Originality Is Dead: Long Live Instagram

Originality Is Dead: Long Live Instagram

Instagram is awash with copycat images, from yellow jackets in front of waterfalls to feet dangling off rooftops. But given that we supposedly value originality so highly, why does mimicry proliferate across social media, and why is it so successful? More importantly, is it killing our capacity for new ideas?

Homogenization

With over 100 million photographs and videos uploaded to Instagram every day, and more than 50 billion shared to date, it's inevitable that there is going to be a lot of repetition. When you also factor in that the vast majority of users are aged between 18 and 29, certain themes are going to emerge. And sure, endless photographs of perfect flat whites and people holding up the Leaning Tower of Pisa are inevitable, but certain tropes seem less likely: the yellow jacket, the white Land Rover, and of course, the ubiquitous orange and teal filter.

In his book Civilization, Niall Ferguson wrote a damning indictment of contemporary life. It's a paradox, he suggests, "that an economic system designed to offer infinite choice to the individual has ended up homogenising humanity." Never before in human history have so many people worked so hard to establish themselves as individuals through exactly the same means: consuming near-identical products — and taking the same photographs.

The Monetization of Popularity

Last week, Passion Passport interviewed the curator behind the Instagram profile @insta_repeat, an account (covered recently by Fstoppers) that collates 12 incredibly similar images taken by photographers exploring wild locations. While the account itself seems quite cynical, the curator is surprisingly insightful of what she is creating. Rather than identifying random tropes, she's picking out people who consider themselves to be photographers. These are accounts that, rather than producing something artistic, are instead "selling a lifestyle" that is "monetized by brand sponsorship." To her, the volume of repetition is a product of the "monetization of popularity," something that reduces risk-taking and originality.

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Somebody plz explain why this is a thing đź’ˇ

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You will almost certainly have seen every single one of the photographs featured by @insta_repeat, whether it's in your own Instagram feed, or used to advertise an outdoor clothing brand or travel company. There are endless tips for improving your Instagram game, but it seems that there are a few things you could go and buy right now to start bringing in the followers: a yellow jacket or a canoe. Maybe both.

The Medium Is Definitely the Message

Last month, Fstoppers writer Alex Armitage asked where all the color has gone from Instagram, and only a few weeks ago Rex Jones asked why Instagram loves centered compositions. These trends — whether it's color, framing, or content — are reflective of how Instagram itself dictates the content that we provide it with. As Marshall McLuhan pointed out more than 50 years ago, the medium is the message: essentially, the mode of transmission itself shapes the information that is being transmitted.

In effect, users don't take photographs and then publish them to Instagram. Users create Instagram-friendly images specifically for a platform that is designed to accommodate them. Certain elements offer shortcuts — the white Land Rovers, the outstretched hand selfie — to what Instagram wants to communicate.

Essentially, the cynic would argue that humanity loves the concept of originality without realizing (or perhaps not caring) that originality has long been commoditized. Authenticity is a marketing ploy, skilfully tapping into our notions of independence and adventure while emptying our pockets without us noticing. If you want to be truly authentic, get off Instagram. And while you're at it, burn all of your possessions and go and live in a cave (and no, while it would make for some great content, you're not allowed to photograph this).

A Cesspit of Populist Content

Before you despair, keep in mind that, as photographers (as pretentious as this will sound) we come to Instagram as artists. The reality is that, for the most part, it is a cesspit of populist content that is increasingly trying to sell you something and fosters a culture where mimicry and the mundane are frequently rewarded. A recent Instagram competition offering a cash prize of $6,500 drew more than 180,000 entries. Judges included a former winner of News Photographer of the Year and the editor-in-chief of Cosmopolitan. The winning image? A dog catching a ball. Admittedly, it was a very nice picture of a dog catching a ball, but the only way that this contest could better epitomize the vacuity and banality of social media is if the winning image were a cat. But remember: this is very much social media. Complaining that it's all devoid of value is akin to complaining that the boyband featured in the posters plastered across your teenage daughter's wall is not singing Verdi.

Look Elsewhere For Inspiration

So what are we to learn from this? There's nothing inherently wrong with mimicry; arguably, we are all remixers, to draw on French art critic Nicolas Bourriaud, creating "montage (the succession of images) and detourage (the superimposition of images)." Perhaps the best lesson comes from the curator of @insta_repeat: "I think we need to remind viewers to keep themselves in check and grounded in reality. If they want to produce real art, they should look elsewhere for inspiration, and if they want a glimpse of what’s actually out in the world, they shouldn’t look to social media."

And this is crucial: social media makes a lot of noise and it's tempting to assume that it's an accurate reflection of the state of things. It is a reality, but it's only one reality of many and just happens to be the one that gets a lot of attention and consequently feels the most important. The truth is often very different. There are plenty of true dirt-bags living in a van, grinding their own beans and paddling canoes — who don't own a camera and don't use social media, never mind hashtags. Or at least, I hope there are. Either way, let's at least continue to create images that don't conform to stereotypes, even if they don't get us tens of thousands of followers.

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24 Comments

Joshua Kolsky's picture

O'l Ted is living the dream.

Kolade Agunbiade's picture

I try my best not to look at my field for inspiration, except I have no idea what I'm doing. I also mostly follow photographers that are not in my genre so when I borrow ideas, it's not carbon.

That's right. There's a reason why, on a rainy Saturday afternoon at the art museum, you see students with their books and pencils sketching away. The best way to learn what the masters did is to learn to copy them faithfully. One then applies that knowledge in original ways.

So once you have the basics of product photography down your creativity will start to show. At least that's the idea :-)

Michael Holst's picture

This works in most creative passions. You don't just write a jazz masterpiece before you've mastered the work from those that came before you.

The problem with photography is that "doing it" is easy... Taking good photographs is what's hard and even harder yet is taking original photos. Instagram still has amazing work that can be admired and inspiring for those of us who don't follow the influencer accounts as much. It's just that seemingly EVERYONE is on instagram so you're going to have to sift through the crap to find the diamonds in the rough.

Complaining about how homogenous photography has become is about the most hipster thing I've ever heard. Let people enjoy things.

Leigh Miller's picture

Well written....yes to more authentic (original) articles like this from FS!!

Ken Flanagan's picture

People value feeling loved more than originality, so they fill the void with friends, likes, and followers only to be disappointed.

Courtney K.'s picture

It's like high school: "If I just dress like the cool kids, I'll be cool, too." Usually doesn't work.

Ken Flanagan's picture

I was never the cool kid, but I tried.

Nathan Klein's picture

Great article! It’s interesting to ponder what the next trend may be.

Similarly to pop music there will always be a small amount of originators and a large amount of followers in photography. Similar to how many bands are obviously inspired by Zeppelin, the Beatles, nirvana.

My problem with instagram is that the algorithm doesn’t seem to know what users like. When I log on I may like the first 3 or 4 images but then have to skip the next 20 or so until I find what I like again. The algorithm seems to identify what is popular but not what users like

Andy Day's picture

Thank you! glad you enjoyed it.

If one is a musician and decides to write an opera, one becomes constrained by the form and format of an opera. If one is a writer and decides to write a beach novel, one again is constrained by form and format -- after all, in the end it has to read like a beach novel.

So sure, a photographer who decides to post on Instagram is going to be constrained by that medium in ways that are both obvious (square images!) and subtle. That's not surprising. But like that beach novel, you can do it really well and have photos on Instagram that are worth the viewing. But posting on Instagram doesn't define the photographer any more than a beach novel defines the author. Unless you do a bunch of photos, or novels, that are almost exactly the same, time after time, in which case you're the next Danielle Steele :-)

Excellent article. Thanks.

It’s the placatory illusion of individuality that is being promulgated by the “economic system”. True originality is challenging and exists mostly outside social media. Anything managed by algorithm will tend to homogenisation as it is circularly retrospective. A promoted / liked feedback loop will quickly become a trope.

Quiet places are where originiality thrives.

Andy Day's picture

Glad you enjoyed it, thank you. :)

Yeah, there's another article to write about algorithms more generally, I think. Their impact on our lives is unseen and somewhat unnerving.

Back in my day there were 5 people making photos and if one of them shot a cat the other one had to shoot only mice. Also, you cannot use bokeh becasue some other guy already did. This is basically the synopsis of this article.

Robert Nurse's picture

Now, I like to look at beautiful women just like the next health heterosexual guy. But, clearly, there's one very popular subject on IG: scantly clad young women. It seems to be a large part of every feed devoted to photography in general and portraiture specifically. I wonder if that's a hint: devote my time to filling a void.

Michael Holst's picture

I think you're following feeds for reasons other than photography if that's all you see.

Robert Nurse's picture

When people follow my feed on IG, I look to see if they're photographers, artists or something along those lines. If they are I take a look at their work to see if I want to follow back. That's where I'm seeing what I'm seeing. I don't go looking for it. It comes to me. I can't control what photographers put out there.

Jordan McChesney's picture

A nicely written article, personally I'm using Instagram less and less, these days.

Luckily I mostly follow Japanese photography hobbyists on Instagram, so I tend not to see any of these watered down trends. I also tend to avoid following anyone who has over 10K followers and I actually only follow 2 professional photographers. For some reason I find people with lower follower counts tend to keep things interesting.

I mostly use Instagram for finding local inspiration, learn about events going on in my area I didn't know about, and learn more about locations in Japan. I come here for amazing photographers.

Andy Day's picture

Glad you enjoyed the article. :) And that sounds like a very healthy approach to Instagram. :D

Michael Holst's picture

Everyone please follow me so I can be popular!

I feel I partially disagree. Originality is tough in a connected world that moves lightning fast. An idea might be original to the individual while 10 other individuals have the same creative thought. Our ideas, after all, are developed from our experiences and surroundings. I think what is irritating is the commoditization of photography on platforms such as IG that exploit popular image makeups to promote a brand and monetize the account. Yes, those may generally be comprised of unoriginal content. Originality is far from dead, and never will be so long as photographers from hobbyist to professionals are shooting what their creative hearts desire.

Scott Wardwell's picture

I have always said "Photography is not a team sport".

j cernius's picture

The prevailing ethos seems to be 'if it's not on social media, it didn't happen'. That being said, people do manage to bring some valuable content to the cesspool. I'm thinking of people like Paul Nicklen, who leverage incredible pictures, social media and their huge following to raise awareness about environmental issues. We all have to become very good editors of our news feeds.