell you stuff. Pedestrians compliment and abuse each other – and depending on what you’re wearing, driving or doing, you too. Bums stagger down alleys and collapse. Birds fly into helicopter rotors and emerge as a burst of blood, feathers and fleshy bits. Reckless drivers mow down careless jay-walkers, then are wrenched out of their car by outraged witnesses and beaten to death. And yes, the framework that governs these actions is programmed, but how and when they occur in my player’s field of view is not, or at least it feels that way.

And then there’s the moments that really can’t have been programmed. They can’t program the sun to rise just as a storm passes at the exact moment I’m reaching the top of a mountain just in time to witness the most beautiful flare of sunlight through a heavy cloud, silhouetting a lone tourist already at the peak, snapping their own photo. That’s the laws of the game as programmed by Rockstar serendipitously producing a unique moment – it hasn’t happened every other time I climbed a mountain.

It’s photography in every way that matters to me

So my verdict is this: sure, it’s not ‘real’ photography. Sure, I’m not taking any ‘real’ risks to get the photo, nor am I capturing any ‘real’ emotions in the in-game inhabitants I snap as they go about their day.

But serendipity is in full effect. I still have to find the shots, frame them up the way my eye likes them, pick the moment to press the shutter button. The ambient light is so well done that picking the right time of day to get the photo you want is just as important.

GTA V photos

An expensive shopping trip for sure

photography GTA V

A bloody protest outside Ponsonby’s. Just out of frame: the corpse

I have to make that photo somehow or other, even if it’s as grotesque and/or ridiculously unrealistic as blasting a pedestrian from just the right angle with just the right weapon so as to get their blood to spatter across the Ponsonby’s window in just the right way to send the message I want to send about that chain of stores and the patronising and supercilious staff they employ within.

In short

Photography within the world Rockstar created for GTA V is perfectly creative, limited only by your imagination, and all in all, it’s just meant to be fun.

But apparently that’s a very foreign concept to many in the photography world, and particularly amongst those that comment on Petapixel. Photography is ONLY done with REAL cameras. Photography is ONLY done with REAL film. Photography MUST meet their dictionary-rigid definitions and TO HELL with anyone who DARES to contradict them.

Well I’m proud to not be that boring, or limited by such narrow and humourless opinions about what ‘photography’ really is. I’m a hard-working professional real-life photographer, and I love messing about with the photography in GTA V. Bring it on.

2 thoughts on “Photography in Grand Theft Auto V

  1. “and all in all, it’s just meant to be fun.” I accept that. Is that what PP was offering? Is that what the likes of Adam whathisname was exuding? I get your point. Hell, I used to have a 110 key chain for fun pic and truly believe in the ‘snapshot’. But I will not accept this as art and that was my argument. Also PP putting this out there was a ploy the way they did it. I applaud their ‘call-to-action’…it worked!

  2. Hey John,

    I can accept that by some lofty definitions of art, finding and snapping aesthetically pleasing images using the in-game camera-phone is not on the same level. I absolutely agree one wouldn’t be able to put it next to, say, the Mona Lisa, or something by Van Gogh or Picasso, or something by Banksy, or any number of other highly creative and original artists, and say “Yep, those are both equally deserving of artistic accolades.”

    But I don’t think the chap interviewed by Mashable would really say that either. If he does, I’d discuss that with him in disagreement.

    However, I do believe that to find the images he found, and many more that other players have found, requires an artistic sensibility, an eye for it, an understanding of what mood one wants to evoke and how to do so within the frame made available to the player using that in-game camera-phone. I believe artistic expression is taking place.

    I also agree that there’s a debate to be had about to what extent this artistic expression has been facilitated by Rockstar’s own artists and software engineers, but I’d make the comparison to a chap who’s just filmed a horror film entirely within the grounds of Disneyworld.

    Disneyworld and *every darned thing within it* is entirely designed and constructed by Disney. The trees, the buildings, the staff, even the ground you walk on, is all Disney. So, would beautiful artistic photos taken within Disneyworld be inadmissible as original art because almost every element within them came from the mind of a Disney ‘imagineer’? I would say no, that the artistic expression within the photos came from their creator. Sure, Disney would probably slap a C&D on you if you tried to sell them but that’s how Disney operates.

    Los Santos is a digital city created not just by Rockstar staff but also the real-life architects that built the real life buildings of Los Angeles that Los Santos is based upon, complicating the issue even further. But they quite specifically built it to operate as much like a ‘real’ crazy crime-ridden city as possible with the intent of letting players then use it to create whatever they wanted: be that new missions, new stories, or photos. You need an imagination and some creativity to do that, and I think that some of things people have imagined and created using those tools qualify both as ‘art’ and ‘artistic’.

    But I don’t think they’ll be hanging in a gallery any time soon, and that’s fine. It doesn’t need to.

    Thanks for the discussion! 🙂

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