Instagram: The Death of Original Perception and Photographs

Instagram: The Death of Original Perception and Photographs

I recently read an insightful Instagram post, made by Outside magazine. In this post, creative director Emma Sheffer spoke of a loss of originality and the current saturation of homogeneity in Instagram feeds. With her comments, I couldn't agree more.

Before I jump off the diving board, I think it should be made clear that this article you're about to read is definitely an opinion article, and that this dynamic and layered idea has been tossed back and forth for quite some time now. A few months ago, I wrote an Fstoppers article that touched upon this thought, and so did another Fstoppers writer back in August of 2018 in a piece titled, "Are You a Photographer Copycat?". 

To begin, I'd like to reference to my own article linked above, and the Instagrammer/Influencer whom I spoke with that day. One thing he mentioned that really stuck and that I want to reiterate is that he wasn't fully invested into photography as a creative pursuit and art world. Yes, he is a person who creates, but stated he wasn't and isn't fully invested in the creative industry in terms of its history and creative bounds. He is using the camera and Instagram to travel and make a living, which is totally fine. But, he's also someone who is defining and setting the trends in the creative world. 

Second, I think we have to ponder an important question: what is originality? According to the Merriam-Webster dictionary, originality means the quality or state of being original; freshness of aspect, design or style; or the power of independent thought or constructive imagination. 

Immediately, many thoughts come to mind. The main question being: "Can anything be original anymore?" It's an argument and idea that's tossed back and forth over and over again each time this particular Instagram debate arises. Personally, I think yes. If we run with the idea of originality as a "freshness of aspect, design or style," then original ideas, products, services and views of the world are very much still possible, and they happen every day. An example of this is Reuben Wu and his series, "Aeroglyphs." 

One of the beauties of life and of being a conscious human is realizing and understanding that most every single person in the world has his/her own way of viewing the world, based on life experiences, the way he/she was raised, who his/her mentors and teachers are and were, etc.

So, if we can agree that most every human on this planet has his/her own thoughts on subjects and views on the world (yes, including creatives!), then why is there so much uniformity in our current popular trends on social media platforms, and Instagram in particular? 

For instant proof of this idea, all we have to do is look at Sheffer's InstaRepeat Instagram account. Literally, the entire account simply posts side-by-side grid comparisons of same types of images that were posted on Instagram in order to display this topic. But again, why is this happening?

As Sheffer alludes to in her Outside post, and as Aldo Chacon stated in his 2018 article, one huge, possible reason for this uniformity among posts on Instagram could be because of the "Instagrammer" culture and business model. As Chacon said: "With platforms like Instagram and Facebook becoming more popular than ever, photographers are now being discovered by clients through social media. This has caused photographers to imitate one another because of the feeling that that's what's in fashion and that's what will get them work. All these new trends are basically people trying to create what others are making money from, mostly being nature-oriented photos, lifestyle photos or semi-naked photos." And as Sheffer said, "Instagram is a popularity contest and that breeds homogeneity: just think about high school cliques."

I'm not trying to point fingers and by any means say that Instagrammers/Influencers are destroying the professional creative world. Or to say that they're ruining original views on the world and the creation of original photographs ... because they're not. But rather, perhaps we should be pointing fingers at ourselves. Do we want to keep perpetuating the trends set by Instagrammers/Influencers and others who are creating the same types of images?

Copycating, especially within the creative world, has been happening for ages. As the saying goes, "mimicry is the ultimate compliment." But, I believe that identical work, and the way non-art-trained masses perceive this work, has been amplified because of the easiness of social media, in particular Instagram and its "popularity" culture. Thus, we as the masses and also as creative professionals, have potential to fall into a creative black hole, which it could be argued has already happened.

And to clarify my comment regarding the way non-art-trained masses perceive creative work... I don't mean this to be rude or pretentious at all. What I mean to say is that I believe there is a clear difference in the way imagery is looked at and judged between professionals in the creative world, like photo editors and art directors, with a trained eye for visual arts, and those who do not have the same training, lessons or mentorship. I would argue that most of Instagram users who are liking, copying, and perpetuating the popular Instagram trends (as seen in InstaRepeat's Instagram account), do not have said creative-world lessons, mentorship or training. Another way to think of this is if an architecture or engineering student went to Rome versus someone who has little or no appreciation for architecture and engineering. A trained student's mind and eye will have a much more professional and educated opinion and thought on Rome's incredible buildings and history than someone who has little-to-no awareness of the subject matter. 

So what can we do about this topic? For starters, perhaps we should start to (and for those who currently are, continue to) create and share images that are original, coming straight from our own hearts, minds and souls. Of course there are artistic "rules" and guidelines to follow, like the rule of thirds and color theory, but those are also meant to be broken. Perhaps we should create a new trend: rather than create and share an image based on what is popular and what you think might get you thousands and thousands of likes, create and share an image that's personal, or tells a personal story, or comes from your own experiences in and views on the world. Perhaps we can create a new trend of leaving the current trend, and sticking to what we want to create because we personally enjoy it, not because we think others will. 

So, although I do think there is a high potential that Instagram's current creative trends can end, or contribute to the downfall of original views on the world and original imagery, I don't think it will happen. Thinking of work like Wu's "Aeroglyph" series gives me hope, and I think there needs to be a greater spotlight pointed back onto ourselves as fellow creatives and perpetuators of art and photographs. 

I'm incredibly curious to hear your thoughts about this topic in the comments section below. If Instagram and the internet were to evaporate tomorrow, and getting client and editorial work went back to sending in physical portfolios, who would get the work? Would it be all those creating the same types of imagery, or would it be those who simply create what they want to create, skillfully and differently? What is your personal perception? Do you think that simply being original will be a new trend? Do you think this is an issue at all? Do you think that everyone should simply quiet down and just conform to the current trend? Why or why not? 

Tim Behuniak's picture

Timothy Behuniak is a Salt Lake City-based landscape and outdoor adventure photographer who's passionate about getting lost in the woods with his camera. Tim's hope is that his viewers, like him, will one day love and fight to protect the beautiful locations he is fortunate to photograph.

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It's an interesting issue and a good read. I feel as if a lot of people misinterpret what @insta_repeat shows. It's not the death of originality as much as it's the gargantuan influx of images. Everyone has a camera now, most of which aren't "photographers" in the purist sense. So with more images than ever before, there are going to be more accidental duplicates. That paired with more people with cameras than ever before, means there'll also be more replicas. I don't think it's a worrying sign of a lack of originality in the arts, though perhaps I'm off base here!

I disagree it’s accidental. More people have access to a camera. Which means more people who want to be instantly famous take images. More people with no creativity with cameras see others who earn $$$ through a single post. Of course they’re going to copy what’s currently trending and what they think is successful.

IG also doesn’t reward originality. It rewards people who spend. Originality will not win with IG as it’s now an e- com platform.

The Insta Repeats are not accidental dupes, the are well planned dupes.There are a lot pf people who go to Yosemite for the tunnel view or stand where everyone stands to shoot the Taj Mahal or the canyon where the light shines in to get the trophy shot. Now with IG it's pretty girls wearing skirts and big hats or the bearded dudes with a dog and a vintage jeep or motorcycle. I don't know how many are after the $$$ than are after the "photo". But there seems to be a lot of people getting free stuff and "paid to travel" shooting the same thing LoL. More power to 'em!

I agree with your line of thought, Andy. And I think that Instagram's algorithm has something to do with it, too. It seems that if you perform the way the algorithm wants you to, then you will succeed. And that just very much so might mean following the current trend..

Similarly, I don’t think this is really a new issue in the social media age. However, Instagram just amplifies what’s always been the case. People look at what’s out there in their field, and what they think looks good or will get them paid is what is gravitated towards in their future work. Nothing really different than any other time beside the quantity.

I agree - it's always been happening. But perhaps the rate at which it's currently happening is an issue or something new in the creative industry that should be talked about.

I agree in that I think it's just a question of numbers. With the huge saturation of cameras and the ability to see every single photo ever shot, we're going to see duplicates. I recall visiting Niagara Falls in the late 1950s and every single person was taking the very same shot from the very same location. Maybe there was some differences in the cropping or angles, but there was very little originality there, and that was 60 years ago. Take that and multiply the number of cameras by 100, and have the ability to see every single shot and of course you'll see duplication.

Great read. As McLuhan wrote, the medium is the message.

Thanks, Andy!

I don't believe it's accidental. It's intended imitation by non-photographers who see other people's work that they like. They, quite simply, want their own personalised version. And now that we all have cameras, it couldn't be easier to recreate it.

When I was at art school, we'd learn our trade by imitating Warhol's Marilyn and Campbell's Soup series etc. Along the way some of us found our own particular style and went on to make money. And some of us didn't - and moved over to photography, and still didn't. ;-)

Thanks, Robert! Interesting angle and insight on your end. I think it could be open to interpretation, and I could very well be the one off base!

Cue the violin.

"I recently read an insightful Instagram post,"

I have a feeling that is the first time that sentence has ever been thought up and posted online. Ever.

I think the term Postmodernism is applicable.
I mean if you really did have, training and mentorship in the arts, that would be the term that describes this trend.

noun: postmodernism; noun: post-modernism

a late-20th-century style and concept in the arts, architecture, and criticism that represents a departure from modernism and has at its heart a general distrust of grand theories and ideologies as well as a problematical relationship with any notion of “art.”

Not sure I fully follow this, but interesting insight!

Cliff notes version.
Nothing is original.
Everything is a derivative of previous work.

I agree, but to an extent. I think original work is still possible. But Picasso said, "The greatest artists are often the greatest thieves." .... But is what's going on online in the trend necessarily "great art?"

Mostly no. The worst offenders, for the most part, aren't trying to do anything but increase followers to increase their income. Unless you consider making money online an art form.

I believe the opinions and tastes of the "non-art-trained masses" are equal in value to those of the most masterful artist, although different in depth of understanding about the nature of the experience of the art-piece being viewed. The reason these same compositions get repeated over and over and over is because they WORK. That's why they get taught over and over and over.

If you take a class on composition, they will instruct a person to take photos in the exact way these "non-art-trained masses" are doing in all of these repetitive photos. The proliferation of generally great composition (the way they teach you to do it anyway) in such high volumes on the internet is really more of a victory in terms of higher levels artistic sensibilities being woven into the fabric low-art of the masses - raising the overall standards of photography at large and revealing that some of this stuff we "artists" do just isn't that hard. And that is a great revelation for any artist to have because it should drive them to explore something new instead of just coasting on their reliance on proven safe compostions. These copy-cat instagram photos should be like the universe saying, "yeah man, we get it. waterfalls are cool. Why don't you get off your ass and try to do something original for once in your life! Or don't, just shoot whatever gets you off man!" - at least that is what I hear the universe saying to me. =)

What is it saying to you all?

Interesting thought! I definitely agree in that opinions can be equal in value, but think there is a difference in an uneducated vs. educated opinion. And as for your second graph, I think that's an interesting take -- perhaps we could use this as more motivation to do something different in our work.

We don't disagree on anything here. I just think this is a fascinating topic which I engage with my friends on regularly. =)

tl;dr - Originality is hard, and its value depends on what perspective you come from. Also, the proliferation of photography (cliches and all) and the platforms in which we view it will ultimately set the stage for new innovations we cannot see yet.


Originality evolves in cycles that usually start (and restart) with some simple inspiration which prompts some sort of artistic innovation which is eventually followed by popularization, then followed by mimicry, followed by proliferation, followed by over-saturation, followed by new innovation to show how old and boring the previous innovation has become... only until 20 years later when the first innovation becomes cool again. Originality is a self-eating animal.

Every interesting concept that people stumble upon and proliferates eventually gets exhausted and beat into the ground. But these concepts get reborn over and over, evolving with each new birth.

A once "original" concept doesn't become bad simply because it gets copied, but the positive vibes we feel grow duller and duller with each iteration - each one "technically" unique, but cliche in concept. We get bored as viewers and artists and feel pushed to move on to something new. This is GREAT for real art and real artists even as it makes it more difficult. But few things worth a sh#t are easy - which is kind of the whole point for most artists anyway.

As artists (as opposed to the general non-artistic masses simply dipping their toes into art forms) most of the time we don't hail great art or artists "simply" for originality (although somethings are so innovative we can't help but be humbled by them). It's that originality combined with some sort of technical prowess and intentionality that usually gets elevated the most, at least by other artists and educated fans of whatever artform we're talking about. But we are also moved by what makes us "feel" something - and what makes us "feel" something isn't always as original or technically difficult as we wish it were (especially when we see 1000 other people doing the exact same thing)... which should make any artist question whether what they are doing that is so "original" and "technically impressive" is worth all the damn effort. Personally, I have always swung back and forth on that pendulum.

This is usually the area where the "masses" make their low-art... at the level of simply trying to evoke or capture a feeling not caring much about the "artistic quality" of what they create. Once they get close, that's usually good enough for them. Or maybe they do have some undeveloped artistic sensibility, but little desire to go deep with it and just follow well worn paths (like standard photo compositions we see all over the place).

But we are all simply points on a multi-dimensional spectrum. The spectrum isn't simply a line between what is allegedly "good" or "bad," "original" or "cliche" based on the opinions of the supposed masters of some artistic field. They too are merely points on the spectrum. What the masses are doing in those same artistic fields should matter because the proliferation of concepts that get repeated until they are annoying act like dogs on the heels of art as a whole. Among real artists (whatever the hell that means) those dogs thin out the heard and the strongest artists and strongest art usually emerges regardless of what else is going on.

What seemed like a revelation yesterday can become old news real f##king fast in the art world.

It's never going to get easier, and the "Master Photographers" (or even just the pretty good pros) will have to continually up their game (or settle into their own niche) until the end of time. Instagram and all of the copycats therein are only the harbinger of doom for the posers who "think" they are legit. True innovative artists will still continue to rise to the top... it's just that "the top" gets higher and higher all the time. At least an influencer who sees photography as a means to other ends instead of an artistic path of its own is being honest about their connection to photography.

There are a lot of people out there who want to be thought of as "artists" but instead of just putting their nose down and doing the work to become good at their art would rather complain about how homogenized everything has become mainly because they don't actually have any new ideas themselves (and are sad they can't impress people with the same lazy cliches everyone else is already using). Or maybe they're just sick of seeing the cliches but are annoyed they can't think of anything better. The internet in general and Instagram specifically has simply revealed how hard it is to truly be innovative in photography by allowing us to see a massively larger sample of what people are doing as a whole from the end to end along every artistic spectrum.

I think everyone should just set their own standards and get on with life. =)

I think there may also be a shift to redefining what photography is, particular between different genres. If you're overwhelmed by mediocre examples of images, you're going to start believing that's what photography is meant to be; if you try to break from the cliches and the trends the average user is going to turn their nose up when they find an exceptional example of work, that doesn't fit in with what everybody else is doing.

My perspective is street photography centric, it's a very hard genre to master, and 99% of instagram accounts post terrible content, but because they're big accounts, you often see a massive shift in the definition of street photography to match those big accounts.

I don't blame people for being copy cats though, the modern world seems to be teaching us that you don't have to put a lot of work into quality, or even following a moral code to be successful.

Polishing turds as frequently as possible appear to be the order of the day.

Saying that though, I'm naive enough to believe hitting the like button on a photo means that a person likes it, rather than just wanting to support somebody, or just blindly hitting the like buttons loads and loads of times without taking the content in at all.

Is this really any different than ~90% of all photography over the years? Even when restricted to "professional" photographers. How different or creative are all the family portraits taken in past years in the mall portrait shops, the individual school or athletic team shots of kids, or senior photos for most graduates. Even the vast majority of wedding photos. The only difference is that now these photos all get shared for everyone to see without visiting everyone's home to look at the pictures on their walls or in the wedding album on their coffee table. I'd go farther even and say the same percentage of original paintings suffer from the same similarities, there just aren't as many of them, especially as now almost everyone over 10 routinely carries a camera with them at all times.

I almost hate railing on the IG copy culture because it's a platform designed for influencers. It works well!

I am fairly new to Instagram. I just started my account there this past November. I have really enjoyed becoming part of the Instagram community.

I think that the attitude we have toward Instagram should be the same as the attitude we should have toward anything - to see the good in it and to embrace the positive. There is a lot of good about Instagram. There are also some problems that arise because of Instagram's massive popularity. It behooves us to find what is right about Instagram and to make the most of that.

Is there a lot of "copycat' imagery on Instagram? Yes, of course. There is a lot of copycat imagery everywhere - on magazine pages and on wall calendars and on greeting cards and in art galleries - why would Instagram be any different?

But there is also a lot of really compelling imagery on Instagram that showcases people's creativity and originality. Every day on Instagram I see wildlife and bird photos that are unlike any other wildlife and bird photos that I have ever seen before. People are finding new and different ways to photograph common subjects and posting their results on Instagram. It is quite inspiring!

I have learned a lot from the other photographers that I meet on Instagram. I learn about different animals and the places where they live because others are willing to share not only their photographs, but the information behind the photographs - the back story. This doesn't make me want to go to those same places and take the same kinds of photos that these people have taken. Rather, it gives me the information that I need to go find these animals and get to know them and their habitats, and then to photograph them in my own way.

I don't know anything about the economics of Instagram, so I can't really comment on that aspect of it.

Fantastic article! As professional photographers and artist/creatives, the issue of conformity on Instagram is definitely something more of us are aware of and questioning. I think it's just a natural process of the evolution of social media. I would say we are still in the infancy stage of this medium. The commercialisation of Instagram, ie the proliferation of selling a service or product is in direct contrast to the values of creating art. Selling stuff on Instagram may sustain the existence of Instagram but has a destructive effect on the creative process.
As an artist, one can spend weeks or months creating new work, and then only have a small number of images to communicate the concepts and ideas of the work. Whereas the algorithms of the Instagram platform (ie the rules of playing the game) demands that users post/exhibit work every day, 365 days a year which is completely unnatural and unachievable (not to mention an undesirable burden/pain in the a**) unless you're selling a product or service.
Part of the problem is this phenomenon of likes and followers which has turned users into slaves/addicts for instant gratification. This gratification can be reproduced through the repetition of similar imagery (here lies the absence of originality) to produce the desired outcome over and over to contribute to this tally of likes of followers - the value of art is commodified into a popularity contest not a chance to evoke meaning, thought or contemplation. It is an unnatural and unhealthy behaviour that needs to change.
We can even question who should own such a platform as it is now entirely about commercial gain and the harvesting of information to further aid this commercial gain.
A shift in our attitudes will bring about new platforms to meet our needs as photographers and all sorts of creatives.

Nice article, Tim. I enjoyed it.