Who Do We Take Photos For On Instagram?

Reuben Goh 9 February 2021

With lockdowns in the two countries I straddled over the course of 2020, I felt like I existed a lot more online than I did in person. This inevitably led me to try to think about how I use social media, and Instagram in particular. So, instead of working on a dissertation with looming deadlines, I am writing this stream of consciousness against my better judgement. Isaac McDonald wrote a great article here on TCS last year looking at the disjunct of the ‘real’ and ‘digital’ self on Instagram and in some ways, this article materialises from self-scrutiny in response to the article. My relationship with social media always feels toxic. I take Instagram really seriously, especially as a platform to put pictures I take out into the world. Instagram is, however, not a successor to Flickr, where the image is the central entity. It’s an installation in the landscape of social media that enables the maintenance of relationships at a distance. A place where the image matters less than the person who chooses to share it. Most of the people who I follow and who follow me back aren’t there to explicate their passion for Fan Ho’s phenomenal use of harsh lighting in his photos of Hong Kong in the 1950s. People are on Instagram to just share their lives, and to see what other people are up to through photographs and short videos. So when I choose to curate my profile in a way that features practically nothing about my personal life, I always end up feeling out of place on a platform for photographs, which is a weird space to be for someone who chooses to creatively express themselves through pictures.

Fan Ho’s “Approaching Shadow”, Causeway Bay, Hong Kong, 1954

The logical solution to this would be to create a separate account. This would allow me to compartmentalise what I share on each account, dedicating one to my personal life, and the other to my photography. This made a lot of sense until I realised how much time I spend mindlessly scrolling through Instagram as things stand. I use Instagram up to 10 hours a week, and to create another Instagram account and have the prospect of that time increasing worried me. If I spent more time looking at the world on a digital plane than I spent experiencing it for myself in the flesh then I feel like I’ve gotten the order of business wrong for myself. This left me with the task of trying to cobble together an account that somehow enabled me to share my pictures while simultaneously saying something about myself.

The ostensible goldilocks solution for me was pairing my images with captions that tried to be funny, obtuse, or downright absurd. If I could put out a picture I was proud of, while simultaneously trying to come across as light-hearted and cavalier as an attempt to inject some level of individuality and personality into pictures that don’t feature me, that felt like it would be enough. And it was enough for quite some time. I would scroll through my lightroom catalogue, pick up where I’d left off in my editing and select a handful of images I felt would work for Instagram and my profile. Smiling to myself while I typed a caption that was, retrospectively not even that funny, and posting it in the morning, I would ensure that both my friends in Cambridge and my friends eight time zones away would be awake when I tapped “share.”

An average Instagram post by me with a caption that features a vague attempt at humour adapted from a tweet I saw. (Original tweet by @P7ULO on Twitter.)

It felt like I’d struck a balance, and for a good amount of time I really believed I did. But from time to time, I would stumble upon a picture I’d forgotten I’d taken that I really enjoyed looking back at or was really proud of, and it would pain me to type out a caption that was facetious, because it felt disingenuous as I actually enjoyed some of my own work. While the photograph may not have necessarily been technically excellent, the subjective value of the image was important to me, and to type a flippant caption felt unjust to the image. In some cases, I would revert to writing either something descriptive, or quote lyrics from a song I associated with the image, but for the most part, I would try even harder to type an attention-grabbing caption. For the photos I felt deserved attention, but didn’t feel “Instagram-worthy”, I would put in extra effort for the caption, hoping to elicit a like from someone scrolling along, if not for the photo then for the stupid caption I’d taken the better part of half an hour to write.

Giving this a bit more thought has made my pride significantly more apparent to me. I think a big part of doing this stems from overconfidence in my own photographic eye. I appreciate a photo I’ve taken, but presume that my audience won’t understand it on the same level as me and I’d scrape the bottom of the barrel to find reasons to give people to like my post. Looking back, and to be self-indulgent (which part of this article isn’t, to be fair?), this undermines the so-called “integrity” of my own work. Surely, if my photos were good enough, they’d be able to speak for themselves. I wouldn’t feel a nagging sense of inadequacy, and most crucially, I wouldn’t project my insecurities on the people who looked at my pictures, placing the onus on them as the ones not well-informed enough to make a legitimate value-judgement on my work. I am in no position to gatekeep photography because at the end of the day, I’m just another individual who pushes buttons on a light-capturing box. Still, I’d tie myself up in knots, convincing myself that I knew better, yet pegging the value of the photo to the number of likes it got, and taking and editing photos in a way that I felt would get the biggest number of likes online.

The influence of social media’s impact on my creative process is painfully tangible to me, from the moment I lift the viewfinder to my eye to the moment I hit export on lightroom, and I think that comes a lot from feeling like I need to shoot for the people who follow me. But to think that anyone really gives my photos that much attention is at best presumptuous, and at worst, creatively stunting as I start to take photos for people, rather than for myself. Looking back at the photos I took on a trip to Morocco at the end of Easter in 2019, I’d taken a lot of pictures I felt would work great on Instagram. Shot in portrait to maximise the size of the image on the screen, crushed blacks, clipped whites, complementary colour palettes, centred subjects, and loads of negative space. For all intents and purposes, they felt “Instagram-worthy”, but I felt nothing for them.

A typical Instagram-worthy image.

I’d concentrated so much on images I’d thought everyone else would appreciate, that I’d ended up shooting for everyone else but myself. There’s a sort of homogenisation that takes place online, and I think an excellent example of this is the Instagram account Insta Repeat (@insta_repeat). Adventure travel photography has come to feel formulaic, and in a lot of ways I’ve bought into it, and it has shaped the growth of my photographic journey. But I genuinely feel like I’ve reached a point where photos I was excited to take in the moment don’t arouse any significant emotions when I review the images. Maybe it’s in my own lack of ability, or maybe it’s unrealistic expectations of making images that stir up any feelings, but I suspect it’s because I stopped shooting for myself, and no longer saw meaning in the photos I was making because I wasn’t creating as much as I was recreating other people’s images.

The homogenisation of Instagram, neatly curated on Instagram.

So now that we are squarely in the new year, perhaps it’s time to try a new approach. This is where I’ve arrived. It’s alright to take your own work seriously, and it’s also alright to be flippant about it on Instagram. The platform is just a means to communicate whatever version of yourself you want to put out there. This year feels as good a time as any to break the norms of what and how I shoot and edit, and intentionally avoid the workflow I’ve come to be so well acquainted with over time, and re-discover what it means to shoot for myself. Hopefully I’ll be able to reach a state where a bit of myself is embedded in the photos I take and post, because ultimately, our friends and family don’t follow us to see smooth bokeh in our pictures or sweeping vistas taken on an expensive ultrawide. They look for the pieces of ourselves we put in our photos, which offer a peek into our little unique perspective of the world around us.