Instagram and Photography

In 2010, I bought my first camera and all was right with the world. I knew nothing about photography, but I wasn’t going to let that stop me. Having a camera in my hand made me feel powerful, not in the presumed notion of power but in the sense that I could create anything I wanted with my new found weapon of choice.

Fast forward a year later and I was in Afghanistan about to get my feet wet in a foreign land in a combat capacity. Im an infantryman, but for long periods I was confined behind a desk due to a lot of ridiculousness from my superiors. However, that wasn't going to stop me from photographing everything I possibly could and keep a record of my time in Afghanistan. I would find out later on that none of the images I took could be used for my personal reasons. When I asked why I couldn't use them I was merely told "your images are property of the US Army and the images may contain sensitive material". At that time I didn't really care because I didn't know much and I said sure thing, I'll still continue to take photos.

I subsequently became a faux photojournalist for my unit. I couldn’t put my camera down because I was so encapsulated by photographing the local nationals and the interaction with our guys that I wanted to capture moments that would resonate for a long time. Its during this time that I realized what a photograph can do and how much power a photographer has over their audience. I wanted that power. I yearned for the ability to tell stories through the use of images and nothing else. Before I attained that power however, I needed to ask some questions. How does one become a photographer? What does it mean to be a photographer? Something more pertinent to today would be, how does social media affect the concept of what makes a photographer?

Upon departing the military and having more time to take photographs I yearned for the ability to make photographs. The problem was, during that time I was more excited about the fact that I had a camera than the act of taking photos. I then stumbled on Instagram and a lot of things changed. Instagram for me became a way for me to take photos with my phone, instead of the thousand dollar camera I had, and share it with the world. I became proficient at that and started doing more with my phone than my camera. One day however, something wasn’t right with the world and I felt as though I lost my way on the journey I had initially started off on. Here I was, simply taking photographs instead of making them and I began examining Instagram and it’s competitors more deeply. 

The problem I found with Instagram et al, is that whilst they are good platforms for sharing photos of your food and the occasional decent photo, they had nothing to do with creativity. Instagram was simply another popularity tool. A tool where gaining likes and comments were more important than the actual content of your work. Instagram became like high school all over again and the name of the game was who can be the most popular. This isn’t what photography is. This isn’t what I set out to be a apart of. 

What became more disheartening was, the further I looked into Instagram and some of the popular photos, the more I realized how nothing about Instagram is what it says it is. What Instagram has been doing is trying to sell falsehoods and it’s main source of this is its plethora of faux-filters. In her essay “Instagram is debasing real photography” which was published in 2012 in The Guardian, Kate Bevan argues that social media platforms such as Instagram has taken away the lure of why we wanted to become photographers. She goes on to say, in reference to the abundance of filters, “The problem with the current inundation of readymade filters and presets is that they add a history, a longevity to the images that it intrinsically doesn’t have.”

Bevan’s comments ring true for a number of reasons, first of which is, why would anyone want to blatantly lie about an image they have created by adding filters to it? What you’re essentially doing when you do that is taking the creativity out of your hands. How can you say you’re a content creator when you’ve not added you’re own process to an image? How can you say this image is yours but you’ve added someone else’s work atop your own and say its yours. How can you feel comfortable knowing that this preset you’ve just desecrated your work with is available to anyone? Instagram has made it so that creativity is being mainstreamed in such a way that the word “create” can no longer be associated with it’s original meaning. 

When it first started, Instagram’s aim was to be a place to curate photographs. It wanted to be to the mobile world, what Flickr (et al) was to the computer world. It wanted to be a place where creatives can showcase their work in a gallery setting, but alas that dream died out when it was acquired by Facebook Inc. It has essentially become a media marketers drug of choice to reach out to the populous.

The thing is though, Instagram is great, the idea of it is fantastic, the execution (barring some quality issues) is superb. It has brought to the world, a plethora of visually appealing images. It has made some young adventurists break out of their shell and has become a way to show teenage angst and showcase their lifestyle. It is now even holding it's weight with other advertising platforms and is a reason behind why Facebook were willing to break the bank to acquire it.

The thing is, whilst there are an innumerable amount of talent that Instagram has spawned, the vast majority are not photographers. Despite what they may or want to think, taking a photo and putting it on the platform does not make you a photographer. The reason why is simple. Most professional photographers take the time necessary to make an image. From spending hours upon hours editing a session trying to go from 5000 images to 50 to spending days or even weeks post processing images. The dedication throughout is paramount to the success of a photographer. 

When I first began taking photos while I was deployed, some of the things I learned at that time were, patience is a virtue, creativity isn’t something you’re born with and to become a photographer you need to spend time learning your craft. You would be hard-pressed to find a teenager spending the required amount of time needed to master photography. Reason being, they find it easier to adapt to the instant gratifying world that Instagram presents and thus adding to the ineptitude of their artistry.

Instagrammers are not artists, despite how badly they want to be called artists. Instagrammers are pretenders in a world that has accepted mediocrity as passable. Chris Ziegler, a columnist and one of the founders of The Verge, taps into the filter calamity by saying "....when you apply a parlor trick filter to your photo, you're not enhancing it, you're destroying it. You're robbing it of its realness, its nuance, and replacing it with garbage that serves no function other than to aggrandize your own false sense of artisanship.”

If you were to speak to someone who has made efforts to master the craft of photography, you’d undoubtedly get a varying view of the platform. Some would out right abhor what it has done to the world of photography and others would see it for what it’s worth and others still, would be indifferent. For those that are against what Instagram stands for, a solid argument is that for all it’s advancements Instagram has curated a slew of bystanders to life. These are the people that, instead of spending time to soak in the moment, they immediately raise their phones to take photos to prove they were somewhere. These people spend time documenting their lives rather than living it and a lot of what they post as their life turns out to be a false representation of that life. Because of Instagram it has become almost impossible to go anywhere on vacation and not see people whipping out a selfie stick. 

Concurrently, those that see Instagram as a necessary evil look at it with a more forward thinking mind. They see the benefits of what Instagram and others like it bring to the world of photography. They understand that, while the market is becoming saturated with “photographers” it also is becoming more and more creative. For those that see Instagram as a bane, there are others who are willing to adapt to changing times and recognize that social media platforms are representative of the wider market.

A problem as I see it however, is not that Instagram is ruining photography, its that what is considered a good photo nowadays is laughable at best. But, if you look at where these photos are being shown and the restrictions in what is being shown, photographers don’t have to pay attention to details that much. This concern then asks the questions, what makes a photographer and what makes a good photograph? Is a good photograph considered something that is technically marvelous? Or does a good photograph simply have to be aesthetically appealing?

So how does one become a good photographer? That is something I’m currently working on and have yet to figure out, but what I do know is that Instagrammers don’t qualify. That is not to say that there aren’t some talented individuals out there, because I’d be kidding myself to say otherwise. The problem as I see it is that, whilst these people produce some great looking images, they produce great looking images for a platform that restricts how big a photo can be. This platform turns an otherwise marvelous photograph into a shell of it’s former self. This platform affords people the luxury to alter their images in destructive ways and make these people think they’re the next Ansel Adams.

Instagram has made it so that knowing the technical capabilities of what makes a photograph great is no longer a sought after skill. What’s worse is that brands are realizing this and are perpetuating this wider lack of skill. Why? So they can get more followers across the social media landscape. If a technically capable photographer approaches a brand to work with them, the first they that brand will ask is how many followers they have. If that number is below twenty thousand, they won’t even entertain the notion of working with you. If an Instagrammer approaches a brand with over twenty thousand followers, they’re more inclined to work with them, not because they’re talented, but because they have a wider social media footprint. That is what photography has come down to, not necessarily the skill of the photographer, but how many people follow them across the social media landscape. 

This then brings me to the question of what it means to be a photographer, especially in the landscape of today. The thing is, photographers nowadays have to be their own media mogul and social media mastermind. This is another necessary skill to master in the realm we currently occupy because your skill as a photographer is now competing with every high schooler on social media.

This didn’t become truly apparent to me until a few months ago when I posted a photograph of a guy with a smoke grenade in a Bob Marley shirt. That, to this day, is my most successful photograph and it’s not because it is a good photo, because it was a simple iPhone photo. It was because that photo appealed to an audience that prizes having a smoke grenade in hand with words on a shirt. That’s when I realized that, the image itself doesn’t matter that much, it’s the content of the image. I could take a simple photograph and add some words to it and I can guarantee that photo will garner more responses than a technically pleasing portrait.

So how does social media affect what makes a photographer? I’d say that social media is to photography today what gunpowder did to weapons, it’s changed the game. We don’t have to like what is being done to the actual craft of photography, but if we want to stay relevant, we have to adapt. Which is fitting, given that we as photographers adapted to the change from film to digital photography. What I feel is the most terrifying aspect of what Instagram is doing, is that it makes it harder for established photographers to get hired to do a shoot. These budgets are falling and established photographers are finding it harder and hard to fulfill a vision when these same companies can turn to Instagram to drive sales. Not only that, the people on Instagram are willing to work for far less and often times for free in return for products.

What we shouldn’t do is, adapt to such a point where quality is now secondary to content. Yes, Instagram has afforded many to make a living, but at the end of the day the brands are making out like bandits. Brands are willing to get free publicity in exchange for a few products that cost them nothing to manufacture and even if they do pay people to promote on Instagram, the money being paid is far less than what it would cost to hire a professional. What these Instagrammer are doing is making it so much more difficult to offer skill and experience for a higher price and as such the quality of photography will fall overall.

If you ask me what it means to be a photographer in an ever changing social landscape, I couldn’t tell you at this moment. If you ask me what makes a photographer, all I could say right now is time. However, if you were to ask me if Instagram is affecting what defines the aforementioned questions, I’d say a resounding yes. Whether or not it’s harming the craft, is yet to be seen. A lot of that depends on whether or not brands are going to realize that the shape of their businesses depend just as much on quality of it’s images as it does social media reach. Until that moment arrives however, I’ll sit here with bated breath condemning what Instagram has made photography become, a shell of it’s former self.