Instagram: blessing or curse for the serious photographer?
Instagram and social media has changed photography. No doubt about that. Has it made it better or all worse? Depends what side you are on, I would say. There are countless opinions on this matter. Here is mine.
Instagram has risen up to 500 million users that are active at least once a day. Quite a number for a platform that has started 7 years ago. Even more impressive: 95 million images are uploaded per day and 4,2 billion likes are shared (all numbers according to Omnicore: This surely states that images are of interest to connect people across all borders. This is a good thing for sure. Count me in. I share and like, too. Almost daily. But why? And is this of any importance for photography or am I just taking part and being responsible for devaluating the art of photography? Just spilling images into insignificance? My answer won´t be short. And it will be biased. By my own experience and perspective.
First of all, I am not a professional photographer. I don´t need to create income by publishing images. That being said I still live the dream of many other photographers: finding a financial benefit to compensate for all the expenses gear and travel bring, is a goal. Why does this matter? Because there are many different approaches to social media. And you need to understand this in order to evaluate the use of it for yourself. If you are willing to create income by social media you probably can. But then you will have to work the platforms with a strategic approach and invest. And invest a lot. The investment will be mostly time. And then this turns into a job. Neither good nor bad. It´s a plain necessity to constantly communicate with your audience, attract people to come to your account and produce quality content. What does this have to do with photography? Nothing at first sight. But then again a lot because Instagram lives by the power of visualization. And that’s what photography is about, isn´t it?
When I first registered on Instagram I didn´t catch it. What´s the use of posting images to complete strangers? Why should a like or follow matter to me? Back then I took images only for myself and was not interested into photography much more than a proud father shooting images of his kids and capturing holidays. Then my life took a twist and I became more and more interested in the art-form of photography. I studied photos. Learned by countless tutorials, eagerly trying to be able to photograph as a form of craftsmanship. I spent money on gear but more so on knowledge and travel. I started to shoot with a plan. And I started to share my images. I registered on Flickr. Shared my first images to complete strangers and found it interesting to gather feedback. They were mostly polite claps on the back that felt warm and nice but did not help other than getting some sort of encouragement. I searched the web for good places to share my images. And ultimately returned to my Instagram that had been lying around with just 2 shots for years. I uploaded new images. Got more claps on the back. And soon realized that most of those claps were mere invitations to like and follow back with no real interest in my images whatsoever. In the beginning it felt like being betrayed when somebody who followed me unfollowed me after I returned the favor. What the heck? What does this have to do with photography? Although I still don’t play this follow/unfollow game myself and still do not like this behavior, a year long experience on Instagram has made me pretty emotionless on that matter. Many follows are simply a way of advertising for someone´s own account. This in fact - I do believe - has nothing to do with the art of photography.
But why do I still take part in this ego-game Instragram? Because after a while of being active on Instagram I realized its true asset: easily connecting with like-minded and getting inspired. Hugely inspired. And hugely motivated to improve my own art. And now we are in the subject. And now the real fun of this social network kicks in. I found many photographers with amazing work that is highly inspirational to improve my own photography. Or makes me want to travel to places I did not know existed.
I also found many images that I would not dare sharing but oh well, it´s up to the viewer what´s to like and what not. And who am I to judge anyways? However, what I like to this very day is how easily you get in touch with other photographers. A personal message is sent fast. Replies come often and if so fast, too. You are interested in how to get to that spot to shoot? You would like to know if the other guy has experienced the same difficulties with that tri-pod? Go ask. Be sure you get asked also. I am still amazed what a fine bunch of people photographers or photo-enthusiasts are in general. Of course the larger the number of following the more difficult it is for those guys to answer all messages. But it mostly works. Most photographers know it´s a give and take community and they gladly share. Of course, there are some ignorant people also that try to take advantage of you. Add some companies to that who try to get photos to promote their cause easily and too cheap, too. And add some people that will spam you for attention. And I am not even getting into the complex subject of image thievery here. But all this doesn’t take it away for me that I connected with plenty of awesome people and artists that I share my vision with.
In fact, there are a bunch of people I chat with every day. Great people and great artists. Some of them award winners and even pros, others hobby-enthusiasts that just love getting in the field and capture beauty. All with a competitiveness but also a will to help each other. That´s where I met Ko for example and how I got to write for his blog. Which is an honor for me, btw.. This group of people ultimately lead me to go on a phototour with complete strangers. Well not complete, because I had been chatting with them for more than half a year. That trip was an experience for life. One week into the Dolomites and other fine places in the Alps. Being together all the time and sharing a passion and vision to capture the best images. The next tour - to Lofoten - is already planned and booked. Others are sure to come. Does it need Instagram or social media for that? No, not necessarily. But for me it probably wouldn’t have happened without it or at least not as fast. And of course this has changed my photography: helped me improve, changed my perception and last but not least has risen my appreciation for anybody going out in the field no matter what weather or time of day/night and trying to work the images to their best in post processing.
But I do not want to get off-topic here. So does social media change photography? There are photographers that opt to shoot for the lone purpose of gaining reach, likes and followers. Leading to have their images fit the popular trends and resemble mainstream pop-music that you can hear on most radio stations. Easy to be consumed, mostly nice indeed, yet often lacking excitement or creativity. “No art” say some. “Who cares as long as it sells?” others. But has pop music, for example, changed music? Yes, in a way. With ups and downs. But it has not lead to less appreciation of classic music or all different genres of music. In fact it has made music more diverse. So if you want to be top of the pops then go and shoot that way. Nothing wrong with that. You might be able to become Beyonce of Instagram photography. If you want an appreciation for your ‘Jazz’, then go work it and show your style of photography. Don’t care about a smaller number of followers than the aforementioned. You will sure get some appreciation and loyal fans, too. Mostly from people that grow bored by pop-imagery. But complaining about less attention for photography outside the mainstream is as useless as complaining about your followers not appreciating your more creative work when you have treated them mostly with mainstream shots before.
So coming back to the main question here: is social media a blessing or curse for the serious photographer? I would say it definitely is a blessing that makes you curse every now and then. And that is a good thing. It helps you connect with others even more. And as long as you don’t opt to be shooting all by yourself and keep your images just for yourself and your family, this is a good place to be. Just have fun shooting and share. Use social media as a way to spark your creativity. Enjoy when your images are liked. But don’t let numbers judge your art. There is no number that can evaluate your experience and dedication or passion for what and how you do it. Most of all: connect with likeminded people. The real fun starts when you get to know other people that are as crazy and as passionate as you for your style of photography. Find people whose opinion is gold for you and hook up to shoot together. Let them tell you where you have room to improve rather than collect warm hugs only. All possible without Instagram and such, but even easier with social media. Just hook up.