The Great Tragedy of Photography and Social Media

The Great Tragedy of Photography and Social Media

Photography has always existed in multiple spheres - as an artistic medium, a vehicle for documenting history, a channel for self-expression, a tool for surveillance, and a form of casual communication. With the meteoric rise of social media in the 21st century, however, the ways in which photos are produced, consumed, and understood have profoundly changed. While social media offers photographers unparalleled opportunities for visibility, it has also homogenized photographic styles, marginalized minority voices, and constrained creative freedom.

Nowhere is this homogenization more evident than on image-centric platforms like Instagram. The quest for "Instafame" has birthed a new, distinctive, and relatively homogenized aesthetic. Influential accounts with millions of followers tend to feature similar editing techniques, compositional styles, and subject matter. Cookie-cutter filters generating high-contrast, muted tones, and a predominance of portraits and selfies and central symmetry prevail. Rather than leveraging social media's breadth to diversify, many photographers conform to proven formulas for going viral.

This consumable, commodified aesthetic garners likes and follows, but it discourages photographic creativity and diversity. Aspiring photographers often emulate established influencers rather than cultivating a unique vision. The points, likes, and algorithmic rankings that govern a platform's visibility and success provide little incentive to post images that challenge conventions. Consequently, photographers self-censor, and diversity of perspective suffers. Distinct voices go undeveloped while a marketable visual trope flourishes.

Even outside the elite influencer realm, social platforms tend to privilege conventionally pretty, palatable photography. Images displaying bodies and themes contrary to mainstream preferences often face marginalization or outright censorship. Facebook and Instagram's murky nudity policies also exemplify how marginalized bodies - particularly queer, non-binary, ethnic minority, and heavier bodies - undergo disproportionate censorship through the veil of moral protectionism and misaligned algorithms.

Similar barriers exist for photographers exploring themes of identity, politics, culture, and wellness in nuanced, unconventional ways. Complex visual narratives about economic inequality, racism, disease, and climate change tend to fare poorly on platforms designed for brief, amusing content. Dense, conceptually challenging fine art photography receives even less engagement amidst the torrent of selfies and memes.

While social media provides unprecedented connectivity between photographers worldwide, algorithms dictate visibility and skew which voices are heard. Homogenization emerges less from photographers unanimously endorsing certain styles and more from platforms amplifying particular styles while suppressing others.

Options exist for circumventing these biases, like leveraging alt hashtags or reaching niche communities through targeted networking. However, these specialized channels offer only a sliver of the visibility possible on dominant platforms' news feeds. Opting out of mainstream social media means drastically reducing one's potential reach. Yet, conforming to algorithmic demands requires sacrificing creative liberties. This catch-22 leaves many photographers feeling pressured to choose between authenticity and visibility.

Of course, social media deserves credit for empowering amateur photographers historically excluded from the insular art world. Platforms like Instagram offer non-elite creators access to global audiences and community support systems. Social media facilitates magnifying perspectives historically left invisible.

However, realizing social media's democratizing potential requires platforms designed around uplifting diverse voices rather than maximizing corporate profits. The instabilities and harsh judgments photographers face stem directly from the competitive, numbers-driven environments social media companies have constructed. Creativity becomes commodified and metrics-based when success is defined by fickle indicators like followers and likes. Careers are demolished by short timelines and harsh metrics. As market systems prioritizing data-driven growth at all costs continue dominating over people, homogenization and exclusion will likely intensify.

Make me Insta-famous! 
Alternative platforms could help counterbalance these issues by embracing non-competitive environments and curation based on artistic merit rather than popularity. However, the targeted ads and motivating algorithms core to major platforms' profit model make hatching large-scale alternatives difficult.

Better policies protecting free expression would help ensure social media fulfills its promise of connecting people and proliferating perspectives. But in the absence of systemic reforms, the onus falls on photographers to resist homogenization and express untapped creative potential. And given the choice of faith in the individual or faith in a social media company, my decision isn't difficult.

The path forward lies in photographers helping each other summon the courage to differ. With mutual support, photographers can nurture intimacy over influence, exploration over perfectionism, and fulfillment over fame. Rather than simply lamenting social media's biases, we must proactively create communities that uplift authenticity, welcome difficult themes, and amplify unpopular voices.

By banding together to expand concepts of photographic merit, we can gradually loosen homogenization's grip - not through knee-jerk rejection of social media, but through deliberately reimagining its possibilities.

One strategy is partnering with museums, galleries, publications, and other arts institutions to showcase groundbreaking work ignored by mainstream platforms. With institutional wings, transgressive artists can bypass social media's biases and gain direct visibility for their perspectives.

Photography collectives can also provide sheltered spaces for taking risks too bold for mass platforms. Rather than siloing ourselves as lone creators trying to "make it" online, sharing resources, contacts, and solidarity can embolden creativity.

Even on major platforms, photographers can purposefully engage with and amplify unconventional artists, whether through likes, collaborations, or other cross-promotions. Thoughtfully engaging with the margins helps pull them closer to the center.

We must also remain vigilant about checking our own biases as viewers and critics. Homogenization does not arise solely from algorithms - human prejudices also influence what we choose to see, share, and celebrate. By reflecting on how our own preferences, blind spots, and snap judgments may limit artistic diversity, we can grow into more open, discerning audiences.

Building local community offline also provides refuge from the impersonal forces dominating online spaces. Participating in regional photo clubs, showing work at local galleries, organizing community photo exhibits, and selling photos at art fairs can meaningfully connect photographers despite social media's distancing effects. These local nodes cultivate the intimacy and belonging that nurture daring creativity.

Go local more. 

The pressure to conform also operates on an internal, individual level. Social media's pervasiveness primes photographers to constantly consider what will attract likes and follows. This inhibits fully tuning out others' expectations and exploring one's deepest creative instincts. Rather than asking, "How does this image express my unique perspective?" many photographers first ask, "Will this photograph do well on Instagram?" This reflexive filtering atrophies authenticity.

To overcome this, photographers must carve spaces for creation unfettered by imagined online reception. Rather than presenting polished work, we can share unfinished experiments and works-in-progress to normalize embracing uncertainty. Through rediscovering play and shedding self-consciousness, social media's pressures loosen.

With vigilance, social media can help democratize photography rather than stifle it. But averting the pitfalls of commodification and homogenization requires intention. The voices that instill photography or any creative pursuit with its richest meaning often emanate quietly from the margins. Amid social media's din, we must listen carefully for them.

Alex Cooke's picture

Alex Cooke is a Cleveland-based portrait, events, and landscape photographer. He holds an M.S. in Applied Mathematics and a doctorate in Music Composition. He is also an avid equestrian.

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As if Instagram even has photos anymore. Nothing but reels as far as the eye can see. This ADD era where everyone can only focus on 5-8 second clips is sad.

I was finishing up a lengthy comment on your excellent commentary on the damage social media does to artistic originality, when my comment was dropped. Any idea what that’s about?

Not sure what happened, Bruce! Very sorry to hear that happened. I truly appreciate the kind words, though!

I used to get 600 likes on my images on Instagram, then 500, 300, so now I hide like count and don't even pay attention to it anymore. I also used to post just photos, now I post only reels and the photo inside the reels at the end.