Embracing the Instagram age

For professional photographers, image-sharing apps have gone from being a threat to a platform for experimentation


India’s first Instagram exhibition, in Kolkata. Photo: Soumya Shankar Ghosal
India’s first Instagram exhibition, in Kolkata. Photo: Soumya Shankar Ghosal

This is the age of the “mobile photographer”. At a time when anyone and everyone—armed with an arsenal of online filters and ready access to social media—seems to consider himself a photographer, the line between professionals and amateurs seems to be blurring. The medium of photography has been democratized, but where does that leave the professional photographer?

“On the one hand, photography as we knew it is over,” says renowned photographer Dayanita Singh. “The profession of a photographer is certainly in a problem. On the other hand, photography now is the mother of all languages.” Singh has just short of 8,000 followers on Instagram and is one of several professional photographers who are beginning to treat mobile photography as a separate art.

Till three years ago, most professionals were reluctant to get on to mobile photo-sharing platforms such as Instagram. “In 2012, when I got on to Instagram, a lot of my colleagues asked me if I was mad—why was I putting up my photos for free?” says UK-based Gideon Mendel, who has been photographing floods around the world for nine years and will be showing his images at the forthcoming Travel Photo Jaipur Festival (5-14 February). “Today, however, every photographer is compelled to be on Instagram,” he says.

The realization has dawned that Instagram can create more awareness about a photographer’s work. “A lot of us are compulsive photographers,” says Mumbai-based Ritesh Uttamchandani, who has more than 100,000 Instagram followers. “Say, I am dying for 8 lakh (800,000) people to see my photograph, but it doesn’t get printed in a major newspaper. On Instagram, I can publish it and do an audience-building exercise on my own.”

Recently, Instagram held its first exhibition in the country, Celebrating Diversity Of Bengal, in Kolkata. Uttamchandani was the co-curator of the event.

Photographers tend to view Instagram as a platform on which they can experiment, something their professional assignments might not give them the freedom to do. “I use Instagram to post anything interesting that I see around me, which is a personal choice, not a professional mandate,” says Anindito Mukherjee, a photographer with the Reuters news agency in Delhi. His image of a waiter rushing up the stairs of a coffee shop was displayed at the Instagram exhibition.

American photographer and writer Teju Cole wrote in a 9 December New York Times piece, “Serious Play”, that Instagram has become a studio away from a studio. The idea is to have fun. Take the feed of Magnum Photos’ Alec Soth, for example, which some might consider bizarre. For his series Unselfies, he has taken images of himself and manipulated them to look odd or even grotesque, thus playing with the idea of photography in the digital age.

“My Instagram pictures are very different from my regular ones—they are more spontaneous, instinctive and fun, while my work as a regular photographer is more thought out. I also use it to train my eye,” says Anusha Yadav, photographer, archivist and founder of the Indian Memory Project, which documents the visual and oral history of the subcontinent via family archives.

Embracing Instagram has led photographers to analyse the phone camera more seriously and try to understand its brain structure. “When I started viewing work by photographers such as Gueorgui Pinkhassov, I started looking at cellphone photography differently—like I began to think about different kinds of paper that would be good for printing cellphone images,” says Uttamchandani.

He founded the Katha Collective in 2014, an Instagram-powered photo magazine that features short and long photo essays with images taken exclusively by phone cameras. For Anushree Fadnavis, of Indus Images, the phone camera is an effective tool to chronicle journeys and daily life and share the stories with her 87,000 followers. Her evocative collection of photographs of life within the women’s compartments of Mumbai’s local trains, Train Diaries, was the inaugural series for the Katha Collective.

Instagram is also giving rise to new formats of storytelling. For instance, Rachel Hulin has experimented with the idea of the Instagram novel. Her Hey Harry Hey Matilda chronicles the correspondence between a pair of twins. Dayanita Singh too is enamoured of the idea of an Instagram book. “I use hashtags to create visual projects. For example, the #museumofglass doesn’t exist in a physical form. I sometimes use it as a diary or to document all the changes to my recent project, the Museum Bhavan. So Instagram becomes an online catalogue of the ongoing changes that no one else sees,” she says.

One advantage of a photo-sharing app is that it connects professional photographers from around the world. Thanks to his Instagram images, Uttamchandani has become the first Indian to be part of 14 & 15 Mobile Photographers, a Web community dedicated exclusively to mobile photography.

Instagram has also given traction to projects, thus becoming a powerful medium of expression and dissemination. Tara Bedi, co-founder of the India Photo Project, a collective powered by Instagram, explains that the platform took a work such as Matt Black’s Geography Of Poverty, which explores issues of poverty, migration and farming in California’s Central Valley using Instagram’s mapping feature, to another level altogether. “Or take the work of Bangladesh-based Ismail Ferdous, who has won the $10,000-grant instituted by Instagram and Getty Images to help photographers pursue social issues,” she says.

Does it hurt a bit when a celebrity’s pout garners “likes” in the tens of thousands and a well-thought out image by a professional photographer a few hundred? “There are a lot of followers of Chetan Bhagat’s writing. Bad writing and bad photographs don’t require you to think so much,” says Uttamchandani. “But a good photo will never die; it will come up either today or tomorrow. You need to see a lot of bad photos for the good one to come up. So it’s conducive in a way.”

The only worry that nags most photographers is the fleeting nature of social media platforms. Say, you want to look for a photographer’s work a year from now, chances are that it will be buried under a selection of recent photos. “A particular narrative via images is also rather scattered. I might take one picture now for a series and another one a month from now. It’s the medium of the present and not of the past or the future,” says Yadav. “But the good part is that such platforms have made photography accessible and have taught us to be a better audience. It has taught us to sit back and reflect on an image, even if for 3-4 seconds.”

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