Beyond Instagram: Should photographers accept the risks inherent in social networks?

Have photographers become complacent with their only commodity in order to expand their community of followers? Olivier Laurent delves into the Instagram controversy surrounding loss of copyright ownership and asks if the benefits of building an audience are worth the risks in the long run

Olivier Laurent — 28 January 2013

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In the early days, Instagram was liberating for journalists and photographers, saysKarim Ben Khelifa. “In most cases, we never really meet our audiences, and with Instagram you can interact directly with your followers. When you think about it, Instagram, more than Facebook, is the perfect tool for photojournalists. Everyone communicates with photographs today. Of course, when we post images on that platform, we’re not necessarily telling a story like we usually do – with 15 images, for example. But there’s a sort of romanticism, where we seek beautiful or incredible images.”

For Tomas Van Houtryve, a VII photographer, Instagram has allowed him to take pictures he’d stop taking altogether. “Sometimes, with digital cameras and huge raw files, I actually hesitate to take a picture because I don’t want to deal with downloading it and backing it up on my hard drive and captioning it later,” he says. “With Instagram, it has kind of brought that joy back where I can just take a moment – it’s worth what it’s worth – send it out and move on to something else. Not everything has to be a raw file. If I want something to go out through VII, I know it has to be perfectly colour-corrected, AP-style captioned, and sometimes I feel like: ‘Oh forget about it’.” And Instagram has also become a kind of visual notepad, Van Houtryve adds. “If I have an idea, I might try playing around with the iPhone first. And if the idea takes hold, I’ll go out and shoot it with a more advanced camera.”

But with the fear of Facebook using Instagram’s data and content to generate revenues, photographers have been rethinking their approach to the platform. Should they take the risk of losing ownership over some of their images in order to create a community of followers, or should they stop using the service altogether?

“We’ve become complacent with the only commodity we have as photographers – our copyright – in our near unfettered embrace of sharing our content with for-profit companies such as Instagram,” says John Stanmeyer, one of the original founders of the VII Photo agency. “Keep in mind, there is nothing wrong whatsoever in a company making money. I want Instagram, Facebook, Twitter and whatever other brilliant means of digital communication is invented to thrive and survive. And while I respect some of my friends’ and colleagues’ approach of not publishing their photography on these social media platforms, I still feel strongly that you are missing a weighted potential of communication, especially if your photography is on meaningful issues which humanity collectively should discover and understand.”

It’s for that potential that photographer Peter DiCampo and writer Austin Merrill moved Everyday Africa, a photography blog about everyday life across the African continent, from Tumblr to Instagram last October. “It has actually been the ideal platform for Everyday Africa, considering the project’s goal is to remind a general public that Africa is more than just a place of extremes,” says DiCampo. “Instagram recently marked us as one of their Selected Users, which has resulted in thousands of new followers.” As of 28 January, Everyday Africa had more than 17,000 Instagram followers and nine regular contributors, including photographers Shannon Jensen, Holly Pickett and Laura El-Tantawy, among others.

Instagram, says DiCampo, “has opened us up to what I’m calling ‘The OMG Crowd’ of general Instagram users outside of the circle of photographers – young people who, whether they realise it or not, are exploring the world through an inundating stream of photography. I could not go offline and have the same impact.”

And that’s precisely what Instagram is good for, argues Ben Khelifa. “I really believe we need to create these communities. It’s the future. I believe that people who will understand our work are going to be the same people who will want to subscribe to our work. And these people have the capacity to finance us – we see it, concretely, with Emphas.is,” a crowd-funding platform he created with Tina Ahrens to help finance the work of documentary photographers and photojournalists.

However, he adds, photographers have to accept that while Facebook, Twitter and Instagram can help them gather a community of followers, these platforms are not interested in helping their users monetise their audiences. “Instead, you need another platform that will respect photographers’ copyright and give them the correct tools to communicate directly with an audience that is ready to invest in their work.”

For Ben Khelifa, of course, that platform could be Emphas.is. But he says the debate isn’t about what platform photographers should use. Instead, “the debate should be about click-through rates. If you have 100,000 followers with a CRT of 1%, it sounds small, but actually it means that 1000 people are ready to spend money on you. On Emphas.is, the average spent in 2012 was $113. So, with a click-through rate of 1%, that means you’d be getting more than $100,000 a year. This allows you to be independent.”

Of course, there aren’t that many photojournalists at the moment with 100,000 followers. David Alan Harvey has 16,000, Benjamin Lowy 21,000, David Guttenfelder of Associated Press is followed by 23,000 people, while Michael Christopher Brown and John Stanmeyer both have 26,000. Outside of photojournalism, however, the numbers can be staggering. Koci Hernandez, an expert in iPhoneography, has amassed more than 162,000 followers.

But, says Ben Khelifa, even with “just” 20,000 followers, a photographer such as Lowy can benefit if he has a click-through rate of 1%. “That means that 200 people could potentially spend around $100, if we take Emphas.is’ numbers. That means that if he puts together a good proposition, he could get $20,000 for his work.”

Van Houtryve hasn’t really used his community is that way yet, even though the VII photographer has become an expert in successfully crowd-funding his various projects. “John Stanmeyer, I think, is the master of that right now,” he says. “He has managed to build up a huge community and then uses it to the benefit his clients, like Médecins Sans Frontieres. These NGOs just want to show people what they are doing in the field. They don’t care if it’s on Instagram or in print. When he posts it on his own, 26,000 people see it, but when he posts it on the National Geographic feed, 500,000 people see it. That’s a huge potential for NGOs that are trying to raise awareness of a particular situation.”

When it comes to copyright issues raised by Instagram’s latest controversy, not everyone agree on the way forward. “It is impossible for us, as professionals, to accept these terms,” says photographer Ed Kashi. “First of all, it goes against everything we’ve worked so hard to protect for decades – that we own our work and can control it. But more than that, how can Instagram expect to monetise images of people who are recognisable without model releases? They aren’t thinking clearly.”

Yet, for others, it might be a risk worth taking, mainly for the sake of building communities of followers. “When we publish images on Instagram, they can be seen by everyone, freely,” Ben Khelifa argues. “People can take a screenshot of the images, and on Facebook they can even download them. They can print them. So, we need to wake up to that reality. What’s actually happening is that, with the latest technological advances, anyone can take our images. So, the question should be: can we fight these advances and the millions of people who are consuming images in that way? Or should we accept this new form of consumption and instead look at how we can bring them closer to us, how we can interact and benefit from them. We need to put ourselves in their shoes, accept their rules and, down the line, monetise them. We might be the authors of our work, but without an audience, we’re nothing.”

In fact, photographers should engage directly with that audience, he adds. “When people are engaged, and when they are satisfied with the experience, they become ambassadors who might be willing to spend money on you. But if you don’t engage with that audience, if you take their money and don’t communicate, these people won’t trust you anymore. You need to respect your audience. If you get an assignment from Patrick Witty at Time Magazine, you’re not going to ignore him the next time you see him. The same goes with the 250 people who financed your work on a crowd-funding platform. You need to nurture that relationship.”

Instagram has, so far, given up on its controversial terms of service, but its founder Kevin Systrom has made it clear that, in the future, it will use its contributors’ content for commercial purposes. In a blog post, he wrote: “Going forward, rather than obtain permission from you to introduce possible advertising products we have not yet developed, we are going to take the time to complete our plans, and then come back to our users and explain how we would like our advertising business to work.”

For photographers, one way around these future commercial plans is to watermark their images, making them unusable in advertising. “You can post a single image, covered in elegant but complex to clone-out watermarks,” says Stanmeyer. “Doing so will ensure you bring people to the photographs that you, to the best of your ability, control.”

Van Houtryve has already been watermarking his images using the app Marksta, which was developed by John D McHugh, himself a photojournalist. But he’s also been testing other photo-sharing platforms such as EyeEm and Flickr. “The thing with EyeEm and Flickr is that you don’t get the same kind of numbers you get with Instagram,” he tells BJP. “Instagram has a massive community.”

One thing is sure, the photographers all agree that we live in an era of constant experiments, and there aren’t always clear solutions, says DiCampo. “What works for one photographer or one project may fail for another. Personally, I try to put my head down and plough forward, making work that interests me and that I hope interests others, and not be involved with any practices that devalue my craft in the meantime.”

Kashi adds: “The world is not the same as it was just five years ago, let alone 30 years ago when I first entered the profession. We must adapt and make tough decisions as we move forward. That is also why it’s critically important to share information and communicate with one another, so we stay stronger and aware.”

You can follow the photographers quoted in this article on Instagram: Karim Ben KhelifaPeter DiCampoEd KashiJohn StanmeyerTomas Van HoutryveEveryday Africa, as well as the author of this article Olivier Laurent andBritish Journal of Photography.