Back in 2016, as the culmination of a year-long experiment that began in October of 2015, I had closed down all my social media profiles (see ‘Information overload and an overly social web’). Instagram was one among only two social media platforms that I continued to use (the other being Twitter) because I had always treated it as a platform for photography. When 2019 came around I had begun to re-evaluate the role Instagram played in my life. Over months I periodically experimented with heavy usage, light usage and no usage to see how it impacted me in terms of a key factor: photography. Now, a week into January of 2020, I see no better course than to quit Instagram indefinitely.
First, a word about what this essay is not: this is not a piece that preaches the ill effects of social media; this is not an essay designed to exude an air of superiority over those who still use the platform; this is not a statement on what photography or art is; and this is not an attempt to coax you, kind reader, into quitting Instagram—although if you are on the same boat as me, this might have such an effect. Second, some thoughts about why and how this essay came to be: these are a collection of reflections on photography and what Instagram was to me as a photographer, what it is now, why I am personally better off without it, and how this decision will affect my photography in the future.
When Instagram was founded it instantly became a huge hit in the photography community. PetaPixel described it back in 2010 as a mix of Hipstamatic (from where Instagram got its famous filters) and Tumblr (from where Instagram drew inspiration for its social elements). Here is an excerpt:
Instagram is a new iPhone photo app … that offers Hipstamatic-style filters for your photos, easy uploads to popular services, and a Tumblr-esque community built right in … where users can choose to follow one another, easily viewing and commenting on their friends [sic] photos. The app itself is well designed and polished.
Finally, all of these things are being offered as a free application, so its price can’t be beat.
Hipstamatic was big already and it was Instagram’s main competitor. Many folks did not want another photo sharing app but as TechCrunch reported in October of 2006 ‘one of these is likely to get even bigger’. But there was more to the story: where were all of us photographers hanging out back then? The grand daddy of photography platforms, Flickr.
The reason why Instagram became big is really a mix of all the reasons one would expect. In many ways its social aspects beat Hipstamatic, which was solely about making photos with a vintage look and feel (Instagram was that too, it shedded that image only recently after Facebook’s acquisition). Its ease of sharing took a bite of the Tumblr crowd. But the biggest influx was us photographers who flocked to Instagram from Flickr because photographs were the only media to share, and it appeared to us that photographs were all Instagram was about. This was a slice of Flickr’s pie that Instagram stole and it was Flickr’s fault: Flickr underestimated mobile photography (or had terrible management, one will never know) and never created an app. One of Instagram’s founders, Kevin Systrom, had openly said as much back in the day: ‘There’s no Flickr for mobile yet’. Indeed, in the early couple of years of Instagram the platform was truly only about photographs—there were no memes or text/posters shared, influencers were not yet born, and publicity was not what the platform was about.
Still, it amazes me how we mistook Instagram to be a platform exclusively for photographers when Mr Systrom had been pretty specific about it being a means of communicating just through photographs of our daily lives instead of textually:
I think that communicating via images is one of these mediums that you’re going to see take off over the next few years because of a fundamental shift in the enabling technology … A community, focused on helping you collect, organize, and share the images of your life from your mobile phone.
So memes, text and posters were always on the cards for Instagram, influencers were its bet for survival, and publicity through advertisements was the business model from day one. Photographs just happened to be the next big thing in communication technology.
The democratisation of photography
A lot of people rang the death knell for Instagram when it opened its doors to the Android crowd after being exclusive to iPhones for two years. In 2012 one-million people signed up for Instagram in just one day. This may seem like a small number compared to the thirty-million iOS users who were already onboard but the numbers grew wildly everyday. This was in spite of Android users not having access to all the features that iOS users had access to, notably the tilt-shift filter.
The old iOS–Android battle ensued and a few people were unhappy about Instagram opening up to the Android market. Personally I do not make much of this, but I think it is important to mention this event here because it adds context. All through its history photography has been democratised repeatedly. From Daguerreotype to colour there were several cries of infamy; when Leica came out many photographers cried foul; and when we transitioned from film to digital many photographers detested digital and thought film to be superior (perhaps it is in some ways and not in others); and finally when Apple stuck a camera behind a phone and effectively put a camera in everyone’s pocket (what Mr Systrom referred to as the ‘enabling technology’) many ‘real’ photographers began claiming that the cameras behind phones were not real cameras—but nobody could argue Apple’s move made everyone take a lot more snapshots.
There can and will always be a debate on this because no photographic format, technically speaking, rules over any other in all areas that matter. More important, this pattern goes to show that we photographers have never been particularly innocent when it came to adapting to change without criticism. Some of the best of us have been unfazed by such events but the majority have often taken it badly.
Instagram was simply the next logical step in the democratisation of photography; but because it played on popularising photographs using cameras that everyone already had with them rather than introduce a new method of shooting, the effect it had was markedly different. It effectively devalued a photograph by making photographs commonplace.
To look back at the ‘lost days’ of photography and complain, tempting as it is, would mean refusing to take off our rosy glasses. While we romanticise about the age of Ansel Adams or Henri Cartier Bresson or Robert Frank, it is important to remember that what kept these photographers on their feet was their dedication and talent, and their immersion in their own work rather than that of others. While they no doubt would have seen someone else’s work often, it would have been nowhere near as often as the average smartphone user takes a look at photographs today. Time and care went into the making of every photograph and time and care went into the critique and observation of every photograph. With the image overflow propelled by Instagram, we have been desensitised to the delicate art, technique and discipline that lies in photography.
If you think the over-abundance of photographic noise is a modern problem, though, think again: in 1977 Susan Sontag wrote, ‘Today everything exists to end in a photograph’. This sounds remarkably like a description of Instagram and the burlesque pictures of their breakfasts and lunches that everyone supposedly posts. To blame Instagram for ruining photography in any way would be simply wrong. As photographers the onus is on us to not divert our attention from our work, our style and our voice to a platform designed exclusively for exhibition. Put more tangibly, this would be like a photographer inspecting and complaining about the building where his photographs will be displayed rather than critiquing his own work and spending time honing his skills.
The first step then is to realise what Instagram is not. Instagram is not a photography platform with social networking options; it is a social networking platform with image (not just photography) options.
Although this was hazy in its early days, its vision has become increasingly clear since Facebook took over: with the introduction of stories and IG TV, for example, the company made it clear that its interests lay not in photographic works that would stand the test of time but in encouraging people to share their most private moments and thoughts, make statements and showcase their possessions, preferably all day long, and lay bare their vulnerabilities—all with the promise of privacy and the sincere belief of appearing bold, supportive and remarkable.
All this works because, to know your interests and target ads at you, all the company needs to know are your thoughts right now, which are a far more useful measure of your tastes than any carefully thought out photograph you may make. This is why showing off your fitness goals in a casual story can lead to you being targeted with health and fitness fads as advertisements, and ‘liking’ a yellow cashmere shawl can leave you bombarded by advertisements of yellow, warm clothing. The story disappears in 24 hours and the thought of a ‘like’ often in less than 24 seconds, but these observations on you are catalogued forever as the algorithm tries to better understand you and predict what you may like before you know you may like it, inadvertently coercing you towards one decision over another.
Speaking of advertisements, Instagram never had any to begin with. But a company has to make money somehow. As the saying goes, ‘if you are not paying for the product, you are the product.’ In hindsight, those lines from the PetaPixel announcement on the launch of Instagram sound much less appealing: ‘…all of these things are being offered as a free application, so its price can’t be beat.’
In 2007 I joined Flickr to upload photographs from my old Kodak film camera. It was a hip little device that was shaped like a flask of coffee but transformed into a camera at the press of a button. I loved the device, I loved the photographs I could make with it, and I loved the idea of uploading my work to Flickr where—for the first time—I had met a wonderful group of photographers willing to learn, teach and, every evening, mercilessly but meaningfully critique each other’s work. This was my first ever exposure to the ‘social’ aspect of photography and all my views from this point on would be shaped by it.
I opened my current Flickr account in 2011 after four years of uploading photographs when I started to realise I disliked all my work and should probably start over; I still feel that way about my old work but have come to terms with it—in fact this has come to signify growth to me in some manner. Such is art.
By contrast, Instagram’s social aspect is outright shallow and meaningless. Outside of the small group of people we probably already knew from elsewhere, I have rarely found anyone who built meaningful connections entirely on Instagram. That is because despite its being marketed as a social media platform it is primarily an advertising platform. On Instagram critiques are few and far between—even absent. Photographs are instead judged by swipes as viewers scroll past them, lazy double-taps as viewers blindly ‘like’ photographs, and, on the rarest of rare occasions, a quick line of comment.
Personally, I am convinced most people ‘like’ my photographs more because they know me and less because they bothered to pause and absorb my photographic work. They make, at best, a mental note of what the photograph is of rather than what the photograph is. Everyone ‘likes’ a photo but never spends time getting to know it let alone revisit it. On Instagram, who has time for that? Going further, the focus for appreciating a work of art has shifted from enjoying and pondering over its capturing of movement and light to plainly the subject of the picture far removed from all the elements that play together to evoke an emotion. No longer do people on Instagram give a thought to the technique or the effort in capturing, say, a bird. Instead, on Instagram, a better looking bird (for stumbling upon which no photographer deserves credit) gets the worm, one picture of fireworks is never seen separately for what it is: it is simply another picture of fireworks.
What this has amounted to is a massive increase of the bar by which photographs are appreciated. The increase has taken it to an unreasonable level. Yet even this fails to explain the most curious behaviours on the platform. Consider, for example, this great picture of a skittering frog:
View this post on Instagram
A Little Froggy🐸 ID:Indian skipper frog or skittering frog(Euphlyctis cyanophlyctis) . . . . . . #natgeowild #frogs #frogsofindia #frogsofkarnataka #animalplanet #wildlifephotography #savewildlife #nature #nikond5200 #wildlifephotography #macrophotography #wildlife #live_love_wildlife #naturephotography #nikonlover #wildlifeindia #indianwildlife #natgeoyourshot
Quite obviously some effort and care went into making those three beautiful pictures. And sure, any one of us could argue that we may have seen another picture of a frog that we like better, but that is not the point: the point is the beauty of this picture as it stands and nothing else. However, a meme consisting of a horrible photograph of a frog accompanied by the words ‘What the f—’ outranks it by over ten times:
View this post on Instagram
me when we run out of beansprouts ~ ~ ~ ~ credit @phro.ggg #frogs #frogcontent #frogmeme #frogsofinstagram #frog #amphibians #green #goodboy #wholesome #cute #frogga #froggy #ilovefrogs #treefrog #pacmanfrog #amphibiansofinstagram #frogmemes #frogpics #frogprince #frogpose #fatfrogs #smallfrogs
And in true Instagram fashion a scantily-clad woman sitting on a Ferrari beats both frogs by a comfortable margin:
While this is just a handpicked example of what drives Instagram, the point needs to be driven home more forcefully. This is not about justifying why some photographers get fewer likes, nor is it about photographic worth (quite obviously). This is a clear indication that if you did not enter Instagram with some clout you are in the minority if you got popular (or you were lucky enough to hit the explore page). There is little incentive for anyone to truly socialise either because the focus has shifted from photography to social networking to sharing. And understanding this distinction is key: Instagram, and by extension Facebook, are not interested in anyone socialising; they are interested in people sharing—whether to one or one billion others—because by sharing we feed the advertising model.
The technical side
For no photographer worth their salt that I know is fame a measure of good work. Yet Instagram hinges on the numbers because numbers are all a computer algorithm comprehends. But the trouble with Instagram for me unfortunately goes a step beyond.
What any serious photographer seeks is a solid platform for cataloguing their work. The social sharing of Instagram always comes second as a means of popularising work that exists elsewhere. For someone who has little time to spend popularising and, in fact, could not care less, investing in Instagram offers diminishing returns:
- Photographs uploaded to Instagram are effectively ‘lost’. They cannot be organised, catalogued or downloaded later. This is because photography was never the point of Instagram.
- Photographs uploaded to Instagram are dramatically reduced in quality. As of January 2020 the maximum photo size Instagram uploads is 1080px on the longest side. This is about 2 megapixels which means everyone touting their brand new 42MP Android phones are losing approximately 40 million pixels in every image they share. Again, this is because photography was never the point of Instagram.
- Photographs are stripped of EXIF data, all except location because Instagram needs that to catalogue locations you have been to so they can target ads by location e.g. people who visit this cafe frequently always like handmade pottery so they may like an ad about handmade pottery; or people who frequent this park also ‘like’ pictures of vegan meals so they are likely to follow this vegan influencer. If you know mathematics you will know such correlations are infinite and quite powerful—Instagram is proof that they work.
- The shelf life of a photograph on Instagram is at best a few minutes. The Instagram algorithm famously relies on how people respond to a photo during its initial upload period and decides whether or not to kill the picture immediately.
- Parenthetical to the above point, frequency of posting is a key factor in the Instagram algorithm which means mediocre photographers who spew out work continuously get preferred over good photographers who upload their work rarely.
- Consequently, people almost never revisit old photographs on Instagram (unless they are stalking someone in which case, again, it is more about the person than their work) and there is no automated way of pushing out old photographs even if they are excellent simply because, like social media platforms in general, Instagram overvalues novelty.
- There are strict aspect ratio constraints on Instagram. As a nod to old photographic plates and the nostalgia of Polaroids, the original Instagram app only allowed square images for many years. The rule has now been eased to allow 4x5 images too but this is still a pain when you realise most dSLRs shoot 2x3 and most phones shoot 3x4.
- An unusually large number of hashtags is required to parasitically leech their popularity and make a photograph discoverable. This feels unnatural but it could be just me.
- The Instagram algorithm behaves like an inbred and continuously rewards a narrow range of photographic styles (think long exposures to create faux-calm lakes, hipsters hiking and carefully planned shots of cozy places). This is in stark opposition to the wide open nature of photography and art itself. Additionally this has the unfortunate side effect of cutting off any possibility of artists drawing inspiration from one another’s works because the trends that make it to the top are chosen with a tunnel vision.
- Also working with a tunnel vision are bots and so-called ‘influencers’ who employ teams to churn out post after post designed to gain traction in the hopes of going viral. This works out for Instagram, though, because they are an advertising platform.
Above all this, Instagram with its algorithm and ever-increasing advertising space is designed to be addictive. Back in the day web pages were in fact pages of content. There was a limited amount of information on a page and to see or read more you had to intentionally click a button and reload a new page and continue. Not unlike a book this kept you grounded in the idea of how much you were consuming and knowing you were on page three of five gave you a sense of place.
Instagram employs the dreaded infinite scroll technology where new content is constantly being loaded just below and outside your screen so you can keep swiping up mindlessly and the app will keep feeding you more content. ‘If you don't give your brain time to catch up with your impulses, you just keep scrolling,’ says Aza Raskin the inventor of infinite scrolling. In an interview with the BBC he explained how his innovation kept users looking at their phones far longer than necessary. He further clarified that he had never set out to addict people and now he feels guilty about it.
In terms of photography this would be like building a gallery inside a maze. When things get physical it is not hard to realise how, after a while, you start to become more interested in leaving the maze than in the photographs in the gallery. This disgust is unfortunately not translated into the virtual world.
Flickr is still around
Surprisingly, despite all these years of Instagram stealing its users and hordes of photographers vowing to leave the decaying platform, Flickr persisted. I know a lot of other photographers who, like me, have a rather sentimental attachment to Flickr. It was one of the earliest photography platforms on the web and, in many people’s opinions, used to be one of the best.
For three years my photography portfolio was hosted with Smugmug. In mid-2018 Smugmug bought Flickr as its parent company and one of the Internet oldies Yahoo! was being torn down. Yahoo! is largely to blame for Flickr’s downfall, but that is all in the past now. With Smugmug acquiring Flickr a lot of us photographers were delighted and with good reason. Something they really enjoyed about Flickr, wrote a photographer once, was the ‘community and actual human communication … Perhaps in the mobile era this isn't possible anymore since everyone is attention starved and tiny screens and keyboards aren't conducive to longform communication, but this was Flickr's strength … You'd find a group where your photos were relevant and start conversations with strangers halfway around the world.’ This has always been my experience with Flickr too.
There are certain things that make Flickr a naturally more useful platform for a photographer such as myself over Instagram. For one, Smugmug—and Flickr through it—is a family-run business handled almost exclusively by amateur and professional photographers. Few could be in a better position to build a photography platform. Second, Flickr is not exactly free: for up to 1,000 photos Flickr is free but anyone expecting to exceed that has to pay a modest fee of $50 a year. Paying $75 a year for my portfolio, moving completely to Flickr meant a $25 saving for me. More important, this means Flickr owes it to its users to focus on the photographic and social aspects of the platform rather than on making money through advertisements and questionable decisions. As Andrew Stadlon put it on the Flickr blog shortly after Smugmug took over and made the hard but crucial decision to cap free accounts to 1,000 photos, ‘You are not our product. You are our priority.’ That, quite simply, means Flickr is all about photography and has no advertisements. The returns on investment are boosting.
Photographs on Flickr are big and bold and display in full resolution. In other words, where Instagram takes all photographs and beats them down to 1080px on the longest side Flickr displays photographs of up to 6144px intact. That is 28MP, good enough for most dSLRs and certainly not limited even by the highest resolution screens available on the market today. (Made by both Apple and Dell, their 5K monitors have a maximum pixel count of 5120px on the longest side.)
Also, while Flickr has a mobile app now it is not built around the same philosophy as Instagram. There too photographs take centre stage and the experience is built around photographers visiting each other, or visiting dedicated groups, just as much as exploring new work published around the world. Flickr also maintains all EXIF data, including camera and lens models, and pulls tags from desktop digital darkroom softwares besides integrating with them beautifully. And prints are an option directly from within Flickr.
Personally, the mobile-first habit into which Instagram had pushed me is something I yearn to break from. Despite the ease—or rather precisely because of it—the entire Instagram experience had taken me from elation over the simplicity to making me somewhat indolent. It is not complexity I celebrate nor do I claim that a particular fashion of making photographs by itself deserves praise. No, like living, breathing works of art photographs should each be measured on their individual merits. The difference between Instagram and Flickr is the difference between gulping your drink and sipping it pensively.
Once again, it all makes sense if you realise the primary concern for Instagram is not you or your social network or your photographic work, rather your attention and choices and opinions and beliefs and struggles and anything else about you that increases the chances of your curiosity being piqued by an ad. The ‘real’, tangible world is key to absorbing the strength of this notion: any one of us would start freaking out if we drove around the city and slowly realised all the billboards were targeted specifically at us; yet when precisely this happens in the virtual world we brush it aside as a completely natural thing.
Lastly, Flickr manually vets each account on its platform every once in a while and marks them as ‘safe’, ‘moderate’ or ‘restricted’ based on the truthfulness of a self-evaluation which helps moderate the work shared on Flickr much better than the utter nonsense that sometimes makes its way over to Instagram. Nothing is perfect at this scale of course but Flickr is miles ahead of Instagram and Facebook’s questionable history when it comes to user autonomy and content moderation. Besides, Smugmug, which has been around far longer than Instagram, has a great track record of taking measured decisions and not messing things up for its users or undercutting competition with open theft.
It’s not you, it’s me
The trouble here is not entirely on Instagram’s part. If you find the stuff shared on Instagram fun, if you feel truly in control of your experience, if you can palate the advertising, if you have no trouble handing over your data and having your location monitored, and if you have little regard for the diminishing returns outlined above or if your interest is popularity on a secondary platform, you will still do well to re-evaluate whether you need Instagram in your life or you are on it because others are on it—simple peer pressure. In the end, if you feel like it is worth your while, by all means stay on Instagram and have fun.
However, for my needs Instagram does not fit the bill anymore. Unlike when I left Facebook leaving Instagram is a tad harder because whereas Facebook was aimless Instagram to me had a specific goal: photography. Sort of like weathering my fall, though, I have Flickr instead which serves this purpose better. In every other way Instagram has failed me. I would rather pay nominally for a service I know is better at what it does and is answerable to me, the user, than one that answers to a boardroom full of shareholders behind closed doors. As Thomas Hawk put it, Flickr and Smugmug are run by ‘people who are passionate about photography, not advertising … there really is not a good place for a larger community of photographers today and I think with the acquisition of Flickr, SmugMug hopes that it can build this and I think they have a pretty good chance at doing it.’
Finally, thanks to the minimum intervention by algorithms (remember, no ads means Flickr has no motivation to automatically prefer some images more than others) the Flickr experience is more rewarding: it introduces you to a wider variety of photographers producing a stream of content that, while not endless, is incredibly varied, properly catalogued and reliant solely on skill and creativity rather than social media dexterity. The 1,000 photo limit for free accounts on Flickr forces people to either pay up or start carefully curating what they upload. By being mobile-friendly but living mainly on the computer it forces users to be more intentional about photography: it takes a little more effort than just whipping out your phone and scrolling endlessly not because you want to look at photographs but because you have nothing better to do. We can all do with a little more intention in our interactions with technology in the ’20s.
I reiterate: it is Instagram’s fault to some extent but their intentions have always been clear; this move away is more about my use of the platform as a photographer looking to learn and grow. And Instagram is simply not the right fit and is not worth the investment in time or effort. For posting alone, barring the social media elements, I may find a solution in the future that lets me upload without ever entering Instagram itself (I doubt the company will ever release APIs for that as it would deliver a massive blow to their advertising model).
Above all this, though, personally, my return to Flickr gets me excited about my photographic prospects like few things have in the past. I found my photographic voice and enthusiasm wane while I restricted myself to Instagram. I found myself losing my grip on my photographic style, something that took me years to develop. I found myself losing my enthusiasm and interest as my understanding of photography was shaken into a noisy mess. I no longer recognised myself as the photographer I once was.
Flickr is a promise of recouping all that and more. It feels like an open field where I can run free and explore photography as what it truly means to me—unfettered art bound by nobody’s definition. It is a platform that does one thing and does it well; a platform run by people who are not merely programmers but lifelong photographers themselves; a platform that measures but never judges by numbers; a platform where I can once again hope to meet and learn from other photographers. This is the platform where I found my earliest foothold in the photographic community that would lead me, a few years later, to publish as part of several international collectives and galleries.
Although my photography should neither shrivel under the glare of a platform that plays by selfish rules nor blossom solely in a platform designed to nourish it, the facts are in order: Instagram is not my cup of tea and as I walk away from it I find myself excited about the promise the future holds, with a renewed vigour on a deeply personal level of the sort that words can hardly describe. As one of my favourite photographers of all time, William Eggleston, once said, my photographs are ‘ultimately all an abstraction of my peculiar experience.’