Instagram was built to be easy, visual, voyeuristic. Faster than fast food, instantly satisfying.
“And all free today!” it promised, like the long-ago child catcher in the film Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, proffering pretty lollies as he capered up the street. Was it really so surprising that when the kids jumped on, the caravan turned into a box with some very real bars?
Reporter Sarah Frier (@sarahfrier) recalls in her book, No Filter: The Inside Story of Instagram, that early Instagram was a utopian place to show your world and see everyone else’s. “If Facebook was about friendships, and Twitter was about opinions, Instagram was about experiences,” she writes, “and anyone could be interested in anyone else’s visual experiences, anywhere in the world.” No one anticipated that it would help breed a culture of self-commoditization. But like Facebook, which eventually acquired it, Instagram hinged on our primal need to be loved—that empty heart under every posted picture glowed red with affirmation every time someone clicked on it.
And as the number of Instagram users swelled, “likes” quickly became a necessity for being seen. By followers, yes, but more importantly for professional photographers, by the photo editors, media staffers, junior buyers and industry players who were needed to stay relevant in a world where absolutely everyone now took pictures.
A decade after Instagram’s launch, commercial photographers agree that having a presence on the platform is still essential. They say that as a marketing tool, Instagram has immediacy, power and potential. And they believe that as a tool for amateurs, it has impacted photography more indelibly than any other social media platform.
But Instagram’s parameters can be challenging: Posted work must fit tiny squares or rectangles viewed from the face of a cell phone. There’s the never-ending need to feed the feed and connect with your followers, all while creating new and compelling work. And trickiest of all? The reality of constantly evolving algorithms.
“In a world where social media platforms rely on algorithmic recommendation systems to decide what we see, there is an existential crisis for creators and artists who are trying to get their work out there,” says San Francisco–based creative director Pamela Chen (@chenpamela), who, in 2019, became one of the first recipients of a fellowship cosponsored by the Stanford Institute for Human-Centered Artificial Intelligence and the John S. Knight Journalism Fellowships at Stanford University. “There are a lot of misperceptions.”
A former senior photo editor at National Geographic, Chen was head of creative, Community, at Instagram around the time the platform first moved from showing content in users’ feeds in reverse-chronological order to using an algorithm to personalize which posts appear first. “At that time, artists and creatives kept saying to me, ‘I’m posting this content because I think it will do well,’ meaning, what they thought would result in a successful algorithmic prediction for getting a lot of engagement,” Chen says. “I realized that artists’ perception of what the algorithm was doing had become a more powerful influence on their creative process than the algorithm itself.”
What creatives didn’t and in some cases still don’t understand, says Chen, is that “if you share only what you think will do well, you are contributing to a one-dimensional data set, which, ironically, becomes the only data the algorithms have to learn from. Playing this game fuels a self-fulfilling prophecy that no one wants—it’s like we are collectively creating this monster by reacting to what we thought the monster already was.”
Rather, says Chen, “it is crucial to continue creating your art true to you, and avoid falling into the trap of guessing what the algorithm will predict. Remember that recommendation algorithms are still in a wet-clay stage—they’re relatively young in this world and are constantly being designed and redesigned.” Chen’s ultimate goal for her work at Stanford is to help design better content recommendation systems.
But to work with the platform as it is now, photographers are honing both image and message. “You have to shape your imagery to speak to the platform’s constraints, communicating very quickly,” says Shawn Heinrichs (@shawnheinrichs), cinematographer, photographer and founder of the ocean conservation nonprofit Blue Sphere Foundation. Heinrichs’s entire purpose on Instagram, as it is for photographers such as Cristina Mittermeier (@mitty), Paul Nicklen (@paulnicklen) and Steve Winter (@stevewinterphoto), is to move viewers to action on conservation issues.
“I may have a person or animal in the middle of the screen, but why?” says Heinrichs. “I have to think about how that subject connects to the rest of the story I am trying to tell. The urgency is, how do I capture all of that in a single square in the flash of an instant so that someone glances and it gets their attention? Because if someone doesn’t get it right away, they’re never going to take the time to get it.”
Some of the changes that Instagram has brought to commercial photography shoots include client desires for less-fussy, more-organic-looking images; natural lighting; and, with brands asking for a lot more work much more quickly, speed.
“We have all seen brands shift their focus from investing in long-lead traditional marketing to becoming much faster with their content creation,” says Tereasa Surratt, senior partner and global group creative director at Ogilvy, who, with her husband David, also launched the massively popular Camp Wandawega (@campwandawega) entirely through Instagram.
Wearing her Ogilvy hat, Surratt says, “Gone are the days of having million-dollar budgets for a TV spot when you can make a dozen flexible films that will work on social for much less. We are using the Instagram channel to broadcast daily versus working on a TV spot for six months to a calendar year. So we have to work more nimbly and staff differently.”
Likewise, when Kristen and Chris Barker, the design-driven directors behind By The Barkers (@bythebarkers) in Chicago, are working on shoots destined for Instagram, they use “a lot of natural light and continuous light,” says Chris. “And we have to have a crew that understands that when we go to stills, we are going to have to increase the available light to shoot faster.”
The Barkers also say that the evolution of motion on Instagram has had an impact on how they work. “We’ve moved from stills to GIFs to full motion,” Kristen says. “And now you are talking about even longer formats. It’s gotten to the point where if we are shooting a job where Instagram is the main place an ad wants to live, it completely changes the workflow. It moves away from what you would have done traditionally to something completely new, even down to the framing.”
The Barkers have also observed Instagram’s impact on aesthetics. “Instagram influences the color palette,” Kristen says, “and even the packaging. Millennial pink was a color popularized by Instagram and influencer use. And, productwise, [beauty brand] Glossier developed products based on their curated page as they saw what their audience was responding to.” Chris adds, “We’ve even gotten to the point where things are designed to be noticeable in a photo someone is going to be posting of themselves. It’s like we are looking at ourselves looking at ourselves—almost a series of mirrors.”
“The Instagram reality is you have to change to be relevant,” Kristen says. “And you have to avoid fakery or imagery that feels like it’s trying too hard because people will call you out on that immediately. That’s especially true for creators who monetize their work with branding or collaborations.”
Perhaps no one knows this better than photographer Jessica Zollman (@jayzombie), who has held multiple roles in the Instagram universe. She talked her friend Cole Rise, the designer for Instagram’s first photo filters, into letting her beta test Instagram before it launched and then was hired by cofounder Kevin Systrom to become the company’s community evangelist.
As such, Zollman was not only on the early suggested-users list, which often vaulted creators to “influencer” celebrity, but also had the power to pick people for it. In 2013, she was the first team member to leave Instagram after Facebook’s acquisition, taking her skills into the world of branded content, where she has partnered with companies such as Apple, Adobe and Canon. Her most recent job, as the visual coordinator for restaurant and coffee roaster concept Go Get Em Tiger (@ggetla), had her working side by side with the company’s architect and designer, choosing the pastel color palettes, geometric wall patterns and even the baby-blue metal-frame chairs that she—and thousands of Go Get Em Tiger customers—would photograph for their Instagram profiles.
“The way that I make money is to appeal to brands. And in order to do that, there is a very polished, specific aesthetic that I need to be putting out there,” says Zollman. “I can deviate a little bit, as long as I stick to my core aesthetic. Everything else gets put on Stories. I do this because I know that art directors and junior art buyers are going on Instagram and looking at it as if it is my portfolio. If I fill it up with things that aren’t what I want to be photographing for brands, there’s a possibility that people going there will think, ‘Oh look, she can do this!’ and want to hire me for that, even though that’s not what I’m interested in doing commercially. Or, worse, I just won’t get hired at all, because they’d be like, ‘What’s happening here? There’s no commonality, direction, no through line or narrative through these photos. We don’t really know what to hire her for.’”
The skillful curation required of commercial photographers to put up their work on the Instagram pages that they now use as portfolios has meant that many are posting less often or are publishing more posts to Stories and less to their main profile. But they still want to appear active and connect with followers.
“That’s true for me,” says Brooklyn-based portrait and lifestyle photographer Aundre Larrow (@aundre). “I feel like Stories is one good way that I can connect with followers by asking a question or a poll that feels personal, without having to respond to dozens of comments in my feed.”
Some are using the platform to have a little creative fun.
“As an early adopter of Twitter, I could tell Instagram had more potential for advertising, but also for experimenting with art,” says Will Payovich (@will_payovich), a Chicago-based creative director, writer and designer. “I’m always amazed at how many advertising creatives and account folks never really bothered to understand and use Instagram in this way.”
Rather than posting agency work on his profile, Payovich has turned it into an entertaining scroll of vintage photo collages depicting fictitious D-list country-western singers. The premise is that they are all contractually obligated to the also-fictitious vinyl record division of Firestone Tire Company. The captioned posts give a glimpse of these sad-sack characters and the songs they record.
“I didn’t start with a plan, a purpose or expectations with this, and my time is limited,” Payovich says. “But I found that instead of writing a novel or short story, making a painting, or composing a song, I could make tiny versions of all those things on Instagram.”
As a new generation of photographers steps into maturity, the broader question of how Instagram has impacted the medium is an interesting one. Professionals agree that the constant barrage of Instagram photos has created a visually focused, more photo-literate audience.
“Instagram has made the quality of amateur photography better—people are thinking, composing and propping shots, as opposed to when they took their blurry sunsets in for double prints at the Foto Hut,” says Payovich. “But Instagram has also quashed the medium, in the sense that the measurement for quality is popularity. If Ansel Adams started on Instagram today as an unknown, he might attract a few thousand followers, and maybe a few triple-digit likes. That wouldn’t mean the amazing quality of his work wasn’t there, but people might be inclined to go, ‘Meh, not a ton of followers or likes.’”
How many cell phone–trained photographers who will develop their talent to be able to produce work that can be beautifully displayed at large scale and not just in a thumbnail remains to be seen. Some go online for tutorials, learning basic photography principles, like how to shoot with digital or film cameras. Some find their way to classrooms to deepen their understanding. Others don’t see the point of either, satisfied to stay within the scope of small-format posts.
Christopher Schneberger (@chrxtopher2112), a photographer, artist and photography instructor at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, laments this. He recalls a young student who showed up to a beginning photography class in a hoodie with his Instagram handle printed across the back, telling everyone he had several hundred thousand followers. But as the class started learning about photography’s language of light, aperture and ISO, the student stopped coming.
“It was sad,” says Schneberger. “There was so much about the medium and the craft that I wanted to share with that student, and with others like him. Their whole frame of reference is Instagram. They don’t have an awareness of the history of the medium, or the prominent image makers who have come before them. So they are seeing a very pop version of photography that they are influenced by and seek to emulate, until it becomes a regurgitation. Instagram is a constant merging of the vernacular selfie culture and more-artistic image making. The platform homogenizes everything. We can separate those threads a bit, but it’s the commodification that truly disturbs me.”
Schneberger says that if there were one thing he could change about Instagram’s impact, it would be this commodification. “I worry that Instagram, or the way young people use it, causes them to feel that they themselves are a product that they are forced to constantly market and sell to the world, making them feel superficial and undervalued,” he says. “It continues to be a serious concern.” ca