Instagram Is Photography But It Is Not All Photography

I have noticed a new phenomenon amongst the online photography community and I think the blame for what I see and hear lies with Instagram. The social media platform that would not exist without the photograph.

Those who discovered photography before Instagram did so through a variety of different artefacts but all within a context. A magazine, a newspaper, a book, an advertisement, a museum or a gallery. Whichever of these introduced someone to a specific photographer or photograph did so by identifying their work as existing for a reason. To sell something, document somewhere or someone, report on a situation or tell a story. Therefore the photographer needed to not only understand photography but also the contexts their work could or should appear within.

It was difficult to get people to see your work so considerable time and energy had to be expended to ensure it was seen, understood and financially supported. The way to get that understanding was to research how others with similar practices succeeded. Build a client database and begin to make friends with people who could commission you or support your work.

Instagram makes it easy to share images but it also gives a false impression of how the world of photography works. It strips away the need for the understanding of different contexts by providing only one. This has resulted in a rise of photography that only exists within that context and photographers looking for likes and followers and not clients or audiences outside of its algorithm.

Important and iconic work and photographers not on Instagram are ignored in favour of Instagram warriors shouting loudly but whom are often professionally irrelevant outside of the platform.

The result is photographers obsessed with what film, camera or technique is used as the single image is applauded whilst the long form narrative with depth and integrity is ignored. This has seen a rise in interest in areas of photography that sit outside of the traditional contexts of recompensed image making. Street photography, travel and landscapes are now dominant. Eye candy for the quick flicking viewer. Subject matter that’s easy to find and free to record. That sits well within Instagram but all of these require narrative understanding of intention to survive in the book, gallery or commissioned environments. They don’t on Instagram.

Perhaps this doesn’t matter. If you are happy in an Instagram world it doesn’t. But if you wish your practice to evolve and become a career it does.

Instagram has become an echo chamber of ‘experts’ who do not have the professional experience and knowledge of what it takes to build a financially viable photographic practice. Some may say they do, others say nothing, focusing on how to take photographs that look like theirs rather than how to work with and understand how to collaborate and work with clients. Photography influencers? I guess so, but there is a basic dishonesty in not explaining how you fund your career or laying out your CV whilst presenting yourself as an ‘expert’. There is a faint scent of pyramid scheme about much of this. Those that ‘buy-in’ to these Instagram heroes are fervent in their following of their leaders, convinced that they ‘know’ the secret to success. Outside of Instagram many do not exist at all. They have no client base, many have no websites and no professional recognition when it comes to being commissioned. To question the ‘faith’ of the Instagram brethren is to be unsupportive, critical and ill-informed.

However, I still ask one. The question I ask anyone who speaks to me of a photographer they have found on Instagram is “Who do they work for or with? Where does their work appear.” I am often then met by a confused look and a response of “What do you mean?” It is at that point that I begin to explain everything I have outlined here and the conversion begins.

Dr. Grant Scott is the founder/curator of United Nations of Photography, a Senior Lecturer and Subject Co-ordinator: Under Graduate and Post-Graduate Photography at Oxford Brookes University, Oxford, a working photographer, documentary filmmaker, BBC Radio contributor and the author of Professional Photography: The New Global Landscape Explained (Routledge 2014), The Essential Student Guide to Professional Photography (Routledge 2015), New Ways of Seeing: The Democratic Language of Photography (Routledge 2019). His film Do Not Bend: The Photographic Life of Bill Jay was first screened in 2018 He is the presenter of the A Photographic Life and In Search of Bill Jay podcasts.

Scott’s next book is Inside Vogue HouseOne building, seven magazines, sixty years of stories, Orphans Publishing, is on sale February 2024.

© Grant Scott 2023

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