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What I think about Instagram

Instagram. How does that word make you feel?

Love it or hate it, social media is now a major part of everyday life. And as photographers, we have a special relationship with Instagram in particular. It has self-appointed itself into the very heart of the way we promote ourselves, find new work, and view the work of others. As photographers on a photography platform, it’s not just a luxury - it’s often a necessity.

Just twenty years ago, our present opportunities would have seemed a world away. From nothing, we can self-publish our work in front of a ready-made, worldwide audience of millions - at the tap of a screen. We have an unlimited opportunity for willing, enthusiastic feedback and advice from our peers - within a growing, sharing community. A steady stream of fellow photographers, whose work we would never have discovered outside this era of instant publishing.

All you need is a smartphone camera, a street, and some perseverance - and you have the world at your fingertips, ready to see your photographs. Everyone now has a shot at making it happen.

In fact, would we even be doing half our work were it not for social media? It seems almost wrong to admit that, and I’m not suggesting I only shoot street so I can do it ‘for the 'Gram’. What I mean is that Instagram is a major source of inspiration for me, as well as a way to share my own photographs. A scroll through my Instagram feed is now the most common way to access a wealth of wonderful images by photographers who I admire, from seasoned pros to complete amateurs. To pretend that years of posting and sharing on Instagram hasn’t in some way shaped my own photography would be fallacy. The ideas, encouragement and inspiration I’ve gleaned from this simple phone app have certainly had an influence on the photographs I take today.

And this is where we need to be careful, because a photographic community dominated by Instagram will inevitably have its flaws.

True to its social media habitat, Instagram has an inescapably points-based system of popularity. Likes, follows and re-posts - all are used to measure the relative success of any image or profile. When it comes to my own photographs, this can be quite useful. If I wanted to know which of my street shots to print on a postcard and sell, for example, I've got an instant way to judge which ones might be popular - simply by seeing which got the most likes on Instagram.

But from an artistic point of view, it's significantly flawed. Artistic expression is far away from any kind of point-winning goal, and not fully compatible with Instagram at the most basic level. We have become accustomed to tiny, smartphone-sized screens, with subtlety and detail compromised to a great degree. Larger or more intricate works can be almost entirely lost in translation to phone-sized imagery. And the fast scrolling, instant gratification nature of Instagram is a real obstacle, too. Photographs that require a more considered moment of contemplation - the opportunity to let a narrative reveal itself, or to read into the subjects’ expressions - will likely lose out to bold, simple, striking compositions that have more of an immediate impact.

I’m not saying that either style of work is more worthy than the other, or that we're only inspired to produce work that's going to be popular. But what we see on Instagram will inevitably influence us, and it's popularity that ultimately decides which images and accounts get promoted in the largest number of feeds. That means a certain vogue of image styles will inevitably be viewed, shared - and therefore imitated - to a far greater extent than others.

I don’t like to think this algorithmically dictated tide of influence is directing my own work. But I think it does, even if I don’t notice. It's human nature, and the very reason why social media is such a powerful tool today. And if you’re regularly active on Instagram, it bet it’s influencing you, too. So, useful as it is - we still need to be aware of how this commercially-minded app is, little by little, directing our artistic output over time.

Overall, I would say Instagram is like a powerful weapon to be used with care. The opportunities it’s given us are unparalleled, and not something I would want to lose. And that’s not even counting the social aspect of meeting and communicating with wonderful photographers from all over the world - a subject for another blog post entirely, I think.

However, we should remain cautious of our influences. After all, the great masters of street photography got there without any social media influence at all. The Godfather of street photography, Henri Cartier-Bresson, had fewer Instagram followers than any of us! And if they could achieve all that without ever looking at a smartphone, then I don’t know what more encouragement we need to put our phones down, go out shooting, or pick up a photo book from one of the old masters. And broaden our intake, away from that comfortably-familiar haze of likes, comments and emojis.

Chasing Shadows - My most popular image on Instagram

This is the street photograph that has (to date) the largest number of Instagram likes out of anything I have posted.

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