The Rise of the Photographer pt 2: The Instagram Paramount | The Philosophy of Photography

What do you think about when you hear photography, it wouldn’t be unnatural to put Instagram in your list. Just like how to runners, Boston is synonymous with Marathons, Instagram is synonymous with photography. To give credit where credit is due, Instagram is an amazing application and there is a reason why it is so popular. The everyday photographer now has a tool to get their photos out into the public, reaching potentially thousands of people, for “free” (nothing is truly free). Instagram has over a billion of active users, and is a major tool for influence and advertising. When Instagram changed their layout from chronological to it being processed through an algorithm, there was naturally an outcry, but Instagram didn’t have to worry because where else are you going to go? When Instagram made this change, it boosted their revenue and viewership (basically how long a person stayed on their app). It also changed the way people see photos, only seeing those top followed accounts with generic names like “Earth Focus” or “MoodyGram” and rarely seeing the up and comers. Now I can’t really diss these pages too much as they are successful for a reason and I often use the hashtag “moodygram” when posting a photo. I think the main issue I have is that Instagram made it difficult for the amateur photographer to organically grow.

When I post a photo, I will usually get 100 or so likes and about 10 people will follow me, after 2 days maybe 2 of those 10 people will continue to follow me, the rest will unfollow. This is a known tactic and usually has to do with bots. Ever post to Instagram and get a bunch of ungodly generic comments like “cool pic” or “great page keep it up” or the dreaded “hey cool page, would you mind checking mine out too?” usually followed by a 2 or so emojis? Instagram has become run over by bots although they are cracking down on them, I see less and less of them. What is ironic about this bot epidemic and what I will debate in the next paragraph is that it actually helps amateur photographers grow on a over-saturated platform (to a point), and it keeps the amateur photographer from giving up on the craft. All because of one simple, base-level trait we share with the rest of the animal kingdom. Behavioural Conditioning.

If you have graduated high-school, you have most likely heard and studied Pavlov, his dog and classical conditioning. Where given an unconditioned response (food) the dog will salivate, given a neutral stimulus (bell) a dog will have a neutral reaction, but ring the bell before you give the dog some food, eventually the dog will begin to salivate at the sound of the bell. Another term you might have heard about is ‘Operant Conditioning’ where consequences (either good or bad) are associated with behaviour. As an example you swear in front of your mom and you are sent to your room with no dessert. You swearing was a voluntary behaviour and the not getting dessert was a consequence, which usually makes people not want to continue swearing because dessert is good. Much of our society is based upon this conditioning, a more extreme example would be murder and jail. The benefits of ‘Operant Conditioning’ is that it works on both sides of the coin, rewarding good behaviour and punishing bad behaviour. Which is why social media always has some sort of like (and sometimes dislike) system. Reddit: Upvotes and Downvotes, Instagram: Likes, Facebook: Responses (happy, sad, anger, etc.). It is in this conditioning that social media thrives off of and why people will always post extremist views (which ties into tribal psychology as well but that is a different story).

Operant Conditioning and Instagram. I post a photo and it gets on the radar of a page like ‘Travel Manitoba’ and they message me asking is they could share the picture to their page (which is a considerably larger following) I want to post more, I want to stop what I am doing and go out take that super special photo so that I can get more attention on my images, after-all I am human, I like my positive reinforcement. Alright so I grab my Olympus E310 and head out, but the light isn’t there, and to the raw amateur that only sees the best of the best on my Instagram feed, I begin to worry if I am the reason why I can’t see a composition in this light, so I begin to force images so I can taste that level of success again, forgetting that photography is an art form. Since I am stressing myself to take an image, I am no longer enjoying photography, and worse yet my images are getting less and less likes because I am forcing myself. I check my Instagram and see that the latest picture that was posted was this unnaturally colourful picture of green, so I begin to crank my saturation slider to the maximum. I take a picture on my phone of a beautiful provincial park and apply an HDR filter to it (not taking an actual HDR, but a filter) that picture gets picked up by CanGeo and they want to put it in their calendar. “WOW, I did it” I think to myself, not realizing that I did not plan or set up that shot in anyway nor follow any photography fundamentals. All I did was apply a shitty HDR filter to it and upload it, thinking I was the next up and comer. I begin only using my phone because fuck technique, throwing out any thought process, applying artificial filters to my photos, uploading them and hoping to get the same result, but the result was dwindling interest in my photography, what I think is the best, only getting 25 likes, 20 likes 18… These noisy, over-saturated abominations taken without any critical analysis weren’t doing as well as I thought they would, my brain was functioning like a cocaine addicted rat only after hollow Instagram likes, not after the thrill of learning, the thrill of growing or the even the fun of it. It was only after a hiatus from photography when I realized that I just got lucky. It was only after a hiatus from photography where I realized I wasn’t a photographer a few years ago, I was a ‘like chaser’. I wanted the rewards without putting any of the effort in. Like a cocaine addicted rat, I didn’t think I was the problem. I woke up one morning and realized that I was coasting through life and I did not have the financial means to coast through life, that I had to work for things and that I needed to start the long journey of financial recovery from a dire situation, something that I am struggling with today, but at least there is hope. It was during this year of reflection that I realized that when I was taking photos, I wasn’t taking photos, I was taking trash and I needed to stop.

To be clear, I have never done any sort of drug, so the metaphor of a cocaine addicted rat isn’t me literally on cocaine, but that is exactly what social media was turning my life into. Someone who lacked empathy and forgot myself. I realized that I wasn’t a person at all, I lacked any sort of character and development but thought to myself that I was great. Honestly, a borderline sociopath. Thankfully I came to realize that my life wasn’t the internet and that these people that share and live their lives online, although they seem to be having the most fun, I am only seeing the top 0.01% of their lives. After a cool-down and working to put myself into better circumstances I found myself called back into the world of photography, going so far to delete my old social media accounts and starting fresh. I did not want to relapse into someone that posts stagnant undeveloped photos, I wanted to start completely new, start from the beginning and learn everything I can about the techniques of photography first before I start shooting, and I did, and my photos are 100 times better than what they used to be. I am still far from professional, but I am way ahead of where I once was. I still have some old pictures from this time on my external hard-drive, as a reminder of where my photos used to be. I suggest to anyone that they keep a record of development, because in 10 years I know I will look back to these pictures I am taking today and say “seriously, this is what I was taking a photo of” but I will hopefully be able to see the growth.

This is the thing I worry about with Instagram and social media in general, sure many people know that Social Media is detrimental to the brain, it operates at our base level subconscious and that we crave it. It also operates in a capitalistic world, meaning that with enough money anyone can buy success, anyone can pay to win. Instagram is full of photographers paying large accounts to showcase their photography, even when it is obviously full of filters. I fell for this as a personal example and I am sure there are many people that also fall for this, forgetting that on Instagram, Snapchat, Facebook, etc. We only see the top 0.01% of peoples lives and their work. In photography we only see the best of the best, the 1 in 1 million. I have 55 gigs of photos on my external hard-drive that I deem are failures, acummulated only the past year. It is in this Instagram Paramount that photography as an artform is threatened, the newbies such as myself forgetting that photography is about patience and technique, and filling that with over-editing and filters.

Instagram is good and bad, just like with most things. I argue that Instagram poses a threat to the photographer because people will start to forget what photography is an art. Most, if not all photos are edited in some way, and that is part of the art, and that has been around since the film era. With photography becoming so industrialized, so machined and saturated we forget that photos are a way of transporting us, capturing a moment to be immortalized for us forever. I edit my photos just like most people, some people do it better than me and some people do it worse.

This will lead into the next blog regarding the ethics of editing.