The New Economics of Photojournalism: The rise of Instagram

Instagram, the brainchild of software engineers Kevin Systrom and Michel Krieger, was launched in October 2010 to almost little notice. At the time, the iPhone app was competing against Hipstamatic, which enjoyed particular popularity even in the photojournalism community. In its first two months of existence, Instagram still managed to attract one million users. Fast-forward to August 2012, and Instagram now boasts more than 80 million users who have shared four billion images. The app is available on both the iPhone and Android devices, and its staff have been acquired by Facebook for more then $730m.


Instagram is more than just a filter application for iPhone and Android phone users. Its goal, as defined by Systrom and Krieger, was to make mobile phone photography fast, simple and beautiful. “When we sat down to start designing our product, we looked at digital photos and realised very few exciting things had happened in the last five years,” they wrote in a blog post in late 2010. Systrom and Krieger set out to change that. For example, mobile phone users found that even though the megapixel count on their devices kept going up, most of their images lacked a specific “mood and tone”. Enter Instagram’s filters.

The developers also found that people didn’t always know how to get their images from their phone to their friends. “Some of your friends want to follow your every update in life; others like seeing some occasional posts on Facebook,” they said. “We made it super-simple to share photos, not only with your followers in the Instagram community, but with Facebook, Twitter, Flickr and Tumblr, all with a tap of the switch.” Systrom and Krieger also made sure the “uploading, sharing and viewing experiences” would be “as smooth and speedy as possible”.

These three features have helped transformed Instagram into a juggernaut. It has attracted celebrities such as Barack Obama, Jamie Oliver, Ryan Seacrest, Jessica Alba, Justin Bieber and Oprah Winfrey, who now have hundreds of thousands of followers, if not more – Obama has 1.2 million while Bieber has 2.8 million.

The app’s success has also attracted brands, with Starbucks, MTV, McDonalds, Nike and even Tiffany & Co opening their own accounts – sharing, in most cases, behind-the-scenes images of their operations. And with 80 million potential followers, it’s understandable why these companies would take a particular interest in the app.

But one household name was quick to realise Instagram’s full potential. A few weeks after its launch, Instagram signed its first major brand partnership with National Geographic. When the deal was first announced, the goal was for National Geographic to share photo tips and offer photography challenges to its followers. But in recent months, it has become an integral part of the magazine’s operations, with professional photographers taking over NatGeo’s feed of images, reporting instantly from their travels and photo shoots. As a result, a number of renowned photographers have created their own accounts and are now building their own following of dedicated photography enthusiasts.

“I must say, it was my 14-year-old daughter who got me hooked and showed me how to use it,” admits VII Photo member Ed Kashi. “I love photography, so I completely enjoy the creativity and opportunities to make photographs virtually at any moment and share them with the world.”

Kashi joined Instagram in May 2011, but only started using the app seriously three months ago, sharing personal images, as well as images he shoots for the NatGeo feed. At the time of writing, he had just finished his takeover of The New Yorker‘s account on an assignment in Colorado. With these Instagram takeovers, as they are called, Kashi tells BJP that his audience is growing. As of 31 August, Kashi had more than 3150 followers – up from 1900 a day before he started working for The New Yorker.

Marcus Bleasdale is another member of the VII Photo Agency that has joined Instagram. “I approach the app as a tool to share with those who are interested in the backstory of the work we create,” he tells BJP in an email interview. “It is a way we can share more about the people we are and what motivates us – not just in the field, but at home too.”

Bleasdale says the app offers a unique opportunity to share more about how photographers create their images, but also snapshots of the places they travel to and the people they meet along the way. Of course, he adds, “I would never share my formal final edit on this platform, but I am happy using it as a way of sharing my visual diary with people who are interested.”

Magnum Photos member John Vink joined Instagram for its convenience. “It offers an immediate way to put photographs on the web that were taken with the iPhone,” he tells BJP. “And I joined mainly to keep a presence there when I can’t access my computer or my iPad.” Vink uses Instagram for personal purposes. “I mainly post trivial or family-related stuff,” he says. “I am not using Instagram intensely. What I post is much more mood-related than what I post on my weblog. The weblog, connected to Facebook, Tumblr and Twitter is still my backbone for communicating.”

Sean Gallagher, a freelance photographer, added Instagram to his workflow when he realised how successful and popular the app had become. “I thought it might be a useful addition to the networks I use,” he tells me in a Facebook conversation. “But, I’ve only been using it for a month or two and, like with many of these networks, I’m still in an experimental phase with it, trying to figure out the audience and how the platform can realistically compliment and fit it in with my workflow.”

Much like most professional photographers on Instagram, Gallagher started sharing “behind-the-scenes snapshots” that show how he works as a photojournalist. “But I quickly realised that people were more interested in seeing good pictures. My aim now is to post images that relate to my work on environmental issues in Asia and pique my audience’s interest, hopefully encouraging them to explore the subjects that I cover.” Gallagher also found it helped to post detailed captions with his images, just like he would do if submitting to a magazine or agency. “I think it encourages people to find out more.”

One agency that has actively been using Instagram is Luceo, which until recently included David Walter Banks, Kendrick Brinson, Matt Eich, Kevin German, Daryl Peveto and Matt Slaby. “Instagram is, to 2012, what photoblogging was to 2007,” say Peveto and Slaby in an email conversation. “Not only does it offer an immediate and interactive way for our fans to be a part of our work as it happens, it also allows us to engage with other visual professionals and receive real-time feedback on work as it is being produced.”

Eich agrees. The photographer, who, along with Banks and Brinson, left Luceo in August, has been using the photo-sharing social network to send “mobile dispatches”, he says. “It is a fluid form of visual note-taking and allows a seamless interaction with an ever-expanding mobile community. In the Mississippi Delta town of Greenwood, where I am working on Sin & Salvation in Baptist Town, the young people, both in Baptist Town and in the more affluent neighbourhood across the river, use this platform to communicate with their peers. I love the fact that they could both follow my image feed and get glimpses into the lives of neighbours they would never interact with, though their lives occur in close proximity.”

He adds: “I think the interactive storytelling/audience engagement aspect is the most fascinating part about all social media, but that aside, right now Instagram is a great way to keep up with my colleagues as they travel, get sneak peeks into what they’re doing, and feel involved from afar. It’ll probably reach a critical mass at some point and get to be too much, but it’s fun while it lasts.”

Speaking with these photographers, it quickly becomes apparent that Instagram, more than any other social network in past years, has allowed them to form a deeper connection with the general public. For John Stanmeyer, another VII photographer that uses Instagram, it’s all about “communication, communication, communication”, he tells BJP. “In the decades to come, the entire discussion of whether to use this thing called social media will be a moot, archaic point of view – no different than it was centuries ago, when previous commonly used means of information distribution where invented and debated: ‘Should I write on papyrus leaf or this newfangled material called paper, or a typewriter instead of block-type printing presses, etc?'”

Stanmeyer started using Instagram when he worked for National Geographic, and has since continued to share both personal images as well as photographs relating to his assignments – most recently when he was in South Sudan with Médecins Sans Frontières. “There’s a dreadful health crisis occurring right now in Yida. Over the past eight months, more than 60,000 Sudanese have fled the fighting around the Nuba mountain region of Sudan. And in just the last month, health conditions have deteriorated to catastrophic levels. Death rates due to acute malnutrition among children have reached more than double the typical crisis level – the problem is not lack of food, it’s sanitation and clean water. With the beginning of the rainy season in recent weeks, malaria is exploding.”

Médecins Sans Frontières sent Stanmeyer to south Sudan early, allowing him to spend four or five days in the north of the country to raise awareness about the crisis. But, a few days before he boarded his plane, he talked with Jason Cone, head of communications with the NGO in the US. “We discussed the option of going as far and wide as possible, to raise awareness by both using print and social media. We wanted to reach an additional quarter of a million Médecins Sans Frontières’ Twitter followers, tens of thousands on Facebook, and even more on Instagram.” To achieve that, Stanmeyer emailed Ken Geiger, National Geographic‘s assistant director of photography, asking if he could publish some images about this crisis on the magazine’s Instagram account. “Once in Nairobi, his email arrived with an emphatic yes, allowing these important issues to reach nearly 200,000 additional minds.”

He adds: “In what would have been considered meaningful issue awareness in print magazines is now amplified, especially when you combine the potential viewership of MSF, VII, NatGeo, as well as personal viewers and followers, allowing us to spread the message of this crisis to well over 500,000 people. It’s a powerful communication tool.”

Connecting directly and personally with that audience has almost become a requirement for photojournalists as the traditional print market in changing. For example, over the past few years, Luceo has been trying to define what a visual company should be in the 21st century. “We are no longer looking at content creation as the only means of income and creative expression,” say Peveto and Slaby. “How content is displayed and distributed is critical in reaching broader audiences, finding more creative ways to engage that audience and inviting them to participate in the process.” And Instagram, they say, help them achieve these goals. “It helps us connect with our audience organically and offers different options for sharing, such as creating parallel narratives with larger projects, sharing behind-the-scenes experiences, opening a dialogue with our audience, and cross-platform geo-tagging and mapping integration.”

Eich, who was still part of Luceo as the collective was reassessing the way it communicates with its audience, displays his mobile dispatches not only through Instagram’s application, but also via his websites. “There’s an InstaFeed on my website and microsites for each project I’m working on,” he says. “I’m hash-tagging these projects with things like #thesevencities, #carrymeohio or #baptisttown so that the project begins to stick with people a little bit, even as it is being produced, and so people can easily go and see what exists in this sort of ephemeral form.”

James Estrin, a photographer for The New York Times and co-founder of the newspaper’s Lens blog, believes photographers can profit from deeper interaction with their audiences. “I think you can have interactions that are, in the long term, beneficial to you economically without monetising each interaction,” he tells BJP in a phone interview. “That’s what social media is about. We don’t need, every time we interact with a member of the public, to make money out of it. With The New York Times, there are 40-50 million potential readers within the US. Now, The New York Times, to be successful economically, doesn’t need to monetise every single interaction with these people. What they need is to have these people think of themselves as being New York Times people. They need to feel part of a community of like-minded people, interacting with the newspaper via a variety of platforms. Each of these interactions strengthens the relationship.”

He adds: “In photography, the key is to build an audience of people who have some relationship with what you’re doing – either with you personally or via the issues you’re covering. These are people who may, one day, buy your book, or support you on Kickstarter or The question is: What does Instagram mean to a photographer? I think it means strengthening the relationship between you and your potential audience – the people most inclined to spend money on you. Everything that strengthens your relationship with your audience, especially in this day and age, can strengthen your reach and ability to monetise your work.”

For Brinson, for example, Instagram allows her to keep “an ongoing conversation with the photo editors and art buyers who follow me”, she says. “They know where I am and what I’m working on.” Her husband, Banks, has even started to work with clients to create mobile images “which they can share to tease a feature story or project for future release”.

Not everyone is convinced, though. “What concerns me is that this is yet another channel for creating and disseminating photography that does not bring in income. At least not yet,” says Kashi. “I gather ‘building your brand’ is all the rage and while I acknowledge the importance of that, it’s not why I create nor do I see a direct correlation to making a living and developing this field into the digital era where creators’ work is respected, compensated and properly appreciated.”

Kashi wonders whether Instagram is yet another fad that “further feeds the devaluation of our craft and continues to contribute to the destruction of this field as a viable way to make a living”. His concerns come on the heels of the release of his Photojournalisms iPad app, which failed to gain interest from users. “I am willing to explore these new models of distribution, but it’s a crap shoot and requires a lot of trial and error. We’re also facing the audience’s expectation of not having to pay for content. I don’t mean to be negative, but it’s a slog. I guess this all makes me feel like asking, ‘so this is what it’s come to?'”

Another concern is that of privacy. Gillian Laub, who has been using Instagram since December 2011, is reticent to share images from her shoots. “I don’t use the app for professional purposes,” she tells BJP by email. “In fact, I am very careful not to post photos on a shoot because there are privacy and publication issues.” And that policy also applies to Laub’s assistants, who are also banned from sharing behind-the-scenes images, especially if they include geographical information. “Just recently a photo assistant posted a photograph on Instagram from a shoot we were on. We were at a famous person’s home. He has quite a following and I really didn’t feel comfortable having him post an image of it. Even though we have entered this crazy world of social media and transparency, I believe there still must be some boundaries and respect for people’s privacy. We must use good judgement. It’s a good thing I follow him and saw the image, and I had him take it off Instagram right away.” As a result, Laub uses Instagram for personal purposes, sharing images with friends and family members, especially since, she says, she has yet to meet a client who has asked her to contribute to an Instagram feed.

Yet Instagram continues to gather momentum in the industry. Following National Geographics lead, The New Yorker recently started to commission photographers to take over its feed of images – Kashi and Benjamin Lowy being the most recent ones.

“We’re communicators by nature,” say Peveto and Slaby, “and things like Instagram offer us a new language to speak with. Like words on paper, the real question still comes down to whether or not what you’re saying has intrinsic value to others beyond just making a casual observation. Does the image help sell something? Is it culturally relevant and significant? Is it curated close enough that there is entertainment value in watching a particular feed? These questions are the starting point to trying to monetise any content production. We’re positively aware of them, and experimenting within those boundaries.”

And, as Stanmeyer adds, Instagram, in the end, has allowed him to reach hundreds of thousands of people. “Decades ago, I often thought of how brilliant it would be to publish photographs on roadside billboards to scream what mattered to me – until I discovered how expensive these spaces cost. Instagram and other social media does just that: reaching the potential consciousness of hundreds of thousands, and even more.” But, he admits, the implications can be daunting, because “we’re still in the infancy of where this road we are paving is taking us. But is it exciting and does it hold limitless potential? Yes.”

To follow on Instagram the photographers interviewed for this article, search for the following handles: John Stanmeyer – @johnstanmeyer; Ed Kashi – @edkashi; Marcus Bleasdale – @marcusbleasdale; John Vink – @johnvink; Sean Gallagher – @sean_gallagher_photo; David Walter Banks – @davidwalterbanks; Kendrick Brinson – @kendrickbrinson; Matt Eich – @matteich; Matt Slaby – @mattslaby; Daryl Peveto – @dpeveto; James Estrin – @jamesestrin; and Gillian Laub – @gigilaub. The author of this article, Olivier Laurent, can be followed @olivierclaurent.