Instagram can be a useful tool to establish an online presence for a business, find entertaining content, or keep in touch with friends and family. As photographers, having an Instagram account gives us an easily accessible way to connect with other photographers and clients, and people may even find it strange if you’re a photographer or photography enthusiast who doesn’t use Instagram. However, despite its focus on the sharing of photographs, its usefulness as a platform for photographers is up for debate (of course, this also depends upon a person’s intentions).
I would certainly say that sharing photos and interacting with other photographers is a positive thing; it feels great to establish connections and be part of a community. A sense of belonging can give us validation that can be helpful in maintaining motivation to keep doing what we’re doing. However, Instagram is not a benevolent entity that exists to help us grow as creatives – it is a business that is trying to make money.
Instagram makes money primarily through ads, and the more people who see an ad, the more money Instagram makes; therefore, the commodity we’re dealing with is people’s attention. This is why Instagram uses algorithms to tailor our feeds – they want to show us stuff that we will like and that will keep us coming back for more, and possibly so they can space out the content to keep us using the app as consistently as possible throughout the day. This is also how they determine how much exposure to give our posts – if we are not very active, our posts won’t reach many people (incentivizing us to pay more attention to the app). In order to get the algorithms to work in our favor (assuming we don’t want to pay and are not already famous or influencers), we would need to be actively liking people’s posts, commenting, posting stories, and uploading multiple posts per day. This also leads to people playing games like following and unfollowing others so that they can get more followers or profile views for themselves. Even if you come to Instagram with the best intentions and just want to casually share your photos and see others’ photos, these algorithms still limit what you can see in your feed from your own followers.
Despite having what we see in our feeds limited by the algorithms, we are still being fed an enormous amount of photos and information every time we scroll through the app. Because Instagram makes money based on the number of ads people see, it is in their best interest to get people to scroll through as many posts as possible (hence, the unlimited scrolling feature that fills your feed with random stuff after you’ve seen everything it wants to show you from your followers). Most people only look at an image long enough to determine if they want to give it a like or not (a few seconds) before moving on to the next image. Not only does this model of presentation not give your photographs the attention they deserve, but it also impairs our ability to appreciate the work of others on the platform – reading the cliffs-notes instead of the novel.
On the other hand, because many of us want our work to be seen by others, we try to be active and post a lot of content. This can lead to overeagerness, quality control issues, and lack of reflection on our own work. Even ‘the masters’ are only known for a handful of images, and their photo books and published works are only comprised of a very small percentage of their total photographs taken. Being a ‘good photographer’ doesn’t mean that every photo you take needs to be good; the more important thing is that you are able to reflect and figure out which of your images are the best and deserving to be shown to the world. I take a lot of bad and mediocre photos, but I try not to share them (anymore, haha). I’m sure most people would rather see 10 good photos than 10 good photos and 90 mediocre photos, why should it be any different when viewing someone’s Instagram feed? It is often the case that the people who post more often have more likes and followers than those who post less often, regardless of the overall quality of the photos. This is essentially encouraging us to spend less time looking at and reflecting on our photos – just post them and move on to the next thing. Of course, we can all benefit from getting someone else’s opinion on what our best photos are; I just find it better to get opinions from trusted friends or respected photographers than from the masses.
It’s hard not to let the number of likes and followers affect our perception of our work. Great photographers have many thousands of followers, so it must be the case that if we can get many followers, we are good photographers, right? This train of thought is what leads to the aforementioned practices of following people just to get more followers, and liking/commenting for the purpose of getting higher engagement on our own posts. Unfortunately, this takes a lot of time and does not in any way affect the quality of our photos. If we spend a lot of time trying to grow on Instagram, we are not spending that time trying to grow our photography skill.
This system of external validation has the potential to derail our creative process. It’s easy to believe that a photo that has more likes is a better photo, and we may then start to make more photos similar to that one to get more likes and follows. By the same token, we may see photographers who post photos of a particular style and have a lot of followers, and we may feel that we should start to copy that style, even if we may not feel particularly drawn to it ourselves. I’m not saying there’s anything wrong with imitation, I just believe we should do what we want to do, and not determine what we want to do based on what we anticipate others will like.
Daido Moriyama said, “photography has no originality.” I think what he means by this is that, by nature, a camera is copying what you put in front of it – taking a photo of a house isn’t the same as designing and building the house yourself. However, a photograph is still special because it represents the photographer’s mind and what that individual finds interesting or important; if we’re photographing for others’ approval, the photos have lost that specialness. It may be worthwhile to try spending less time looking at other people’s photos and more time reflecting on our own.
Overall, I don’t enjoy using Instagram or social media in general, but it seems to be the most reliable way to meet photographers and collaborators in the local community. However, I think Instagram should be, at most, a very small part of our photographic practice due to the issues previously discussed, among others that I didn’t raise in this post. I’ll have to tolerate it for now because, at present, the benefit of meeting interesting new people outweighs all the downsides, but I’ll be trying to figure a way to be involved and meet other photographers without social media. If anyone would like to discuss this further or has ideas for a more sustainable way to use Instagram, feel free to contact me!