As video games become ever more hyper-realistic, a new breed of “virtual photographers” is capturing special moments of beauty and emotion within them. Thomas Hobbs reports.
Over recent years there has been a proliferation of major video-game releases offering “photo modes”, enabling players to capture memorable moments on their adventures with their own in-game snaps. Blockbuster titles like The Last of Us 2, Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild, Red Dead Redemption 2, Assassin’s Creed Odyssey and, most recently, Resident Evil Village have all allowed fans to take pictures from a plethora of angles and with a variety of colour filters.
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But what might have initially been intended by developers as a novel way to get players to share screenshots of a game on social media (and get it trending) has led to, some claim, the birth of a genuine new artform. Thanks to the hyper-realism of modern video games, which now boast thousands of individual facial animations and random environmental events that play out slightly differently each time you dive in, gaming worlds have evolved to become genuinely spontaneous, life-like landscapes that photographers can comb to create images with their own arguable artistic value. “I guess because you’re not carrying equipment through miles of rock, people think there’s no struggle behind your photos and that they can’t be seen as art,” freelance “virtual photographer” Leo Sang, who is based in São Paulo, tells BBC Culture. “But art evolves with whatever technology defines the age that it was created in.
This shot of bloodied Resident Evil 3 heroine Jill Valentine sat on a train carriage has echoes in the daily commute (Credit: Leo Sang/Capcom)
“This idea of photographers going through unimaginable tasks just to get an image is in the past now,” he claims. “A video game can be just as fruitful a canvas for a photographer as the real world is.”
Sang has created in-game photos for marketing campaigns from major gaming publishers and companies like Activision and Nvidia, and, above and beyond that, he spends a lot of his days as a hobbyist trying to capture moments with emotional substance on games such as Grand Theft Auto V and Cyberpunk2077. This might involve spending hours carefully arranging dead bodies in a Wild West tavern in order to construct a menacing smoking gun shot, or shooting an intimate juncture where a character is lost in a daydream amid a futuristic neon landscape. Often, he tries to photograph fleeting gaming moments that have a direct correlation to the everyday humdrum of real life.
One of the shots he considers among his greatest shows bloodied Resident Evil 3 heroine Jill Valentine having an introspective moment while sitting on a train carriage; Sang describes the intent behind it with the seriousness of an artist describing a work of theirs hanging on a wall in a prestigious exhibition. “Despite feeling bruised by the world, we all still commute into work [or at least, we did before the pandemic] and act like everything is normal. A bloodied Jill gave me this feeling of a regular person looking through the window while commuting – just carrying on despite it all.”
The shot undoubtedly captures a very relatable sense of perseverance and therefore furthers the way video games now offer genuine soul-searching moments, even amid fantastical apocalyptic horror settings.
The benefits of ‘virtual photography’
Sang’s work has been hung in art exhibitions in Los Angeles and London (alongside fellow screenshotter Duncan Harris) – revealing how the lines between real-life photographs and in-game screenshots are blurring. In 2018, having worked in advertising and graphic design, Sang became disillusioned with his professional life and switched careers for photography, quickly making an income shooting live music and events. However, due to the high levels of crime in São Paulo (“It was dangerous to carry a camera”) and a nagging feeling that he couldn’t possibly compete with more established photographers (whose bigger budgets enabled privileges such as travelling), Sang traded the “elitism” of real-world photography for the virtual world, and began to make freelance money by creating promotional screenshots.
Sang, who has turned an escapist hobby into a living, believes that one of the exciting aspects of video-game photography, from the perspective of the practitioner, is its accessibility. “For a lot of people, it isn’t affordable to just buy a camera or sustain a photographer lifestyle. For others, it’s just too dangerous. The good thing about video-game photography is you don’t need academic experience. You are given the tools straight away and are free to experiment. I could instantly be shooting a battlefield in Northern France or a futuristic Cyberpunk city; there’s no barriers for entry.”
Video-game photos like Megan Reims’s depiction of an eagle flying over a gorgeous landscape in Red Dead Redemption 2 offer a utopian vision (Credit: Megan Reims/Rockstar Games)
Artistic video-game photography communities are now popping up across the internet, with amateurs eagerly sharing in-game images they’ve taken that attempt to capture something unique about the human condition. Megan Reims, a community manager for GamerGram, an Instagram community that displays and champions poetic screenshots taken by amateurs, believes more and more amateur photographers are turning screenshots into a hobby due to Covid restrictions. That’s because, with video-game worlds that make climbing the pyramids and seeing the Hollywood sign up close in just a couple of seconds into a reality, not being able to travel “isn’t as big of an issue”, she says.
Video games show young people what the real world could look like if politicians did a better job – Megan Reims
Among Reims’ most treasured shots is one she took in Red Dead Redemption 2, which depicts an eagle flying high over a gorgeous, blue naturalistic landscape. For her, this channels another quality that can be found in “virtual photography”: utopianism. “Taking photographs in video-game worlds is a nice escape as the world isn’t exactly its best version right now,” she explains. “I like to capture a game’s natural environmental beauty [with my photos] because it’s a real contrast to what climate change is doing to our real world. I guess video games show young people what the real world could look like if politicians did a better job.”
Video-game photography became a hobby for 23-year-old Reims after the sudden death of her father in July 2018. While playing The Last Of Us series, which centres on a teenage girl and a middle-aged male smuggler travelling through a virus-ravaged US, each having lost various loved ones along the way, she identified with the raw approach to dealing with personal trauma, and the suggestion that making it through cycles of grief is far, far scarier than any literal flesh-eating monster.
Subsequently, Reims began taking pictures of its protagonist Ellie. One particularly striking shot shows Ellie panicking in a claustrophobic gas mask; it represents how Reims felt completely consumed by darkness after her dad’s death. Most importantly, it shows how taking photographs in games like The Last Of Us 2 can help players to process and understand their own complex feelings – and by extension, these shots can have real emotional resonance for those who view them.
“I wasn’t prepared for my dad’s death at all,” she admits, “but characters like Ellie represented defiance and just helped me to move past it. I think there’s a lot of art to the way people capture games with their screenshots; they love the games so much that they put their feelings into it. They see themselves in these moments.”
The barriers to artistic acceptance
But can these “virtual photographers” truly claim that their screenshots are artworks in their own right? “Of course,” says Eddy Frankel, visual art editor of Time Out. “We’re living in a post-conceptual world where an artist’s idea takes priority over aesthetics or skill; so as long as the concept behind the work is strong enough, it doesn’t matter what the work actually is.”
Reims’ shot of the heroine of The Last of Us 2 in a gas mask reflected the darkness she felt following her father’s death (Credit: Megan Reims/Naughty Dog)
“An artwork’s ability to say something about the human condition comes down to the ideas it expresses, and how it expresses them,” he continues. “It doesn’t matter if a work of art is a photo taken in a video game or an actual turd in a tin can [as in a famous 1961 work by Italian artist Piero Manzoni], what matters is what the work is saying. Can video-game photography say something big, important, emotional or interesting? Totally: it’s just down to the artist to figure out how.”
I want to show that a shot from Red Dead Redemption 2 can look every bit as arresting as something from a Sergio Leone western – Petri Levälahti
One practical barrier to artistic acceptance for this new breed of “virtual photographers” is around copyright. If gamers attempt to capture a shot in the “photo mode” of new horror game Resident Evil Village then their shot is instantly branded with a “copyright belongs to Capcom” stamp. Not all major games do this, but the fact major studios like Capcom do serves as a reminder of one of the major differences between being a screenshotter and being a photographer going out into the real world with a camera.
Reims argues that once a video-game universe is released to the public, it becomes public property, with the millions of people who play it ultimately the ones who bring the game to life and give it extra meaning. But the legal reality is that video-game photographers do not own their shots – the developer of the game does. “We’re still in a bit of a grey area on copyrighting and owning our photograph,” Reims admits. “We cannot sell them on. I think it’s a shame there isn’t a solution.”
Not every “virtual photographer” believes they should be perceived as artists themselves, however; one such dissenter is Petri Levälahti, a 40-year-old professional screenshotter who was given full-time employment by EA Dice after impressing the developer with his cinematic fan-made shots of the Battlefield series. “I would rather see the screenshots acknowledged as showing an appreciation of the artistic merit of video games rather than as individual art [in their own right],” he counters. “Screenshotters are re-framing someone else’s art. When I take an image in Grand Theft Auto V, I’m only appreciating what Rockstar [the developer] have done to create this moment. I can take credit for capturing a mood, but the art is all through the developer.”
They used to say digital photography wasn’t art either. The times keep on moving – Leo Sang
The EA staffer has achieved something many screenshotters only dream about: being employed by a major gaming studio to take in-game photos for a living. The work he does for EA Dice involves taking screenshots of their games to be used in their online marketing campaigns. He also takes shots out-of-hours as a passionate hobbyist. Rather than classifying himself as an artist, he would describe himself as a “storyteller”.
“If I can tell a story with a shot that goes beyond the game’s actual storyline then my job is done. I want people to look at these games from a new perspective by looking at my work, but I also want to show that, visually, a shot from Red Dead Redemption 2 can look every bit as arresting as something from a Sergio Leone western.” One photo of Levälahti’s that arguably achieves this comes from Grand Theft Auto IV, and shows a couple looking at a monolith that reads: “Paradise”. There’s a knowing power to the shot in its suggestion, perhaps, that video-game worlds might be the closest many of us will get to finding paradise on earth.
This Petri Levälahti photo from Grand Theft Auto IV suggests a knowingness about the gap between video-game worlds and reality (Petri Levalahti/Rockstar Games)
But while Levälahti’s images may be interesting to muse on as a viewer, he himself is less open to speculating about what they signify. I ask Levälahti if he thinks that real-world photographers and in-game screenshotters share the need to chase the high of capturing that perfect moment – but he is again sceptical. “Screenshotters are in a controlled environment, where we control everything from sun direction to animations, but a real-world photographer is really existing in the moment,” he says. “Video games are re-creating a moment. I’d say what real-world photographers do is much more authentic. It is on a whole different level. Screenshotting barely has its own Wikipedia page. I really love what I do, I respect the talent that some of the screenshotters have, and it has changed my life, but it is important not to get carried away. We have to contextualise this in a way that gives respect to the developers and artists who actually made these worlds.”
Yet Levälahti’s peer Sang believes naysayers who don’t think “virtual photography” is art will change their opinions in time. “Remember they used to say digital photography wasn’t art either,” he says. “The times keep on moving.” Reims is even more positive: “If Picasso was making art in 2021, he would experiment with screenshots, I’m sure,” she says. “The pandemic has shown that screenshotting is a really sustainable source of art. It is only going to get bigger and bigger. My dream would be that our screenshots are standing side-by-side with [the work] of real-life photographers in [a famous gallery].”