Is Instagram Really Cheating The Photography World?

Instagram has been a topic of much debate over the last month or so across various photography discussion sites. Part of this would probably be that after a long wait the platform finally got released for Android this week, but what I want to discuss is a recent CNN piece by highly regarded news photographer Nick Stern, which outlined some bitterness towards the application that had over 10 million downloads in its first year alone on the iPhone market.

The article jumped on Instagram and other vintage-filter-style photo applications for, as the title says, “Cheating the viewer”. He continues to outlay many points I can agree with and understand his frustrations on; spending thousands on equipment, years of perfecting technique, and the combination of being quick on the draw in the right positioning vs. time spent tweaking every aspect of a shot to make it perfect for one’s purpose. It has taken decades for Stern to portray what he wants to get across in his work and I’d imagine he continues to be inspired and learn to this day With this in mind, the idea that someone with no knowledge or practice of such an art can spend peanuts downloading an app that does it all for you at the click of a button could feel like a slap in the face. I can’t say I blame Nick for being a bit angry about that aspect of photography applications.

However, there are parts of Stern’s argument that I find myself disagreeing with.

For a start, I personally am yet to see an Instagram photo used in all seriousness as an integral artistic piece, but only as a bit of fun. You could argue that there are people out there giving such photos attention, I literally just now entered “Instagram community” into a search engine and found three sites dedicated to the art of Instagram in the top 5 results. This personally doesn’t bother me, but to talk down on these communities is no better than turning your nose up to a group of amateur photographers because their work isn’t as good as yours. No one is going to deny the skill and knowledge it takes in professional photography over one-click phone photography, and if they do their opinion is most likely not worth anyone’s time.

Which leads me to my next point; we all had to start somewhere when we got into our chosen art. I doubt there are many photographers reading this who can turn around and tell me that the first photo they took was on an SLR. Older photographers may have found an interest from disposable and Polaroid film cameras, where as a younger photographer in their 20s may have been inspired by a digital camera. I see phone photography applications in the same light as technology has progressed. It’s great that a mainstream medium still exists to get people into the arts when so many have disappeared over the years from lack of interest or funding (tried being in a band lately? Even for relatively successful musicians it remains a part-time job at best, expensive hobby for most).

Applications like Instagram should be reassuring to see your profession and livelihood are still alive and kicking. At the very least it’s going to encourage a few people to pick up a camera and give real photography a go. As a film maker my first experience of shooting video was on a cheap camcorder consisting of mainly auto-settings ten years ago. Back then any respectable film maker with the correct tools could have frowned upon that, but in retrospect it was an early stepping stone on my path to learning.

One thing I found strangest about Stern’s piece was the reference to phone applications cheating photography on a whole. Without opening up another can of worms, what is so wrong with automatic settings? Why is getting someone or something that can do a better job involved so wrong? Does this take away from the integrity or meaning or the piece just because you used a built in setting as opposed to doing it all from scratch? If I ask someone else to proof read this article will my points be any more (or less) valid? Technology has evolved to make our lives easier. We now have tools and resources the generation before us dreamed of to make their jobs easier. I say we embrace them.

And finally, the way the media reports news has come on leaps and bounds as technology has opened new doors, in favour of reporter and viewer. What was once only visible if a professional videographer or photographer was on the scene can be documented and seen via an object most of us carry in our pockets at all times. Furthermore it can be uploaded and shared to the world at the press of a button. Does a professional photo that has been staged and planned to portray an emotion really have more meaning than a photo taken via camera phone by a solider in the middle of a war zone just because he lacked artistic vision? I say this as I have a literal example; a friend from my teenage years who is now in the US Marines uploaded this photo from his phone to Facebook around a month ago whilst waiting for deployment to the Middle-East. This photo portrayed many raw emotions with no expensive equipment, editing, skill, knowledge and more than likely no awareness of how the eye of the beholder would perceive it.

At a time when everything we see on TV seems to be edited, fixed, staged or polished for the Hollywood viewing experience I don’t mind the odd bit of gritty realism, even if it has been spruced up with some auto-filter settings. And who’s to say that isn’t an aspect that makes something an art or expression in itself?

That or maybe I’m being too kind and Stern is right; everyone really is just a Hipster…

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Daniel Callis works in Digital Marketing at OKO. Outside of the 9 to 5 job he also makes films under the name Callis Makes Films.