Every day, I grieve for Instagram
Sep 26, 2021
Haje Jan Kamps
Every day, I grieve for Instagram
Nineteen Eighty-Three. That is probably the first time I picked up a camera. I say ‘probably’ because I was born not long before that, and I can only assume that it took me a couple of years before I was able to crawl into my father’s brown and tan camera bag to explore the Canon A1 he purchased the week before I was born. He bought the camera to take photos of me, his first child. For someone who neither makes a living as a photographer nor takes all that many photos these days, I sure did write a lot of books about photography.
A technologist at heart, I was an early adopter of mobile phones. In the summer of 1997, I had an Ericsson GH 388 that I had bought second-hand off a colleague who was a recently recovered drug user, so he could buy heroin with the money I had earned at my very first summer job. Yes, the same job where I met him: at the Salvation Army. He showed me the cotton ball with blood on it from where he had shot up, and I never quite figured out why that seemed like a good idea to him.
As a hormone-ravaged teenager with a particular love of the nude female form, I loved the smell of the boarding school’s darkroom chemicals as much as I hated the sting of its cost on my wallet, so when photography became digital, I was hooked. Finally — photography could move from carefully constructed experiments that took weeks, to instant feedback loops and being able to assess lighting, apertures, and the model’s expression. It’s hard to fathom today, but digital, per se, changed everything about learning how to take photographs.
In the first week of my journalism degree, I discovered that Ericsson had done something wild; they had created a phone that didn’t just have a color screen; it also had an attachable camera. The whole contraption was the size of a lime and could store a grand total of fourteen photos in laughable resolution and abysmal quality. But bought one, I did. The technologist in me was doing cartwheels, and the photographer in me was experiencing Nietsche-levels of the abyss.
Over the years, the phones got smarter and it became possible to write ‘apps’ for a ‘phone’, and for a while, everyone was blowing out candles and drinking virtual pints on their little black squares of magic as the very first apps made their way to the nascent app-store experiences.
The first smartphones did have cameras, and the photography nerd and the computing aficionado in me found a point of convergence once more. At 2 megapixels, the first camera phones had borderline-useful resolution— but the quality of the lenses and sensors meant that the picture was akin to a 1990s security camera wrapped in lace and vaseline.
And that is when Instagram came along
In the early days of smartphone apps, developers were excited to explore this whole new frontier. There were accelerometers, cameras, screens, and a whole new design paradigm to explore. There was no shortage of camera apps, but a couple stood out — not because the camera apps were good, but because they had filters, which turned the awful pictures a smartphone could produce into little works of art. Yes, the photos taken on the phone were still utter garbage, but at least now they were artistic utter garbage.
Hipstamatic was the front-runner for a while. But then Instagram came along and did a very similar thing, but added a tiny detail: You couldn’t just take and edit photos, you could share them with other people. It’s almost impossible, now, to understand what a ridiculous idea this was at the time. Mobile data was excruciatingly expensive and insultingly slow, and most of the time it was a life jacket at best if you had to look up directions or a phone number. Even maps didn’t work all that well when you stepped out of a plane, because, well, the GPS gods told your phone where you were, but without data, you were a lone pulsing blue dot in an ocean of uncertainty — at least until the phone connected to the $40 per hour airport Wi-Fi. Or, more realistically, you made it to your hotel or conference center.
But the Instagram folks had the last laugh; It turns out that humans are humans. We crave dopamine, and the excitement of sharing our pictures with our friends in near real-time — and getting likes and comments along the way — was a winning combo. And we started sharing photos. By the millions. By the billions. It was the golden age of mobile photography.
And then something happened. Camera phones got better, and the competitive advantage of making photos worse with filters in order to make them better for human consumption slowly evaporated into the ether. Phone cameras improved and soon killed off compact cameras. ‘Real photographers’ hated compacts anyway, so that wasn’t much of a loss — nothing was ever going to touch film for ‘real’ photography, like fashion, or product, or advertising photography. Digital was for news outlets and people who didn’t give a whoopie-whirl about printing the photos out at a decent size.
Photography saw a brutal evolution. In the beginning, there was film and printing. Then there was digital and digital printing — because computer screens are awfully low resolution and terribly bad at reproducing colors. But the real truth is that ‘Real Photographers’ couldn’t predict the impact of the smartphone. Suddenly, everything was retina-this and retina-that. On the one hand, resolution improved beyond the capacity of the human eye to perceive pixels, and on the other, the quality of the displays just kept getting better and better. Color reproduction skyrocketed. Dynamic range improved. And finally — this is the real final nail in the coffin — it turned out that people consuming photography just didn’t give a twirly-whirly about quality in the first place. And at some point those two paths overlapped — screens were good enough, and people cared little enough — that printing photos became a thing of the past. Don’t tell the folks who still desperately cling on to hope that making new and innovative printing solutions will somehow bring back ‘real’ photography.
And that is when Instagram failed
One of my friends here in San Francisco was on the team that built Facebook Camera. It was Facebook’s response to the weird and unexpected success of Instagram. A bunch of obscure photo nerds who started out whining about the quality of smartphone cameras were suddenly having a grand old time sharing photos with each other. It was easy to ignore the couple of million photography nerds who piled into that weird little Instagram app. It was much harder to ignore the fact that Facebook was starting to lose market share — it wasn’t about the pictures, it turned out. People craved community, and Instagram gave them the platform to build a community around one of the oldest storytelling media in the world — the world around us, seen through the lens (ha!) of photography. In a not-distant past, photography was done by photographers. But all of a sudden, everyone has a camera in their pocket and a desire to show the world how beautiful their latte art was. Because, is this not, truly, life as we know it?
Facebook bought Instagram for what was — in 2012— one of the biggest software acquisitions. One billion dollars. It was completely ludicrous. A billion dollars! Of course, my friend who was building the Facebook Camera — and whose job it was to build a product that would ensure that Facebook could outperform Instagram — felt the sting of that. “It’s not often you can say that you lost your employer a billion dollars,” is a completely fabricated quote that sounds emotionally right, but I did a lot of playing poker and drinking bourbon with this friend, so the details are a little blurry. Energetically, it feels right.
Long story short, you’ve probably never heard of Facebook Camera, and you’re pretty fucking grumpy for having to skim (let’s be honest — nobody is going to actually read this article) several paragraphs about something that is completely irrelevant. But hey — I’m human-focused, and this chap is one of my ex-wife’s best friends. Besides, as we already covered, nobody is going to read this ridiculous essay anyway, and I haven’t got the money to pay an editor to cut these paragraphs out of the article, and it’s 2:39 am and I’m having serious doubts about my own sanity, so this is what you get.
Over the years, Instagram evolved multiple times. From “ugh, camera phones are shitty, let’s make it artistic,” to “well I guess we were right; people love sharing photos” to “hey look we are part of startup history and everyone at the company is a millionaire and what the hell even is Silicon Valley” to… Today.
I’m not going to lie. I couldn’t watch Bo Burnham’s Inside all the way through in one sitting. It took twenty-eight sittings because I recognize his descent into a deep mental health crisis all too well. In the parlance of our times; “it me”. What I’m saying is that
Today, an old friend of mine — old enough, in fact, that I’m 90% sure that I took a photo of her with the Ericsson T68 detachable camera I extolled the doubtful virtues of at the top of this piece — shared something on Instagram that hit me in a thousand of wrong ways:
I was sitting there, with my finger on the screen (because that’s the only way you can stop Instagram Stories from progressing faster than your brain is able to function), reading that piece over and over and over and over again. And I felt another wave of grief wash over me for the loss of Instagram.
As a photographer, I really miss having a place for photography. The reason the post my friend shared was so hard, was that I agree with literally every word in that statement. In a strange and distant past, I was a police officer in Hackney, London, and I have dealt with more than my fair share of domestic abuse cases. It is profoundly depressing overall — but every. single. word. in. that. post. is. true.
And I was torn. I messaged my friend:
Ha. I had such an interesting reaction to this particular story. I went from a number of beautiful photos taken by friends of mine, to this. And reading the text about abuse and killing, out of the blue, was pretty trippy. Which is wild, because I agree with the message, and I thought about resharing it, but I know that a lot of the people that follow me are women who have experienced abuse. So I end up in this really weird situation. Should I share this picture, and stand up for the cause? Or should I not share this picture, because I know it will activate some of the people who follow me.
In the end, my friend said to add a trigger warning and post it. That was a good idea, and I did. But even as I did, I felt another wave of grief for Instagram. It’s such a beautiful platform for art, activism, ‘thought leadership’ (whatever that means), influencing (whatever that means) and so much more.
The piece I grieve is for a place to enjoy photography. You see, to me, good photography — great photography — is really intimate. Great photography tells visual stories and optical poetry. To me, photography is sensual, inviting you to luxuriate in a scene. To me, photos are erotic, evoking something primal, lustful, and just out of reach. To me, imagery can help us heal, explore the corners of our consciousness, and reach far beyond the realm of mere words that we have been stuck in for way longer than anyone with their sanity intact would. (I did mention that literally nobody would read this, yes?)
And so, when I am on Instagram, I occasionally fall into that. I see stories of my burlesque friends posting intricate, sensual flirtations. I see images of photographers who are exploring the outer edges of gender, sexuality, sensuality, and what it means to be human. And when, after six or seven of those moments I am hit with an advert for a meal kit or a reminder of sexual abuse in a photo-as-text type situation like I shared above, I am torn brusquely out of my reveries. I am returned from a place of expansive curiosity and beauty to the real world where men blame their rapey tendencies on womens’ dress sense or state of inebriation.
And in that moment, I grieve the most. Flickr tried. EyeEm tried. Smugmug tried. Instagram tried. At the moment, Glass is the darling of the photography world. But I’m left with a photographic portfolio spread across a dozen homes. Homes that felt perfect in the moment but that evolved around me without my getting a vote or a voice in the matter. And, truth be told, the frog’s kettle boiled slowly enough that I never was able to grab my green-skin exfoliating body wash and hop out of the kettle, because I never realized what was happening, as it was happening.
I am a socially aware, queer, polyamorous, bay area neo-hippie photography slut who is feeling digitally homeless.
And I grieve, every single day, the Instagram that was. The Instagram that could have been. And, realistically, my projection of a world where Instagram was what I wish it were.
I have a place where I can tell the world that I believe women when they say they have been sexually assaulted. And I miss a platform where I can nerd out about photography with other photographers in the pursuit of beautiful stories, glorious textures, evocative colors and the occasional breaking of the rule of thirds because, god damn it, we are photographers, and we are rebels at heart.
About the Author
Haje Jan Kamps is a Dutch photographer, author, inventor, and the CEO of virtual conference platform Konf. You’ll find his photographic work on Instagram, his articles on Medium, and lots more on his website. You can also sign up for his free photo school over at Photocritic. This article was also published here and shared with permission.
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