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?