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Has Instagram Sucked the Originality Out of Every Photographic Possibility on the Planet?

I first saw a photograph of the Northern Lights back in the mid-1970s in a battered copy of National Geographic. I was browsing through the magazine while sitting in the waiting room at the dentists and was immediately taken with the otherworldly lightshow that had been captured by the photographer at some exotic location within the arctic circle. So taken in fact, that I ripped that page out of the magazine and put it on my wall next to my Knight Rider poster. Fast forward 40 years and, sitting on the toilet, I enjoy some ‘down time’ by flicking my way through my Instagram feed like the photo-zombie I am. Oh look, it’s a photograph of the Northern Lights. I don’t even double-tap to like it. An upward swipe and it’s gone. There are so many photographs of this phenomena in my Instagram feed that all novelty, all interest, all excitement has been completely obliterated from them. Is it just me or is anyone else suffering from this photo fatigue?
It’s not just photographs of the Aurora Borealis that leave me weirdly indifferent these days. Close-up with a shark in a kelp forest? Seen it. The Wanaka Tree in New Zealand at sunrise? About the 15th today, thanks. An above-and-below of a tropical beach with a sea turtle? Old news, mate. Bomb shot taken by drone over a beach with crystal clear waves lapping at the shoreline as a bikini-clad buxom babe gazes skywards? Swiped away. Okay, maybe a brief pause for that one. How the fuck did the amazing become so commonplace so quickly? Why am I no longer excited by the incredible sight of the Northern Lights? When did photography turn into a never-ending competition for spectacle? When did it all become so fucking boring? It was all so much simpler in the past. Once upon a time a skilled band of photographers visited exotic locations and took amazing photographs for amazing magazines such as National Geographic, Time and Life. Other skilled photographers took photographs of mind-bogglingly exotic women wearing haute couture frocks and they appeared in calendars sponsored by tyre companies. Thrilling news stories about acts of heroism, war, terrorism or celebrity sightings were skilfully captured by news photographers. That was the way it used to be. But the old way of doing things was swept away by a tsunami of digital camera technology. The explosion of interest in photography (thanks to digital sensors, the rise and rise of Instagram, Pinterest and Facebook and, of course, the birth of the ‘influencer’ travelling the globe photographing once-exotic locations) has made the amazing commonplace. Where once a single photographer would travel to the arctic circle and photograph the Aurora Borealis, now it’s just another right of passage for every wannabe Instagram influencer with a couple of thousand followers. Yes, photography has been democratised, but in the process it has also become increasingly banal. And yes, I’m just as guilty of being on this merry-go-round as everyone else. My photographs tap into the same identical themes as everyone else. If anything, I’m worse – I’m a dreaded sunrise/sunset photographer, surely the lowest of the low in the landscape photography hierarchy! How fucking cliched can you get? Oh don’t get me wrong, I don’t have any great desire to photograph double-rainbows arching over volcanoes spewing rivers of molten lava cascading into crystal clear water as a killer whale emerges from a perfectly tubular wave being ridden by Kelly Slater wearing a clown suit, or something equally edgy. I’m quite happy taking my sunrise and sunset photos. But equally I can fully understand why someone would swipe straight past my photos in their Instagram feed. They’re mainly ordinary, occasionally vaguely memorable – just like pretty much everything else on Instagram. Could the globetrotting influencers be to blame? Off they go – Torres del Paine in Patagonia this week (god not again), Gulfoss Waterfall in Iceland tomorrow (not that old chestnut), Plitvice lakes for the weekend (Zzzzz). By following their Instagram feeds in our hundreds of thousands and thereby attracting sponsors eager to tap into that audience, we have created a photographic production line that renders the extraordinary ordinary by virtue of endless repetition. I don’t look at their photos and think that I should go there I simply wonder why these guys are all so majestically unimaginative. And it’s not just the locations that have become so commonplace – it’s photographic styles and photographic techniques too. There have been numerous waves of photographic styles popularised over the years, from the retina-scorching HDR to the crush-the-blacks trendy urban look. You know the writing’s on the wall for a particular style when it turns up as a ready-made filter in Snapseed. Photographic techniques become similarly commonplace. Oh sure, Clark Little was (arguably) the first guy to popularise the inside-a-shorebreak wave in the Instagram era, but he’s got about a thousand wannabes biting at his heels, Aquatech housings in place, dome ports ready. And how about drones? Governments might be clamping down on drone use, but so many photographers (yes, myself included) have jumped on the bandwagon that aerial shots are becoming as cliched as the arms-aloft sunset selfie. I feel a sense of self-loathing every time I hover my Phantom 4 over a the azure waters of our local coastline.
So what does the future hold? What’s the next photographic technique that will shake up everything up for six months before becoming old news? Will these globe-trotting influencers keep on photographing the same flagship locations endlessly? Is the whole concept of originality in photography a dead-end? Am I the only one suffering from Instafatigue?

2 Comments

  1. Federico

    Do you think it needs fixing? You very well explain why it’s made banal and boring, and how people copy others at lightspeed in the new world currency of “Followship”. The global digital market is one about being able to waste other people’s time, or sell their information. And digital has made it so thing are very easy to produce, and almost free to replicate. So if something gets attention, it will be copied in lightseconds, and whoever has more followers gets to display it to a larger audience for their benefit. And the platforms that make more money are the ones that can sell their users time (ad) or information (political or as a tool to sell to them). So I go back to the question if this is fixing. And if it’s fixing, do we need to return to scarcity? A Rembrandt can only be owned by one person, or if it’s owned by an entity (say, Museum) it can only truly be at one place. the digital copy is not the real thing. The second thing is that the world has been reduced to 90% of times or more, whatever happens in a smartphone screen. That’s the new universal canvas. This is why you are in the restroom, looking for 0.5 seconds to another Aurora Borealis, and then to the next photo, and in between them, an add that’s the 0.5 that get nickel and dimmed out of your life every 1 minutes or so of you are at looking at anything free. But, does this need fixing? This have value in terms of:
    1) Their use to do something else with it, like a knife helps cut stuff you may want to eat.
    2) The scarcity, which not everyone can have it, and people have to bid for being the ones that have it.
    3) (new item) the Followers any such can get you.

    The Aurora Borealis is not scarce, easy to reproduce, the photo once take is not scarce, and can only get you followers if it’s not the 55th time you see it (after it becomes a nuissance) as this gets you followers. Curator sites are the worst of the worst. They get all the followers and attention, hoard people’s “time” (the new currency) and result in so little for the actual creators. They are the new “National Geographic” and add nothing at all. They usually reached there by virtue of being early and exploiting is best. Next are the copycats, that may produce a liked photo very quickly, and since they have a lot more followers they rapidly consume the novelty factor away from the original ideator and maker. So, it’s not that the Aurora Borealis isn’t awesome. It’s that it’s not banal yet, it still has currency to generate Followers, and will be oversold until you no longer like it. If it where any different, it’d be displayed ever more often, as the market for Follows, which is a proxy for later wasting these people’s time for free, just operates that way.

    Now suppose we say it maybe doesn’t need fixing. But we want to encourage original creators to be given more time. And to allow them to not burn people at speedlight by bombarding the hordes until it has become so cliche it has no “Follower” maker value…how do you do that? And for that you need to take clues from the real world. Cars are expensive because they are costly to produce. Rembrandt pieces are expensive because there’s only one original for each. And Rembrandt copies are cheap/worthless because everyone knows they are copies. BUT the original Rembrandt can only be had by one person. Even the original photo you posted on Flickr can be had for nothing, by everyone, and it doesn’t matter who noticed it first vs last. All get the same reward. But in the Rembrandt, it pays to have noticed it first. On to have kept it. And the copies are disregarded, even those owning good clones or copycats, they are disregarded as not in their sane senses. So at some point, we need to separate clones, we need to give proper credit for the photographic idea, we need to call out fakes, we need to make it so it’s possible to own the “better version” by a limited amount of people for each, and above all, we need to find a way to regulate the “wasting other people time” wasting rights, and the associated “Follower” economy. Or, we could all just focus on the most banal of jobs, selling burgers, hot dogs, flowers, iPhone cables, lawn mowing services, etc. The world is headed towards more banality, where everything that is not is lightseconds about to become so, and for the best things in life, nobody pays $0.1, but for avoiding banal tasks, we pay huge lumps of money. As an unrelated example, but connected with this, a great teacher that will form children’s character, virtue and personality earns something below survival rates, and a hot dog seller chain owner will own a condo in Manhattan. That’s the future. All boring. All cliche. The celebs are so, by rapidly imitating original ideators and makers, which are as invisible as air is.

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