Here’s a letter from me, a reformed influencer. We’ve covered the many changes to social media for photographers in 2022, including the VERO vs Instagram debate, the time we should spend on social media, and how Instagram is switching to a more video-centric feed. I’ve been thinking long and hard about social media for photographers, and I think I’ve cracked a piece of the puzzle. What I’ve found is particularly useful when it comes to mindfulness and mental health and here it is:
Walking my path on social media
My social media journey really began when Instagram was quite young. I already had successes over on Flickr, including being scouted by Getty Images. I was happy sharing there and taking note of what other photographers were creating, taking inspiration from across the world. I’d sold photos, and I added items to my travel photography bucket list.
It was all going really well. Instagram was there, lurking in the background, but I was hesitant to join. The comparison I can make now, I guess, is similar to many photographers’ hesitations about joining TikTok. We know it’s there, we know it’s big, but we think maybe it’s not quite right for us. I pushed that aside and jumped into Instagram, taking a few weeks to get my bearings and figure out how it all worked. Then I posted my first photo.
My first photo performed well. I had a few hundred ‘likes’ and that made me feel good. It made me feel like my photo was appreciated, so I did it again. This process repeated, each time picking up more and more traction. Likes, Comments, and Followers ensued. A lot of followers found me, and I hit 10k very quickly. 15k came and went, then 20k, and it’s been slowly rising since then.
Brands seize the social media for photographer space
This put me in a position where I was able to sign up to an agency as an influencer, giving me access to income and products, and it flipped a switch in my mind that made me realize this is actually a profession. Living in London at the time, I soon found myself taking self-portraits in Trafalgar Square wearing BoxFresh trainers and attending launch parties. It struck me that I had become one of those stereotypes.
All along, I’d been working hard to make progress as a travel photographer, but all of a sudden, I was shooting photos like these:
BMW, Skoda, Wilkinson Sword, Häagen-Dazs, Byron Burger, Chivas Regal, I did them all. My bank balance was steadily rising (I made £90 for the bottom-right photo of the beer can, for example), but I’d lost sight of the reason I was shooting. My early inspiration for photography was National Geographic, and none of these photos fit that criteria at all. I did manage to get some of my travel images into the mix, such as these two:
The image on the left was for Waitrose (a UK supermarket), and the image on the right was for The National Lottery. The photo doesn’t scream the brands at all, but the caption does. You’ll notice there’s a hashtag complying with Instagram’s policies. #ad was on a lot of my posts, and it subtracted from the hashtags I could use to promote my work. It became time to sit down and talk to myself about all of this.
What was I doing this for? Was it about the money? Or was I devaluing myself in the interest of short-term financial gain?
What was my intention?
What I was essentially doing here was keeping the influencer agency in business, becoming the product they were selling to the brands who were looking for promotion via influencers like me. I was being sold. There was certainly a ‘cool factor’ to what I was doing, but it wasn’t actually developing me. If anything, it was doing me harm. The time and effort I was putting into creating product photos was time I could have been investing in the photos I enjoyed taking. Not only that, it was changing my perception of social media. Instagram was moving away from being a social platform for sharing and admiring photos, and it became a ‘business.’
This is when I really dug deep and thought back to the time I enjoyed browsing and sharing on Flickr, writing posts for my blog, and having fun with my photography. There was no intention to make money back then, and it was great. That translates to where we are now in the world of photography-centric social media. The rise of micro-influencers and the growth of that method of marketing has changed the landscape. More and more people share posts on social media platforms as if they’re an influencer, losing sight of sharing with good intention and focusing instead on the number of ‘likes’ they get.
Moving laterally to the platforms themselves, they realized money was changing hands as a result of their platforms, and they weren’t getting any of it. Cue the introduction of ads, sponsored posts, partnerships, and the heavy throttling and shadow banning of accounts and posts that appear to be side-stepping the rules implemented by Meta et al.
Here’s what it should all be about:
When we post on social media, the intention should be Sharing. It should be Community. We should share because we want to share, not because we’re trying to grow. Not only will this open the door to natural, organic growth, but it will also positively affect our mental well-being. Building a community and posting with good intentions will shine through and give us a great opportunity for growth. Building a community is far more important than going hunting for ‘likes.’ I heard someone recently say, “your network is your net worth.” That hits the nail on the head. Here’s a cold, hard truth:
Community > likes
The percentage of our audience that engages with us is far more important than the size of our audience. It’s called our ‘engagement level.’ If we have 100 followers and 10 of them engage with us, we have 10% engagement. If we have 10k followers and 100 engage with us, we have 1% engagement. The 10% engagement is more valuable to influencer agencies, but more importantly, in terms of growth, it’s more important to social media platforms.
When we post a piece of content, a select portion of our followers gets to see it first. If that group receives it well, Instagram will show that content to a larger group. And interaction is not only the metrics we can see, such as Likes and Comments. Instagram also cares about metrics we can’t see. Metrics such as the time people spend paused in their feed to look at our content and probably other behavioral flags. The initial performance in these groups is measured as fractions of our audience. That 10% suddenly becomes far more important than the hard number behind it. This is why we need to not be looking at growth and likes but at the Community.
My Instagram has floated around 35k followers mark, having grown by around 10k followers since I stopped being an influencer. I’m happy with that, and I’m having a far better experience this way.