P H O T O G R A P H Y
Instagram and the Problem With Authenticity
Earlier this month I was riding my MARTA train one morning and thumbing through Medium as I do, when I stumbled upon a post by photographer Samuel Zeller, “Goodbye Instagram, hello Ello.” I didn’t have a lot of expectations in reading the piece, as I remembered how hard my eyes rolled into the back of my head when everyone and their brother jumped on the Ello bandwagon at launch. Surprisingly, the post touched a nerve in the best possible way and beautifully articulated why my relationship with Instagram has waned.
Some of you may not know this, but photography is my second career. Before I became a full-time photographer, I spent nearly two decades in digital marketing and social media. I ruffled a lot of feathers during that time, speaking at conferences saying things like “Engagement is killing your social media strategy” and “Don’t beat the algorithm, impress it.” The scary thing is that even many years later, these proclamations from back then remain true today. The platforms have evolved and yet, engagement has declined and people are still wasting their time trying to work around the algorithm-of-the-day when that energy could be used toward something more productive. One only need to look at Facebook three years ago compared to the platform today to see where Instagram is headed.
Don’t get me wrong, I enjoy Instagram, but I could not be less inspired to post there or interact with other photos on the platform at the moment. At the start of 2018, hoping to revive my interest in posting more, I thought I might do one of those daily Instagram challenges, but I’ve scarcely opened the app since January 1 and I’m entirely okay with that. I hadn’t put my finger on exactly why I was growing more and more disenchanted with it, however, until I had read Zeller’s post.
For me, the disinterest isn’t because the platform is dripping with thinly veiled marketing ploys that try all too hard to be “authentic,” it’s because I’m tired of how boring my feed has become in the name of being authentic. As a photographer, you think I’d find the work of other photographers the most inspiring, but truthfully, I mostly don’t. The posts have become overly curated, heavily stylized highlight reels designed around trying “game” an algorithm or live up to an unsustainable (mythical) ideal instead of providing me with any sort of feeling or insight into the “who” and the “why” of the person behind the lens – authenticity is a commodity being bought sold in our social feeds at the expense of meaningful narrative.
Take this example, which really struck a chord with me in Zeller’s piece:
The grid above is the work of 8 different photographers ranging from 50k to 750k followers.
Can you tell which photographer is which?
Zeller continues with this, “They’re diluting their own work and style by focusing on what will grow their account instead of focusing on developing themselves artistically.” If you’re also a photographer, take a minute or so and let that sink in.
The amateur phone photos by my friends are far more interesting, both visually and from the point of storytelling. They’re truly authentic, and in that, they’re captivating. I hate even writing the word “authentic” because it’s become such an overly saturated buzzword in the photography world that using it has become cliché and trite. The more I hear other photographers complaining about the Instagram algorithm or organic Facebook reach, the more I want to remind them that their ambition to emulate other photographers is far more damaging to their business than any algorithm will ever be. I’m not the only one who feels this way.
This “esthetic of sameness” has become so wildly popular that I find myself growing more and more frustrated with the increasingly few photography groups in which I participate, as well. Posts which feature a perfectly styled woman in boho attire and wide-brimmed felt hat elicit the same squees over and over again, whilst anything truly original seems to languish. Anything similar to what is represented in the collage above provokes the likes of the also abused, “That light tho!” or “#locationgoals”. (Go ahead and roll your eyes, you’ll feel better!)
Along the same lines, photos that feature subjects not completely styled the way that the “esthetic of sameness” dictates will elicit personal critiques of the subject, as if somehow the photographer’s quest for adoration in the form of followers, likes, and loves outweighs the needs or personal styles of their clients.
Documentary photographers (save for the elite) like myself don’t typically enjoy the same mass appeal generated by bloggers or lifestyle and wedding photographers on Instagram. Appealing to the masses on Instagram has become sort of a niche in and of itself; one can now hire an “Instagram rebrand professional” who will ensure your posts are not only individually perfect but have the perfect grid layout on one’s profile as well. Boutique social media agencies also offer services that include culling through all of the profiles you follow to make sure you’re only following those who are “on brand” with your brand. Really, is this what its come to?
If I sound a little frustrated, it’s because I am. Not only as a photographer who has been examining my own artistic direction and points-of-view, but also as someone who is a bit embarrassed for buying into that game for a little while. Later this year, my other half and I will say “I do” and one of my first thoughts, when we started thinking about our wedding, was how great it would be to run off and elope on top of a mountain in Banff. It’s true, it would be great. It would be beautiful. But would that be us? Nope, not really. That was just me, the perpetual “funny friend in Lee jeans” in a sea of the cool kids in Girbauds, dying to fit in. The more I thought about that, the angrier I became toward this attitude that somehow, “traditional life” is less beautiful to so many photographers than the lives of those living in their camper vans and documenting it one frame-by-banal-frame of #vanlife at a time.
All of these thoughts made me realize that one of the reasons we hired our wedding photographer, Amanda Summerlin, is because I know that I won’t be in my head that day – her photographic badassery comes judgment-free and I don’t have to ever worry that we’ll somehow be shamed or mocked for not being “ideal.” This feels exceedingly rare in the wedding industry in particular, in that every vendor I call or try to work with seems more concerned with my “theme” or where I want our wedding to try to be blogged than I do. For the record, our theme is “we are getting married and that’s theme enough” and I have zero fucks to give about our wedding blogged somewhere.
As a photographer and artist, Zeller’s post what exactly the medicine I needed at exactly the time I needed it. While I’ve never put too much energy into caring about beating algorithms, it was a solid reminder that just being myself in the sea of same is enough. That done is better than perfect and perfect is overrated.