The Daily Tar Heel

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Sunday June 4th

‘Camera Obscura’ showcases cellphone photography at Ackland Museum Store

Shawn Rocco is an award-winning photojournalist — but that doesn’t mean he won’t whip out his camera phone.

His collection of cellphone photographs is on display through April 7 at the Ackland Museum Store in “Cellular Obscura – The Cellphone Photographs of Shawn Rocco.”

See the exhibit

Time: View during store hours until April 7

Location: Ackland Museum Store


A photographer at Raleigh’s News & Observer and a former adjunct professor of photojournalism at UNC, Rocco began his documentary project with a simple flip phone four years ago.

He said he was fiddling with the camera on his Motorola E815 cellphone when he realized the potential for an experimental photo project. He liked the simplicity and the overall feel of the resulting images, which he said reminded him of Polaroid.

The subjects of “Cellular Obscura” range from touching to playful.

Rocco said one of the best parts of the show is its ambiguous nature. Because the photos express quiet moments, viewers can form their own interpretations and renditions of what goes on in the frames.

Alice Southwick, manager of the Ackland store, said Rocco’s work is captivating because he manages to capture beauty with a low-tech device.

“These pictures, they zip,” she said. “It’s this perfect synthesis between art and documentary.”

Emily Bowles, director of communications at the Ackland Art Museum, said the use of such ordinary means to create art makes Rocco’s show mesh well with the Ackland’s current exhibit, “The Spectacular of Vernacular.”

“Like many of the artists in the museum’s show, Rocco has a tremendous ability to find the inherent beauty in mundane objects,” Bowles said in an email.

Southwick said “Cellular Obscura” is relevant to younger generations because they constantly document social occasions digitally.

This universal participation in photography is partially what led Rocco to pursue his project, he said. Because so many people now post their photos on the Internet, people are hyper-aware of cameras.

“There are times when you want to do some street photography, and you want to get people in natural moments,” Rocco said.

“The naturalness is broken when they see you with your regular camera.”

Rocco, who is 6 feet 2 inches tall and travels with at least two cameras and several lenses, couldn’t rely on stealth to capture the images of “Cellular Obscura” — hence the cellphone.

“When you start looking at the photos, you start seeing things that define America, where we are now, the transition from the 20th century into the 21st century,” he said.

“Some photos might have a timelessness to them, but to know that they were shot with a cellphone gives it a date in a way.”

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