Updated: Feb 3, 2019
In the now eight years since Instagram first exploded on the social media scene it is fast becoming the social media platform of choice for photographers to display their work, second only to the heavy weight Facebook. The irony of course is Instagram is owned by Facebook, but I digress.
From the unbending 1:1 square ratio and apparent disregard for petty copyright rules to the proliferation of one-click filters and cell-phone only uploads, Instagram has been surrounded in controversy from the beginning.
The Good, Bad and Ugly of Instagram
Unless you live under a rock, in a cave under the sea, you have noticed photography is a rapidly changing art form. From the early days of wooden boxes, chemicals and silver based-films to today’s digital cameras that produce eye-popping sized megabyte computer files, just about anyone can take a pretty decent photo. But for all those changes, nothing has impacted photography more than social media, and Instagram in particular.
(I joined Tony Avila in his podcast from Aperture Priority to discuss this topic. You can hear it here.)
Instagram has undoubtedly elevated some photographers from obscurity to Insta-stardom. Never before has it been possible for a photographer to display their work in front of thousands of viewers.
For others, it has encouraged them to look at the world differently, that is, through the eyes of a photographer. Many ‘non-creative’ souls have noticed the beauty in the world around them as they consider the scene’s light, form, texture and composition before they press the camera shutter. They have, in fact, become more creative and we have Instagram to thank for this.
Above everything else Instagram has given people, especially millennials, an entirely new career path – the influencer.
Ah…the influencer. That instagrammer with a large number of followers, established credibility, and high engagement rates. Influencers are marketing magnets because they can leverage their trust and reach to influence their audience and thus positively impact a brand’s identity. If that smacks of commercialization it is. No, that’s not a bad thing. It is a commercial thing.
The bad thing is Instagram is a voraciously demanding treadmill. It requires a never-ending supply of new images that will appeal to the influencer’s ever-scrolling audience. The demand is for finding new ways to tell the same story over and over again, new places to visit and new experiences to share.
This has given rise to an entirely new class of photographer - the person who takes images solely to share online in order to build a following.
Unfortunately there can be negative side-effects to this treadmill. In the clamor and glamour of the Instagram chase, it is easy to be sucked into the trap of building ones self-worth based on the number of likes or followers one has. So, you’re not getting enough likes for your photograph? You must be a crappy photographer.
Or you may think “perhaps if I just copied the style of that photographer who has 50,000 followers I too would be admired”. Now there is nothing wrong with studying and even mimicking the masters. We can, in fact, learn a great deal and be inspired by this inspection. But if we never move on to our own style, we are no longer photographers but copy machines.
Study after study has shown that social media can be a catalyst for depression. A quick google search of the term “social media and depression” will prove the point. If you are measuring your self-worth by your social media engagement, you might want to step back and think about your motivation for using social media.
Finally, in this desire to be Insta-famous, some selfie-driven photographers are damaging the environment, and tragically, even dying to get ‘that shot’. There are countless stories of how Instagramer’s made a local, picturesque spot famous, and in doing so opened a flood gate of visitors who wanted to get ‘that shot’.
Access to the famous Maroon Bells in the Colorado Rockies is being restricted because of the crush of visiting selfie-seekers. In Helensburg, Australia, local photographers used to visit a particularly photogenic abandoned railroad tunnel that has a colony of glow worms living in it. Instagram fame unleashed a virtual horde of thoughtless photographers that set off smoke bombs, burned steel wool and lit up flares inside the tunnel. They have nearly killed the colony of glow worms. Like a lot of other property owners tired of the trash and damage from this new breed of photographer, the owner fenced off the property and has restricted visits.
In Ontario, Canada a recent article sums it up: "Swarms of Instagrammers force a Canadian sunflower farm to ban all visitors." It seems the owners of the sunflower farm didn't cotton to thousands of Instagrammers tramping through their fields, damaging the fragile flowers and leaving trash and waste behind.
Tragically, in October of 2018 a famous Instagram couple plunged to their death from a cliff in Yosemite National Park. They were famous for travel-selfies on Instagram. Their deaths followed by a mere month a teen falling to his death trying to take a selfie in front of Nevada Falls, also in Yosemite National Park.
Is a picture worth the destruction of the environment or even death? Of course not.
There used to be a time when all photographers followed the creed: “Leave nothing but footprints. Take nothing but photographs. Kill nothing but time.”
Sadly, it seems, some photographers have forgotten it.
About the author: JS Engelbrecht began his photography career in a High School dark room for the school's Year Book. Later he entered the fashion industry and product photography before turning his attention to Nature. "I moved from shooting pictures of beautiful jewelry to shooting pictures of natural beauty."
Now JS Engelbrecht enjoys capturing beautiful scenes during his travels. He is also a gifted teacher and guide for local photographers. Click here to see his fine art gallery.