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Taking Back Instagram

I downloaded Instagram about six months after its release, had a look at the filtered postage-stamp sized images, thought to myself, “who wants to look at photos like that?” … and deleted it. Several years later when it was a massive worldwide success and had transformed everyday hobby snappers into globe-trotting influencers, I realised that I had totally missed the point. Instagram is not about photography, it is a lifestyle platform. The question is this – is there a place for photographers on ‘the gram’, what is the cost and, more importantly, is it worth the price of admission?

Selling Your Soul

It might seem fairly fresh, but believe it or not, Instagram is nearly 10 years old now. If that makes you feel old then consider this – Facebook bought it in 2012. It still seems like a recent acquisition in my mind, but it was over seven years ago that Zuckerberg paid $1billion for the app – a bloody bargain in hindsight. And while Instagram started out as a simple photo sharing service for mobile devices it has slowly transformed into a hybrid social media platform. So what is the purpose of Instagram these days if photography (as opposed to travel, diet pills, make-up or soft porn) is your main focus.

Like many photographers I sell my photographs, in both physical and digital formats and I use Instagram to promote my images. I’ve got a modest number of followers (just under 4,000 at time of writing) and I would of course like to get that number up because I might make more money from sales. However there are certain concessions that I am not willing to make to do this, and I am resigned to the fact that this will always hold me back in comparison to others who are happy to play the game. The problem is that when you start out you have no idea what the rules of the game are.

Several years ago I bumped into a local photographer shooting the sunrise on the same beach as me. He had way more Instagram followers than me at the time (and nearly ten times that number now) and he gave me solid advice on getting my numbers up. Looking at his account now I can see that it was reliable information and I appreciate the fact that he was willing to share with me, but ultimately I couldn’t bring myself to implement any of the methods he highlighted. In answer to my own earlier question, I am not willing to supplicate myself at the feet of Instagram because I value my own integrity much more highly than a big follower count. It doesn’t make me any better than those folks who are prepared to do what it takes, but it sure as fuck is a point of differentiation.

Dream to Theme

Principle amongst my friend’s suggestions was to theme your Instagram feed. If you look at the most successful photographers on Instagram, this does seem like solid advice. Dive into any of these guys timelines and you’ll see that there is a common style or format to all of the images, whether it’s the subject matter (wildlife or drone photography for instance) or the post-processing (pastel or tan-and-teal for instance). This is also not terrible advice for any photographer building a portfolio – finding your own unique style is what will set you apart from everyone else. But here’s the thing – I like lots of styles, I like experimenting with post-processing, I like shooting at different times of the day and night and I like photographing on land, in the air and in the water. And I don’t want to pick just one of those things and make it my thing on Insta. And if you look at my Instagram feed you’ll see that I haven’t.

I did try settling on one particular theme for my Instagram feed, but it drove me nuts not being able to share other images I was proud of. One suggestion from another successful Instagrammer was that I should have multiple accounts to cater to my various styles and photographic interests and I did go as far as creating a special account for my drone photos and another for my beach abstracts, but it was a pain in the arse curating each individual feed and I left them to die like that raised herb garden I stupidly built last summer.

Fake it Till you Make It

I got an insight into what it takes to run a well-curated Instagram feed when, as a paid gig at the request of the local tourism organisation, I attended an Instameet just down the coast from here. Three big name Instagrammers (each with hundreds of thousands of followers) were paid to go and mingle with the little people and, in so-doing, help promote the local area to tourists.

After taking some photographs of the beach and the nearby creek I wandered back to the meeting point and one of the aforementioned Insta-Names had, in my absence (and with the help of a local catering company), set up a picnic rug and a lavish picnic spread and they were busy photographing this spread from various arty angles with a red band prime lens at dreamy wide open apertures. Meanwhile I’m getting bitten to fuck and back by mosquitos and I came to two definite conclusions – 1) that most of the stuff on Instagram was faker than Cher’s tits and 2) it was not something I ever wanted to be a part of. It just seemed so phoney to me and if success on Instagram means staging picnics in locations where nobody in their right mind would ever have a picnic, while hipster hat-wearers gurn down the lens of a $10,000 camera with smiles as fake as their sincerity … then thanks, but no thanks.

So much of the imagery on Instagram is fake that you feel like you’re letting the side down if you’re not compositing a V formation of birds into your sunsets, replacing the sky with dreamy pastel clouds or tinting your image so heavily it looks like a Walt Disney himself made it after he’d had a tab of acid. And every time I look at one of those images I just wonder what the point is. It’s all so far removed from actual photography that they may as well ditch the DSLR and use Cinema 4D instead. I have no problem with post-processing, with HDR, with tone-mapping, with exposure-fusion or any of the other standard tools in the digital photographers box, but there is definitely a line where a photograph strays into full-on fantasy-land and this Alice is not prepared to step through that particular looking glass.

Do It Your Way

All of which brings us back to my original question – is the price of admission into the Insta-club worth it? My view is that if you genuinely value photography and genuinely value doing your own thing then there are better platforms to be active on – Instagram, is it currently standards, is the enemy of individuality.

So what do you reckon? How about we let in a bit of chaos and disorder into the timelines, try something new, make photographs that look like our own, not like the thousands of identically styled landscape shots. Mix things up with the colour palette, try new angles, new locations, new outlooks, lay off the blown-out highlights and the tan-and-teal for a bit, try being punk rock anarchy and not soft-rock blandness. Or perhaps as someone somewhere once said (first) – you be you.

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