Making Instagram work for me 

Street photographer Instagram

The year is 2022. There’s no need for me to discuss the issues surrounding social media. It’s a place that can connect people, but increasingly, it’s the source of acute discontent for society and individuals. This isn’t an original thought – we all know it. 

That being said and agreed with, I’m active on Instagram. In the photographic community, Instagram is an increasingly contentious platform. This is due to the anti-photographic algorithm and a push towards short-form video. The result is that many street photographers are changing their relationship with the platform, with some reducing post frequency and others deleting their accounts. 

At the time of writing, Samual Streetlife has just posted an update video in which, among other things, he repeated his intention to leave Instagram eventually. As much as I completely understand and respect this choice, it inspired me to write this post. 

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How I use Instagram 

I’m not an influencer, I’m not Insta-famous, nor do I want to be. As of this moment, Sunday, March 27th 2022, I have 218 followers. My posts get roughly 30-50 likes and a couple of comments. No one DMs me, but I do get spammed by people trying to sell me 15,000 followers with reasonable regularity.

In short, I’m not a player in the Instagram space. But, I do use the platform to my creative advantage. 

Since January 2022, I’ve grown much more interested in building and sharing sets of photographs. This is a conscious effort to develop my visual storytelling. Though it’s only been a short time since my effort began, I already notice myself thinking about images differently when I’m out, and I’m much more aware of themes, flow and patterns. Here’s an example from a recent outing: 

The photo upload limit also works to help keep me in check. In early March, I attended a protest against the Russian invasion of Ukraine – I captured over 500 images, and of these, roughly 30 are fit for public consumption. I set myself the limit of sharing one set and one standalone image. So, I toyed around with layouts and orders to whittle the set down to 10. Here’s the resulting collection: 

Working within the Instagram upload limit and my self-imposed restrictions means that I no longer look to throw up my favourite images as soon as possible. I hold back and choose more carefully. I enjoy switching images, playing with order and sometimes ‘killing my darlings’ for the sake of the overall set. It’s been a rewarding experience.

I’ve also enjoyed learning to work within the stingy borders of Instagram image sizing. The small image size has me thinking of how images work when they are little more than thumbnails. I’ve also learned to use the Instagram design to showcase larger landscape images by halving photographs and uploading them in sequence. Here’s an example from a coastal trip: 

I recognise that these practices are not revolutionary. Yet, by setting myself the challenge of uploading more sets and using vertical and horizontal orientations, I’ve forced myself to engage with image presentation in new and challenging ways. As a result, I feel my visual understanding has grown much more attuned.

Moving forward, I intend to continue this practice. I hope that, over time, I can test new layouts, image groupings and presentation formats.

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Instagram is a tool and nothing more 

I’m not going to claim that Instagram is an all-powerful teacher. My efforts on the platform are only a small part of my process to become a better photographer and storyteller. For example, my homepage has taught me how images work in conversation with each other, while the One photograph page has let me explore some of my work in isolation. 

Without a doubt, the biggest lesson I’m currently undertaking is building my first zine. This process has seen all of the above practices put into action, but writ-large. My Instagram sets are like practising guitar licks, whereas the zine is like writing a song. 

Instagram is only a small tool in my self-schooling, but it has helped, nonetheless. 

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Giving my work air

In October 2021, I attended a virtual workshop hosted by the Metal Culture on exhibitions and residences. Leading the talk was artist Robyn Woolston. I asked Woolston how she knew when she was ready to exhibit work, to which she replied that “art needs oxygen, and showing your work provides the air it needs” (I’m paraphrasing; I wasn’t quick enough to note the reply verbatim). 

The weight of the answer has struck a chord, and I think about it regularly. While I don’t think I’m ready to exhibit my work yet, the answer is an impetus for presenting my work digitally to the world. 

In essence, Instagram and my website act as a virtual exhibition hall. It’s a place to find images, chosen and arranged by myself, free to be viewed by the public (though my Instagram is closer to a potted history of my development, rather than a ‘best of’ selection). 

While there is little in the way of constructive criticism and conversation with other artists, which is the true source of oxygen I feel art and photography need, it’s a step in the right direction. To strain the metaphor a little more, publishing my photographs digitally provides a flicker to my creative flame. This helps me keep warm until the situation arises where I can show my work in a more traditional space or to more engaged audiences and hopefully light a few fires. 

This does, however, lead to a question about my use of Instagram.  

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How else can my work be seen? 

I have no answer to this – it’s a genuine question. When popular figures like Ulysses Aoki and Samuel Streetlife change their relationship with Instagram, they’ve already developed a following and support for their art. In the modern sense, they’ve been discovered. 

This isn’t to say that I’m waiting for discovery, but I’m no Vivian Maier either (in talent or apparent indifference at sharing my work). Part of the drive to create is to share my work with others – it’s a natural inclination, not willed by a desire for acclaim but connection. I find great joy in discussing photography, my work and the work of others. 

There are no street photography groups in my local area and very few art groups (my local Metal branch being an exception). I have a full-time job, and there’s still a global pandemic underway. I want to engage in artistic conversation and culture – I feel that an Instagram presence is, at least for now, a part of these efforts.  

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Does follower count matter to me?

I’d love to say that follower count doesn’t matter to me, but it does. It’s not that I want to be an influencer, it’s that follower count indicates how many people might be seeing my photography. 

As I’ve mentioned, part of the reason I use Instagram is as a digital space to show my work and small thematic sets. I’m pleased by the idea that more people can see and engage with my work, just as I’m pleased that I can see and engage with the work of others.

As someone who does take note of follower count, I’m keen to maintain perspective. If I were to put on a gallery exhibit and over 200 people showed up, I would consider it a real success. I know that my follower count doesn’t reflect such a healthy turnout. 

It’s important to recognise that follower count is an amalgamation of different people and motivations. Some of my followers I know in real life and are not photographers – many are probably just following me out of politeness. Others are accounts that have followed me and liked a swathe of my photos, just to get my attention and receive the hallowed Follow Back – maybe they’ll unfollow me shortly afterwards, or they might stick around for a bit. Finally, even though I try and delete them, a few bot accounts have probably slipped through the net. All of this is before you even factor in whether the Instagram algorithm shows your followers your posts. 

In the weird virtual world of Instagram, only a fraction of my followers is likely to engage with my photography in any meaningful way. 

I feel that the more followers I have, the more likely my work will find a small, engaged audience. Couple this my desire to seek out new influences and street photographers, and I still think there are compelling reasons to keep using Instagram (for now). But, I’m going to keep using it on my terms – I will not make Reels, I will not hit the like-comment ratio the algorithm demands of users to improve reach. I’ll keep using Instagram to develop my visual storytelling and as a search engine for discovering new artists. Hopefully, I’ll meet some like-minded people along the way. But if not, that’s fine too.

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Thanks for reading.

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Afterword

There is one other way I use Instagram to my advantage: to put minds at rest. If someone asks me why I’m taking pictures in a public space, I sometimes use my Instagram to illustrate the point when “I’m a street photographer” hasn’t satisfied their curiosity. I’ve used my website in the same way before, along with some cheap business cards I’ve had printed up.

Published by William Lobley

Writer and street photographer

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