Have we now got the Instagram we deserve?

insta

In case you haven’t heard, Instagram announced big changes last week. Soon, you will no longer see the photos on your feed in the order they were posted. Instead, they will be displayed according to a complex set of algorithms determined by your taste, regular interactions and other data they have accumulated on you over the years.

The announcement begins by saying that the average user misses out on 70% of their feed and goes on to promise: ‘To improve your experience, your feed will soon be ordered to show the moments we believe you will care about the most.’ In other words, while you may still miss out on seeing a large chunk of ‘moments’, Instagram will have now much more control over the portion that you do see.

From a business point of view, it makes perfect sense and will help Facebook claw back some of the $1bn they invested back in April 2012 when they bought the company. The network will become an even more attractive proposition to advertisers as it will be easier to match users to brands. The only real surprise is that it has taken them four years to do it.

This may not be such good news for those of us who enjoy the social aspects of the platform and who use it to do something creative just for the sake of it. For some months, there has been a steep drop-off in engagement, which suggests that they have been tinkering with the formula for a while now.

Predictably the response has been overwhelmingly negative, as it was when Twitter recently introduced similar changes. To date, a petition demanding they be reversed has attracted nearly 200,000 signatures. The reaction has also been quite telling in many cases among those who feel threatened. I have already seen plenty of users trying to limit their losses by begging followers to turn on the post-notification button so they don’t ‘miss out’. 

All this fuss has made me reflect on the part we have all played in making this once niche app evolve into the social media giant it is today. I have started to ask myself, have we now got the Instagram we deserve?

In the early days, it was all about the pleasure of sharing and seeing the world through the medium of filtered smartphone images. The photos may not have been of the best quality, but there was an endearing innocence and enthusiasm behind them.

Everyone used the same equipment (a phone) and were noticing things they would never have paid attention to before. Look, a puddle! Wow, an empty tunnel! Through the alchemy of its filters, Instagram was transforming the everyday and the mundane into the sublime (or at least cute).

The adrenaline rush of instant validation fuelled an addiction to photography for millions who had never been interested in it before. Admittedly, for most this only extended to taking photos of their lunch and themselves, but the simplicity and immediacy of it all was exhilarating. Within weeks of signing up, I was completely hooked.

It wasn’t all about sunsets and latte art. Users were (and still are) harnessing the app to do genuinely creative and exciting work, documenting each corner of the globe from every possible angle. It has also helped likeminded people connect with each other and forge lifelong friendships and relationships.

However, for those with only a casual knowledge of the app, it is almost entirely synonymous with the cult of the Selfie. As of today, there are over 275 million images tagged #selfie and it is a firmly embedded part of our society. The never-ending parade of pouting lips and false eyelashes may appear harmless enough, but it also says something about the darker side of Instagram and the narcissistic tendencies it can promote.

You don’t have to be an avid taker of selfies to be narcissistic – it can manifest itself in different ways. Pretentiousness, insincerity and vanity are traits I can’t stand in others so it is hard to admit I have been guilty of all these behaviours since I set up my account in 2012. I have lost count of how many times I indulged in delusions of grandeur about my pictures; complimented stuff I didn’t like; obsessively checked my stats and generally got carried away with my own self-importance. You practically couldn’t fit my head through the door on the two occasions I made the Suggested Users List.

As Instagram has grown, so have the photographic abilities and reputations of its users. The bar for quality is now set extremely high and most successful Instagrammers manage to keep their feet on the ground, but what happens when you start to believe your own hype?

It is barely noticeable at first. Someone starts to attract a lot of attention and the effort of replying to comments becomes too much, then an underlying arrogance creeps in. Unlike Twitter, where every perceived misdemeanour is jumped upon, it is taboo to say anything even mildly critical on Instagram. The relentless positive feedback loop can allow egos to balloon unchecked and the dynamic subtly shifts so that followers become ‘fans’; while captions and statements become increasingly egocentric and self-aggrandising. Add in some corporate sponsorship and before you know it the full effects of Instafame have taken hold. I have seen everything from people launching their own range of merchandise (baseball caps and hoodies anyone?) to turning themselves into a brand (constantly reinforced by self-coined inspirational slogans). We are all responsible for the rise of the Insta Ego Monsters because challenging these behaviours goes entirely against the grain. 

Then there are the adverts. I am not talking about the sponsored posts Instagram has been dropping into our feeds. As unwelcome as these are, at least you know one immediately when you see it. I am referring to the homemade ads, the ones that start when a flattering email from a PR company lands in your inbox asking you to promote a product in exchange for some free stuff.

Brands have been quick to cotton onto the power of creating publicity through social media. They can sign up a never-ending stream of eager talent to run campaigns on their behalf at a fraction of the cost of hiring a professional agency. This kind of insidious homespun advertising makes me feel queasy because it is dressed up as something ‘authentic’ and sincere when it is usually nothing of the kind.

Do I begrudge anyone earning money, holidays or gifts from their hobby? Not at all. I am aware that the platform has made a hugely positive impact on people’s lives (mine included) and that the good still far outweighs the bad. It is just that the commercial opportunities have undeniably created the perception of a select group of ‘power-users’ that get invited to all the cool parties and given all the freebies. This fosters an atmosphere of entitlement on one hand and resentment on the other.

It will be interesting to see if the changes reinforce this sense of elitism or if they start to level out the playing field. They may even turn out to be beneficial (and push those homemade ads to the bottom!). If we wean ourselves off our addiction to likes we might decide to take more risks; stop churning out the same crowd-pleasing stuff and take our work in a different direction.

I realise that complaining about things like narcissism and adverts on social media is futile and even naïve. For better or worse, Instagram in 2016 is a heady mixture of the creative, the cringeworthy and the commercial. There is no going back. This only dawned on me fully when someone whose work I have enjoyed and admired for years spent last week marketing shoes for a German sportswear company. I was irritated to see yet another advert but good for him I suppose – his creativity is making him money and he is getting a nice pair of trainers thrown into the bargain.

Instagram’s evolution from quirky photo-sharing app to multi-billion dollar business is now complete. Welcome to the Age of the Algorithm. To paraphrase Chuck Palahniuk in Fight Club, you are not a beautiful and unique snowflake; you are now a digital content provider competing with millions of other digital content providers to be seen. This is the Instagram we helped to create and this is the Instagram we deserve. It is still great fun, but it is hard to escape the feeling we have lost something along the way.

Grammed to Death? Locations and Instagram Clichés

 

Barking

Two years ago I found myself wandering around the dusty industrial heartlands of Barking and Dagenham. I had just started a project exploring London’s boroughs. I got some interesting shots of pylons and flood barriers, but had been walking for nearly four hours and was ready to drop. I only kept going because I knew the Holy Grail was just around the corner.

Some online research had led me to the Charlton Crescent Subway (above) – a colourful pedestrian tunnel dotted with LED lights. It is tucked underneath the A13 arterial road and hidden between nondescript residential streets. In many ways it is the perfect location. It offers plenty of opportunities to play with depth of field, converging lines and symmetry – in other words, Instagram gold dust.

I found it by running a search on Google Images looking for subways, tunnels, overpasses and underpasses in the area. Clearly I wasn’t the first person to take a photo of it but I can confidently lay claim to being the first to discover it for Instagram (tell me if you can see it posted anywhere earlier than June 2014). Over the months that followed, it started to appear all over IG and became one of the most popular photo spots in London.

Not once did anyone say where they had first seen the subway and I have to admit it irritated me at first. I had put in the research to find it and all of sudden everyone was going there and taking their own version of my shot. You cannot copyright a place of course, but some credit would have been nice.

Why did it bother me so much? Was it righteous indignation or plain old insecurity? Maybe I was worried someone would come up with a better image than me.

A similar thing happened during my first year on Instagram. It seemed that every time I posted a new photo of the London Underground, a user who followed me would go and take an almost identical shot a few days later. I didn’t pay too much attention to it at first (imitation is the sincerest form of flattery and all that) but as he never mentioned where he got the inspiration, it drove me mad eventually. I challenged him after the fifth or sixth time it happened and he said there was nothing wrong with what he was doing. I disagreed, we argued some more and ended up blocking each other.

Looking back at these episodes, I now realise that my reactions were petty and I might have prevented them arising simply by not geotagging my photos. At the time I naively thought Instagram was all about sharing ideas and giving credit where it was due. If I ever went to take a photo of a spot I had seen on someone’s feed I would always mention or tag them into the picture. I couldn’t understand why other people wouldn’t do the same.

I am a lot more relaxed about things like this now. Who was I kidding anyway? Locations go viral on Instagram just as cute little puppy videos go viral on YouTube. I have come to terms with the fact that I don’t ‘own’ any location and realise the subway in Barking would have been ‘discovered’ sooner or later and then instagrammed to death. That is just the nature of social media.

It amuses me that so many people are still reluctant to share their favourite photo spots, because it really isn’t that hard to find out where something is if you are prepared to put in a little donkey-work. For example, I saw this car park pop up several times on my feed and immediately wanted to visit it myself. I had no idea where it was but it took me about half an hour to track it down by googling as many London areas as I could think of along with the words ‘car park’ (it’s in Canary Wharf by the way). I could have just asked of course, but have been ignored enough times to know better.

Last month I met up with Lisa, a Seattle-based Instagrammer taking a year off to travel the world. She was staying in London for the New Year period, which gave us the chance to finally meet in person after following each other for years. We were chatting about photography and London when she mentioned that she had spent ages trying to find a tunnel at Kings Cross St Pancras Underground station. She finally found her way to it with the help of station staff and got the prized photo she wanted.

The tunnel in question opened in 2014 and every time I walk past, I see more people photographing its spectacular 90m long illuminated wall rather than using it a means of getting from one place to another. A year ago, I took Geny (visiting from the UAE) over to it and several months later, Marco from Italy asked me where he could find it. People from all over the world have been coming to Kings Cross Station to take a photo of a tunnel!

It occurred to me that Instagram is creating a new kind of tourism. Pedestrian walkways, spiral staircases and car parks are taking their place in London’s iconography alongside the traditional tourist meccas of Big Ben, Buckingham Palace and Tower Bridge. These previously unloved and obscure spots have become destinations in their own right purely because of their photographic potential. It is a phenomenon that is happening in urban centres all over the world. I can immediately recognise an apartment building in Hong Kong or an underground station in Stockholm because of the currency they have gained on Instagram.

I don’t see this as a bad thing because people are now seeing beauty where they didn’t see it before. It just makes originality that much harder when new places pass into cliché within a matter of days and weeks. Clichés are every where you look on Instagram: whether it be a superimposed plane here, an empty tunnel there, a vintage car on a leafy street or a group of posing twenty-somethings staring away from the camera. The images, locations and filters are immediately recognisable and somehow reassuring.

I enjoy a well-delivered cliché as much as anyone, it is just much more fun to try and put your own slant on a well-known place or theme. You can do this in multiple ways, either through straightforward photography, creative editing or a combination of both. I challenge myself to make the familiar look unfamiliar and I am now challenging you to do the same.

Below is a Google Map with all my favourite photo locations in London. It contains over 50 spots, including famous landmarks and places that are a little harder to track down. I will keep adding to it as I discover new ones. I hope it will be a useful resource to anyone who lives in London or is planning a visit. If you find it helpful and manage to get some good pictures out of it, do let me know – I would love to see them. Now go out and make these places your own!

 

Is it ever okay to #putaplaneonit?

Abstract plane

One of the best books I read last year was Jon Ronson’s So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed. It explores the phenomenon of internet shaming through the experiences of people whose lives have been ruined by the online reaction to a mistake they have made. In all cases, they suffer consequences that are massively disproportionate to the offence they committed. They include a journalist whose career was wrecked when it was discovered he had made up a quote; a PR executive vilified for tweeting a joke in poor taste and a careworker who was sacked from her job when a Facebook photo surfaced of her posing ‘disrespectfully’ in front a war memorial.

Ronson is disturbed by the way in which otherwise decent and sane people weigh in to these daily outpourings of self-righteous anger. Social Media has certainly given a platform to marginalised voices and reactions of this kind serve a useful purpose when holding corrupt governments or corporations to account. However, things start to look a lot more sinister when the target is an individual who has simply made a minor transgression.

The latest scapegoat of this mass outrage is Chay Yu Wei, an amateur photographer from Singapore. He won a Nikon photo competition for this image. The prize was a bag. It soon emerged that he had superimposed the plane using an app called Picsart. When Nikon found out, they cancelled the prize and Chay posted a lengthy apology.

Anyone interested in architectural images on Instagram would immediately spot that the plane was added in afterwards. It is a well-worn trope and over 8000 pictures are tagged #putaplaneonit. Some are done extremely well and others are clumsier. I made a video a couple of weeks ago gently mocking this whole trend of adding plane silhouettes. Some may find it irritating, but it is a harmless enough thing to do.

It turns out that Chay’s crime was not that he doctored his photo, but the fact that he misled people about it. When he originally posted it, someone asked him how long he had to wait for the plane to pass. He responded: “Not too long, I was lucky.” To make things worse, his picture looked very similar to one posted by a fellow Singaporean Lee Yik Keat (who freely admitted he added the plane afterwards). The backlash was furious. By yesterday afternoon it was the second highest trending article on the BBC website. The comments under his apology are initially supportive before getting increasingly aggressive:

“Lies, lies and more lies. Bellend.”

“…You should hang your head in absolute shame. If I were you, I’d give up photography…”

“Disgusting. Really disgusting. You have shamed photography.”

“Your apology is nothing but a half-ass attempt to reverse something you can’t turn around. Have a nice day, now go fuck yourself.”

“Kill yourself please.”

By adding a plane onto his photo, Chay had not only tricked his way into winning a competition, he had grievously undermined the integrity of photography as an art form. I was taken aback by the strength of feeling towards this and checked the Instagram profiles of those who expressed their disgust in such strong terms. I was expecting to find galleries filled with images that were perfectly exposed and told a moving story about the human condition. Instead I found gurning selfies, fluffy kittens and Starbucks lattes.

Nevertheless, this reaction gave me pause to think about the images I’ve created over the last couple of years. Here are just some of the sins I have committed:

In other words, I use almost every editing trick available to make my pictures.

There seems to be an expectation among the outraged commenters that photography has to be ‘real’ and reveal the ‘truth’. Yet creative editing has been around as long as the medium itself. Whilst the likes of Vivian Maier, Ansel Adams, Diane Arbus and Henri Cartier-Bresson have elevated it to a serious art form, there has always been a more playful side to it as these 19th century trick photos demonstrate.

I had long enjoyed playing with different apps but got more interested in editing when a combination of family circumstances curtailed the time I had to go out and take new photos. As frustrated as I was not to be able to develop my skill as a photographer, I found a new creative outlet and it was completely liberating. The reaction on Instagram has generally been positive until recently when someone wrote: “Please stop adding people silhouettes, they’re so much better without!”

This made me think, what do people expect from my images and should I care? The etiquette on Instagram means that comments are almost always supportive so when a rare critical one appears, (even one as mild as that) it makes you think about what you’re doing.

The answer is that I do care because otherwise why bother sharing pictures online in the first place? The important thing to keep in mind is that it is all meant to be fun. None of us are journalists risking our lives to take photos from a warzone, so does it matter if our photos are 100% realistic or not? Nobody complains that the latest Star Wars film has been computer generated, so why can’t the same thing apply to images shared on social media?

The key is to be open about it. I don’t explicitly state if or how I have edited a picture, but it usually pretty easy to tell. If asked how I created it, I will happily share my editing techniques and say what apps I used. The medium of photography is surely big enough to accommodate realism and creative editing. People only get upset when they think you are trying to deceive them in some way. Chay went wrong by pretending his image was something it wasn’t. He still doesn’t deserve the abuse though. If anything the competition organisers are at fault for not spotting something so obvious.

So if you ever feel tempted to #putaplaneonit, own up to it from the start and nobody will mind.

Mobile Photography and Me

It is 5.30am on a bright Saturday morning in August 2013. My wife Amanda is fast asleep but I have been up for half an hour already. I take a last gulp of coffee, pull on my hoodie and kiss her. She murmurs goodbye as I shut the door. I am two weeks into my quest to photograph all 270 London Underground stations with my iPhone and the first tube will be leaving shortly. Today I will be tackling the eastern section of the Central Line. It promises exotic locations such as Snaresbrook, Hainault and Theydon Bois; names that previously only existed for me on Harry Beck’s iconic map. Over the next three months, I will make countless journeys like this covering hundreds of miles across every corner of London.

What prompted this strange and somewhat geeky adventure? Our baby was due in a few months and I felt anxious about impending fatherhood and all the changes it would bring. The project was a useful distraction to keep the nerves at bay. There was something more to it though; something which began 20 months earlier when I bought a new phone and downloaded Instagram. Since then, I had been gripped with a compulsion to go out every day and take photos.

Before this, photography was something I only did when on holiday or for the occasional family birthday party. Instagram suddenly gave me a reason to take pictures. The shyness I felt when holding a normal camera evaporated when using the phone. It was like wearing an invisibility cloak. Instead of feeling awkward and self-conscious, it gave me the confidence to snap away without worrying about the strange looks of people passing by.

My first Instagram post - 4th January 2012

My first Instagram post – 4th January 2012

The first picture I uploaded was this rather dull view from our balcony. In the weeks that followed I posted heavily saturated pictures of food, buildings, cafés, football matches and underground stations (I’ll come back to them later). A few likes and comments trickled in and I was soon following other accounts and liking their images. The positive feedback loop was both motivating and addictive. Instagram back then wasn’t the social media giant it has evolved into now. It was a tight-knit community of people taking, editing and sharing photos on their mobile phones. The concept of mobile photography as a separate branch of mainstream photography was taking off and there was a great enthusiasm about discussing new techniques and learning from each other.

I gradually found my own style and discovered what subjects interested me. I enjoyed photographing buildings and normally busy spaces completely empty. I loved finding vanishing points in tunnels, alleyways and corridors. I founded the #extremedepth tag to celebrate these deep perspective shots. My commute to and from work was now taking in strange detours all over London. In the early days I attempted street photography too. I wanted to try out as many styles as I could and it took up nearly all of our spare time (fortunately Amanda was just as hooked as I was). To give you an idea of exactly how much time, I posted 876 photos in that first year alone – double the amount of the next three years put together.

The picture that won me 'Photobox Mobile Photographer of the Year 2012'

The picture that won me ‘Photobox Mobile Photographer of the Year 2012’

At the end of 2012, things got exciting. My picture above taken at Tottenham Court Road station helped me win a national photo competition and a shiny new iPhone. I was presented with the award at a swanky event in Shoreditch and the photo was in the paper the following morning. After that my work appeared in publications in Germany and Italy as well as here in the UK. I felt as if I was at the heart of an exciting new artistic movement which might even lead to a new career.

It didn’t quite work out like that and any delusions of grandeur I might have been harbouring faded quickly enough. Still, my passion for mobile photography was undiminished. I took a more measured approach the following year; limiting the photos I shared online to what I considered to be my best work. I then came up with ideas for photo projects and tried out publishing my pictures as a series based around a certain theme – handrails, restaurants and launderettes were just some of them.

The London Underground was my favourite subject so it was the obvious choice for a project. People seemed to like my Tube photos and with practice I became attuned to the flows and rhythms of people so I could take the shot in that tiny pocket of time when the platform or tunnel was empty. Without the people blocking the view, these places take on a strange beauty and offer endless opportunities to play with depth of field and perspective.

Tube270

I can’t remember how it was I decided to visit all 270 stations but the challenge of completing the task before our baby was born appealed to me immediately. I christened it ‘Tube270’. Monumental levels of geekiness were involved and I soon found myself studying timetables and drawing up spreadsheets. The support and encouragement I received on Instagram gave me momentum and I finished the project on 15th November 2013. Mia was born exactly three weeks later.

Things start to get abstract.

Things start to get abstract.

Mia’s birth was an event that began the shift to the kind of images I produce now. Over the last two years, life has been full of extremes. I have tried to balance the joys and demands of parenthood with being there for my own Dad who was diagnosed with leukaemia in July 2014. He tragically passed away last September aged just 61. During his illness, photography and Instagram seemed very trivial, but they did at least offer a welcome form of escapism. With free time to take new shots almost non-existent, I started revisiting and reinventing my old photos using a combination of apps, taking my work down a completely different route.

I still go out and take photos, but I now get just as much of a buzz from transforming the original image into something else entirely through the editing process. I have become obsessed with symmetry, lines, geometry, shapes and perspective. My ideal picture would have most, if not all of these ingredients. I no longer care about realism, just as long as the final result makes a strong and immediate visual impact.

I hope this site will not only provide a home for my pictures to live outside of Instagram but a place to talk and share ideas about mobile photography, apps and editing techniques. I still feel there is unlimited creative potential to explore within this medium and I am committed to pushing its limits as far as possible.