Jase Salter is in his early forties, has a family in Los Angeles and a long-standing career in the music industry. He also, like a lot of people these days, has a side hustle that earns him a bit of extra pocket cash. And on top of all of that (and also like a lot of people these days), Jase finds a creative outlet for himself in photography, often heading off to various locations around L.A. to explore and make imagery that is his very own, which he posts to Instagram on a regular basis. By his own description of it, his engagement with Instagram can feel “always on.”
“Instagram is constantly on,” he describes. “I have notifications on, so I get messages when people like my photo, or when certain people post, or comment on one of my posts, or my story. I get notifications all day long. I’m on Instagram pretty much every few minutes.”
Jase describes getting hooked on Instagram in a very familiar way. He saw what folks like Cole Younger were doing, getting a lot of attention for dramatic city shots. They were new, fresh and different takes on urban photography. “Those are great pictures,” Jase recalls thinking. Impressed, he set out to go see if he could get some of the same kinds of shots, but with his own take on them. A year into this process, Jase describes a kind of love/hate relationship with Instagram that is echoed throughout the photography community. A necessary tool that offers some answers, but just as many questions.
What Is Success?
When Jase describes why he uses Instagram, it echoes what nearly every photographer I know on Instagram also feels or conveys — it’s a way to get feedback on the work, offering a kind of road map toward some kind of success, whether creatively or financially. Instagram’s sweet spot is in providing feedback in a way you can’t get in other places. Unlike other attempts at providing photography communities (Flickr, 500px, Behance, etc.), Instagram reaches beyond the creative community into all walks. This wide swath of the world offers a chance to create a reputation for yourself as an artist in a way that no other medium can match. And that’s heavily alluring to anyone who creates. More than anywhere else, there seems to be a “sky’s the limit” aspect to what one can achieve on Instagram.
And in the long-term, Instagram can offer fairly consistent feedback on how you’re doing at it. A photographer gains followers and increases the amount of likes and comments (engagment) on any given photo in a quantifiable and steady way. And with variables that depend on your investment in time engaging with others, your effort is often directly rewarded. It can be slow, but if you keep at it, you can mark your growth. A year ago, Jase might have gotten 20 likes, and a comment or two. Today, Jase receives upwards of a few hundred likes and quite a few comments on his daily photos. That long-term growth can equate to a sort of hard proof of forward movement in one’s artistic endeavor which can be highly encouraging and positive.
But the day-to-day feedback of Instagram is a far different story. Fluctuations on daily post are high and unpredictable. Even among top Instagrammers, like Cole Younger, engagement is so varied that it becomes near-impossible to understand what constitutes a good photo or not good photo.
Making it even more confusing, engagement rates don’t seem to correlate to amount of followers. Cole Younger, with 283k followers gets roughly the same amount of likes on any given post as Jason Peterson, another well-known Instagrammer with 3X the following as Younger, at 1.1MM. All of this adds up to a sense of success that works only if you squint at it from far away. Which correlates almost exactly to the up-and-down emotional connection that photographers seem to have with Instagram. A distant shimmering oasis one crawls slowly through the sand to get to, not knowing if it’s even real.
What Is Approval?
“You’re touching into that honest part of Instagram that everyone’s feelin’ but nobody is talking about”
Jase was open about the emotional side of what draws photographers to keep posting and checking on Instagram, despite the hazy understanding of what it all adds up to. It seemed to come down to a lot of little affirmations: Someone likes your photo. Someone comments on your photo. 25 new likes. Someone comments on your story. Someone features your photo. Someone mentions you in their story. There’s a trickle of appreciation for what you’re doing that Jase describes as “a little morphine drip.”
This constant trickle of appreciation has the power to distract from the ongoing confusion over how any single post is performing and provide just enough approval and sense of accomplishment to push through to the next one. But this same little trickle taunts as much as encourages a photographer and Jase was clear about a back-and-forth emotional track of caring and not caring. And in the end we both agreed that there’s a similarity between online and offline approval, as something we want but also don’t want to want.
It is human nature to push forward through the small rewards of achievement. Our brains are wired for it. And, in fact, it is not all in vain. The quality of our work improves through this very process in tangible ways — especially for a photographer who can easily compare an image from a year ago and see the fruits of that labor in plain, side-by-side comparisons. But ultimately most photographers will tell you that this is their art and a method of self-expression — an endeavor that is supposed to be aligned more with an internal compass than swayed by the winds of public opinion. And so, confusion abounds as to what Instagram really even is.
If you’ve ever been in a focus group room, often there will be a one-way mirror behind which faceless people take notes and make opinions based on what’s being said. There’s a scenario in that room that is both like the real world (sitting and talking with other people) and is completely not the real world (knowing you’re being watched and evaluated). Contributing and engaging with Instagram appears to be a lot like that focus group conversation. There’s a sense of realness: this approval system that looks and sounds a lot like real approval. But, at the same time, it’s a construct that has been created by someone else and, seemingly, for someone else’s needs, which we are not entirely privy to. It’s just an app, after all. And that produces an ennui in the participants that has them playing along, but also managing their own expectations of it at the same time. This encourages second-guessing and even gaming of the system itself.
Approval is a deep human need that affects us in complicated and profound ways. But when played out on Instagram, it turns us into competitive content-creators fighting for follows, likes and comments. Yet, at the same time — it works. Real or unreal, the construct does get us to shoot and look critically at our work on a more regular basis.
The Paradox Of Popularity
One of the ways photographers find success on Instagram is by focusing their work on a subject or style (or both). Audiences have a lot of people they can follow, so having your “thing” helps you stand out and gives people a reason to follow you. But that becomes its own paradox.
Paul Kim is a world class photographer who is probably best known as the photographer for the Washington Nationals. But when it’s off season, Paul is a world traveler who takes remarkable photos of everywhere from Iceland to Milan. If the same images of these trips were posted on a feed known for world travel, they would be among the most popular images on it, but for Paul, they receive less than half the likes of his baseball images.
Likewise, in my own photography feed, where I am mostly known as a black and white photographer, color images don’t get nearly the love that my usual fare do. This is the opposite issue of Stephen Vanasco, who made his name taking sexy images of girls, but who also likes to post more artistic black and white work, as well.
It’s hard for a pimp.
Many artists, and fans, refer to this as a “high class problem.” This was, after all, the same issue that Roy Lichtenstein had, trying to break out of his Pop Art comic book style of painting. Certainly things could be worse than having a few hundred thousand followers demanding you keep providing them what they expect you to provide. And then rewarding you for it.
But for some just trying to find their voice in photography, or even for those who want to experiment and push into new territories, the Instagram paradox plays at the daily decisions of what to go shoot and what to post. These internal machinations dominate much of the (real world) chatter among photographers who spend a lot of time, when with each other, discussing the manicuring and watering of their Instagram feeds.
But even more these days, I’m hearing photographers talk about stepping away. “There’s times when I’m just turning it off,” says Jase. “I like to just go lay low for a while and get away from it.”
Success on Instagram comes down to one thing: impressing your audience. But if you are looking for a sense of satisfaction and joy in photography, it seems more and more photographers are finding it all comes into focus when they close the app.