With the news that Instagram's focus has shifted to be far less centered around images, many photographers who have spent years building their following and brand on the app are left out in the cold. This isn't the first, nor will it be the last time you are reminded of the dangers of building a large part of your business on someone else's platform.
Social media has been a revelation, of that there is no doubt. It has had a profoundly positive impact on the world in many regards, though its influence on modern society and its members is not wholly good. With that said, many businesses and industries have managed to harness the power of social media for their own ends, and photographers are undoubtedly one of them. Through the reach that social media platforms have afforded us, we have not only been able to develop wide and populated audiences, but we have also been able to find new clients and turn ourselves into a brand. It's not uncommon to hear people say that artists can get more eyes on their work than anyone in human history could have dreamed of previously, and while it's true, there are caveats. Firstly, very few of those eyes are meaningful, keen eyes, there for your work. Secondly, the platform on which they are viewing your work is rarely your own, and again, they're very rarely there for you.
This isn't to say that those eyes are not valuable or desirable, but it's important to remember that you aren't the main attraction. While that wouldn't matter if the platform was persistent and unchanging, it can become an issue when you have built a following for your work on a platform designed for it, then that platform changes or disappears.
Instagram Is No Longer a Photo Sharing Platform
When Instagram launched a decade ago, it would have been difficult to predict that it would evolve into anything that wasn't centered around photographs. At first, I wasn't particularly interested in the app — it seemed like a niche platform you could take photographs and put filters over the top of them, rather than something aimed at photographers — but, I was eventually lured into trying it. It was restrictive (square crop only) but enjoyable, and the algorithms that dictated your success and views were intuitive. I became a little obsessed with getting more followers and more likes, which can be seen as a negative reaction, but its impact on my desire to create more and better images was positive at least.
Over the last few years, however, I have grown increasingly disillusioned with the app, to the point where I no longer post to it. Where once I was getting clients and growing analytics, a change from the chronological feed, followed by myriad other prescriptive alterations to who sees what meant it became frustrating and demotivating. I more or less gave up on using Instagram altogether, but that's because I didn't get particularly "big" to begin with. Photographers with six-figure (or more) followings could still harness it to make money and get unimaginable exposure. So, what's the problem?
Instagram has openly stated that they are moving away from photo sharing and photography, with a stronger focus on the more contemporary desires of social media users. You can see the Head of Instagram's Tweet about this here.
At Instagram, we’re always trying to build new features that help you get the most out of your experience. Right now, we’re focused on four key areas: Creators, Video, Shopping, and Messaging.
— Adam Mosseri, Head of Instagram
As our writer, Andy Day, said in his recent article about Instagram, this change isn't sudden to anyone who has been paying attention. While Instagram was one a purist app with enforced limitations that played an integral role in its identity, it has moved in many different directions since. The reasons for this are a debate for another article, though I'm sure other apps vying for Instagram's crown are key to it, as a lot of the changes mimic other platforms. Regardless of the why, this raises some issues and warnings for Instagram's users.
The Punishment for Loyalty
There are many users who subscribed to Instagram's original vision and built sizable portions of their photography businesses on the platform. There was a time — and not that long ago, might I add — where I would be discussing working with clients and they would have a minimum follower requirement on the brief or would require access to back-end analytics from your Instagram account. This was refined over time, and micro-influencers — that is, people who didn't have huge followings, but specialized, niche ones instead — were popular in different sectors.
To give a personal example, my commercial photography for watch brands, where I would do 100+ frame macro stacks and fashion shoots, was finding its way in front of other watch brands and watch collectors. A watch brand I was working with once offered me a discount code that would give me a commission for every sale I made for them. In a couple of months, I made so many sales that they had to cancel the code and took over a year to pay me. This was purely through Instagram. Then, there are the many clients I acquired through either talking to them on Instagram, them commenting on my images, or them reaching out to me in direct messages. Instagram was the lifeblood of that area of my business.
My story is only a small example, remember. There are photographers who have built large, successful businesses on Instagram, and they're now in a quandary. Either they pivot more to video, shorts, and whatever else Instagram forces upon its user base with its ever-changing algorithm, or they find a new home and start, more or less, from scratch.
The Warning and Summary
This may seem as if it's a tirade against Instagram — and I admit, I'm not their biggest fan anymore — but the warning is bigger than that. These social media platforms that many of us creatives work hard to build followings on and then aim to monetize to some degree have us building a farm on someone else's land, and that land can be taken back at any point. The history of this is unfortunately rich; we've had musicians who had most of their listeners on MySpace, Facebook pages that had their interaction rates drop by 95% overnight, Vine content creators left homeless once the app was closed, YouTubers who have been demonetized or had their accounts deleted after years on the platform — the list goes on. These platforms and apps may be fun for most of their users, but for creators, they can be their primary source of income.
Now, for clarity, I'm not suggesting you avoid using social media or the various content-sharing platforms, but rather that you diversify your presence as much as possible. It can be time-consuming and tiring, but it's a necessary evil for survival if your success hinges on your following. A connected piece of advice would be to drive traffic from these platforms to your own website as much as possible; that's land you own. Today, there are too many ways you can lose your following on a platform, through anything from the app closing to cancel culture, and you must safeguard against that. Right now, TikTok is one of the most powerful apps for marketing, and many people are putting a lot of time into creating behind-the-scenes footage of their shoots or educational shorts, but like all the apps that came before it, TikTok's supremacy will not last forever. By all means, harness the reach and power available to us with modern technology, but do so sensibly and avoid the calamity of losing that one basket with the majority of your eggs.