September 2012 - I post my first picture on Instagram. It wasn’t even a picture I had taken, it was a picture of me riding my motorbike on a race track. “This is amazing!” - I thought - “Finally a platform where I can share photos with my friends that isn’t Facebook. Simple, sleek, direct. I love it!”.
October 2018 - I hate social media.
But what happened in those 6 years? Well, a lot happened.
When Instagram first came out, it was a great platform, I made good friends there without even trying, some of whom I’m still in touch with today. It was pretty straight forward - you took a photo, posted it, wrote a short caption, applied a horrible filter and you were done. Soon, you’d be starting a quick conversation with your acquaintances, or with some friendly strangers, and you’d move on. Feeling bored? Open Instagram - chances are, one of your mates just posted a pic of them at the pub, maybe you can join them. Oh, the good old days of chronological timeline…the young generations will never know the beauty of it. The mythical chronological timeline…
As I started getting more involved with photography, Instagram proved to be a great way of sharing my work, getting it critiqued, and checking out other people’s work for inspiration. Your subscriber count would start growing, you’d get a good amount of likes and comments, and they would increase as time went by and you accumulated more and more followers. It was good. A simple platform for sharing images.
I was also using Facebook at the time, mostly for keeping in touch with my friends. I never really gelled with that platform. On the one hand it was convenient because it was a one-stop solution for having all of your contacts in one place, on the other it always felt a bit boring. Everyone was on it, and most of the time I didn’t want to share my stuff with EVERYONE I knew, but I also couldn’t be bothered creating lists and blocking out certain people. The quality of the images was also terrible, making it a pretty bad way of sharing pictures. Instagram was my new social media platform of choice, and more and more people were using it.
I would upload pictures quite regularly - I can’t say that I shot specifically just for Instagram, but I did always look forward to sharing my work, getting likes and comments and checking out what my other fellow photographer and non-photographer friends were doing.
But then things changed. It’s difficult to pinpoint exactly when this change started to happen, but Instagram had become big. Probably too big. Suddenly, people started using it as a way of advertising their companies, and the bots started rolling in, spamming your comment sections and increasing your follower count for a few hours. But then things got worse. Facebook happened.
When Facebook bought Instagram, I knew it was only a matter of time before this once amazing platform would turn into a commercial avenue, just like Facebook had become in recent years. Soon enough, the chronological timeline got replaced by the worst invention of the decade - an algorithm-based timeline, which supposedly chooses what “it thinks” you want to see, completely disregarding when the content was posted. What this means is that posts started disappearing, I began seeing the same people over and over again, just because I liked a couple of their pictures, so the algorithm must’ve thought “Ah, he likes this user. Let’s show him his stuff all the time.” Then Facebook/Instagram introduced business accounts, so you could keep track of engagement on your profile, and if you need a little boost simply pay a few pounds and the engagement will magically grow. Absolute garbage. But, even worse, is the fact that in order to get your photos seen by your own followers, you must learn the system. You must read about what hashtags to use, what time to post, what colour pallet to use. And all of this nonsense.
Go on Instagram today, and what you will see is an unlimited supply of images that roughly look all identical, posted by accounts of people who apparently live the lives of billionaires, who don’t seem to have a job, and instead travel the world, always look amazing and are constantly doing amazing things. Once upon a time, you’d only see this on TV commercials, but you knew it was a commercial and didn’t really think much about it. Now, it’s all we see. All the time. What used to be a personal experience, has now become a commercial, and instead of paying with cash we pay with likes. Forget about organic growth of your profile. If you upload a picture and have 1000 followers, you’ll be lucky to get 40-50 likes. I was getting triple that when I had 200 followers.
Entire businesses now revolve around Instagram. It’s no longer about creating original content, or simply being who you are, it’s about a few seconds of fame and money. I’m not saying it’s like this for everyone, but that’s how the people running the platform see it, therefore there’s very little you can do about it if you have a different point of view. Of course, you could just post pictures of your cat and wait for uncle Bob to comment, and there’s nothing wrong with that. But if one day you decide to upload what you think is a beautiful photo, expecting to attract a bigger audience than when you post a blurry picture of your dinner, then be ready for some serious disappointment.
Instagram is huge, there’s no denying that. From a commercial standpoint, it’s a success and it has revolutionised many industries. As a photographer, I deal with all sorts of clients - from designers to models, from brides to entire companies. And the topic of social media often comes up at some point. How many followers do you have? Can you tag me? Can you follow me? What hashtags do you use?
These are all legitimate questions, but they’re also incredibly sad. Who cares about any of this? Why is everyone so obsessed about social media? Sure, some people are making money from it, but the vast majority of us aren’t, and never will. And that’s not because they’re better than us, but it’s because THEY’RE DOING A DIFFERENT JOB! Posting a photo on Instagram showing off a product doesn’t make you a photographer, it makes you a brand ambassador. So why are we all trying to steal a piece of the cake which doesn’t belong to us? Sure, we’re sharing the same platform, and sure, there is scope for getting work even as photographers, models, make up artists, etc. on Instagram, but believe it or not, for the most part nobody actually cares about your social media profile.
You don’t NEED hundreds of thousands of followers to be a photographer. You don’t even need social media. Stop thinking that work is going to come knocking on your door just because you’ve learned how to use hashtags and you’re getting likes on Instagram. You want to be a photographer? Go and be a photographer. You want do be an influencer? Then be an influencer. Do you want to combine both? Then learn how to combine both. There are people out there who are doing this very well.
I’ve stopped taking Instagram seriously a long time ago. I don’t post regularly, I don’t share just for the sake of it, and I most definitely don’t post my best work. Why? Because everything you upload to Instagram serves one purpose - giving a few seconds of entertainment to bored people, who may or may not lift their finger from the screen while scrolling to double tap on your image, before they move on to the next one. Now tell me, is that what being a photographer is about? To feed the bored and get repaid in likes? Last time I checked, likes don’t pay bills, nor do they mean anything.
You want your photos to live longer than a few seconds? Then print them. Put them in a gallery. Send them to magazines or newspapers. Whatever. Make them REAL! You will standout like a black cat in the snow.
Last year I deleted my Facebook account, and it has made no difference to my life or my career as a photographer. Next week I’m leaving for Nepal, photographing and filming for an organisation that makes a real difference in the world, gathering images for exhibitions and stories for a book. None of this came from social media. In fact, I have so much more free time now that I don’t have to think about posting on social media. I can spend time with my photos, I can think of which ones are truly amazing and deserve being printed and displayed. It doesn’t matter how long I have to spend to get them perfect. I don’t have to worry about getting likes, hashtags or followers. In a way, I feel like I’ve got my freedom back.
Does this mean I won’t be uploading the odd story or post to Instagram here and there? Of course not. I do still use it from time to time, I still like being connected to my friends in this way, but it’s not a work tool. The likes don’t matter, and neither do the followers. Because Instagram is nothing more than a tool for short-term entertainment. And photography deserves so much more.
You may disagree with me, and that’s fine. I know this topic divides people’s opinion. If you’re running a successful career on Instagram that’s absolutely great, and well done to you. But I’m tired of people, photographers and other artists looking for validation on a shallow platform such as Instagram, where everything is mixed together, and a computer is deciding what you should and shouldn’t see. Start taking yourself seriously, and think, does any of this really matter? Are you making a difference? Do you feel like all the hard work you’ve put into creating your images is being paid back?
Start treating Instagram like a toy, and I bet you’ll start living a much happier life.