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Hipstamatic angst, Instagram anxiety: time to move the conversation forward

It’s back – another round of high octane commentary on the supposedly nefarious influence of Hipstamatic and Instagram on the world of photography. We’ve had Jean-Francois Leroy of Visa Pour L’Image deride these apps as “all a gimmick…pure laziness“. We’ve read Kate Bevan in The Guardian detail how she loves manipulating her own digital images, but thinks Instagram and its fellow travellers is “debasing photography.” And we’ve seen the announcement of Hipstmatic’s plans for a photojournalism foundation scoffed at by the likes of Foto8.

There’s plenty of room for a constructive critique of how filters that replicate earlier analogue forms have become so popular. A good place to start is with Nathan Jurgenson’s analysis of “faux-vintage” photography and the way it manifests a “nostalgia for the present.” Heightened by social media’s power to view the present as always a potentially documented past, Jurgenson argues that images from Hipstamatic, Instagram and other services work to make our prosaic and vernacular images “seem more important, substantial and real.”

And there will be plenty of time to ask hard questions of Hipstamatic about whether its serious with its plans for a Foundation of Photojournalism and what benefits, if any, it might provide for the production of new stories.

But, really, it’s time to move the conversation on. This applies to both the supporters and critics, as Ashley Gilbertson tweeted this week:

The vehement opposition to these apps commonly operates in terms of ideas of ‘legitimate photography’ versus ‘illegitimate photography’, in which a supposedly new realm of popular manipulation is undercutting the cultural status of established photography, all infused with a professional anxiety about the influence of ‘amateurs’. We’ve got to get beyond this frame. I’ve long argued that we have to reposition debates about photography so we recognise the inherent and unavoidable place of aesthetics and representation in the production of each and every photographic image, no matter who is making them. I’ve written about that in relation to photojournalism generally, specific images like the most recent World Press Photo winner, as well as everyday, personal photos. If we think about the latter, we might just appreciate that popular culture has a sophisticated appreciation that images can be both produced and hence constructed, yet function as documents, evidence and records. The stale, either/or, rendering of ways to understand our condition totally fails to apprehend such complexities.

Much of the criticism directed at the Hipstamatic is profoundly ahistorical. Given that the development of the app was driven in part by an interest in Polaroid, we have to wonder whether the detractors are as critical of those photographers who choose cameras, lenses, films, printing paper, or digital picture profiles to get a particular look to their images. In other words, don’t they have to mount a critique of pretty much all photography and photographers? John Edwin Mason had a series of tweets that made this point well, starting from the revelation that Ed Kashi’s Instagrams were subject to some online abuse:

We also have to dispense with the idea that everything produced with these apps is poor, banal or the same. If you want to see a great contemporary image maker who can produce visuals with smartphones and apps way better than most, check out the work of  Richard Koci Hernandez.

One of the things that is most significant about Hipstamtic and Instagram is that they make photography popular, social and mobile. This is why Facebook is prepared to pay $1 billion for a company that has no revenue. It’s not actually about the photography – it’s about the social and the value of Instagram’s user community, which numbers 50 million or more and is growing at the rate of 5 million per week.

All that said, this post is not actually a defence of these apps. I’m not interested in being for or against. I want to put the critiques in context, understand their historical and conceptual limitations, and reframe the issue. There has been too much heat and not enough light.

The primary question has to be what stories can you tell with what tools? Do these new tools help produce more interesting visual narratives that can be connected to more people? It’s entirely possible, and could even be happening now, but those have to be the grounds on which we should judge their success or failure. Let’s move the conversation forward to that point, and dispense with the angst and anxiety.

21 replies on “Hipstamatic angst, Instagram anxiety: time to move the conversation forward”

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While I can understand their side of the argument, I believe photography is everywhere and almost anything can be used to create a photographers vision. As a result, by excluding Instagram as an acceptable tool for photography are we, to some extent, limiting the photographer’s ability to create their vision? Where do we draw the line between what is ‘amateur’ or not? Also who gets to decide where this line is drawn? Apps such as Instagram should be just as acceptable as any editing software despite its simplicity.

So Kate Bevan thinks that apps that apply filters to modern digital images make them “all look the same” thus destroying creativity. I suppose I’m missing her point when I observe that one app that lets me apply 50 different filters to an image gives me MORE choice, not less? Actually, I’m sure she really means she is tired of mass upload sharing sites doing a particular look to death (the hint is in the term “mass”) Don’t like tilt-shift filter images?- go look at the polaroids! Don’t confuse personal taste with creativity guys! Or perhaps she means REAL photographers only exercise creativity if a look is achieved through a gazillion layers in photoshop and lovingly crafted presets rather than a simple app filter? Or maybe digital is too democratic? Lets exercise our creativity by going back to analogue, even better: all the way back to wet plates and sniffing mercury vapour in horse drawn waggons? maybe thats mistaking creativity with difficulty, or am I just thinking of 50 shades of grey?…..

I don’t understand the hype on Instagram, I think if people get what photographs they wanted to achieve then it doesn’t matter what camera or app they used. Photography is everywhere and it always has been everywhere, without it we would be living in a dull world. Photography allows us to see what others have seen and to feel how they have felt. It shouldn’t matter if that was captured by a DSLR or a smart phone.

The problem for me, and the one I am yet to hear a consistent answer too, is the one of post production and the context of the photograph’s use.

I have no problem with using the camera on your phone. I don’t even have a problem with using the various apps to post process the files. What I do have a problem with is using these in a news context. Not so much because I am against post production, but there are more or less clear guidelines for what is acceptable for photography in a news context. Contracts and guidelines for photographers from (for example) the AP and The New York Times would in fact prevent the use of such post processing as occurs in many of these apps. However, many news and documentary outlets have embraced the process. If I processed my raw files from my SLR to look like they had been shot with a cameraphone and processed through an app this would be unacceptable according to certain contracts I have signed, how then, is using these apps any different from the photoshop processing?

My personal view, and the one I tell students of journalism in the digital photography classes I teach is that all these effects are fine. Use them. Use the aesthetic. Choose high speed black and white film. Print high contrast toned prints. Cross process your film. Use a Holga. Blur your shots, play with depth of field. Use your cameraphone. Use photoshop to play with the tones and the contrast. Do all of these things if you wish. BUT, remember that you are hoping to present some kind of truth, some kind of factual report. The aesthetic must enhance the content and lead the viewer to a greater understanding of the content of the photograph, not mask it or replace it. Aesthetic is not a substitute for content.

As I say, I personally have no problem with people using whatever aesthetic they wish, but there has to be a purpose to it, especially in the context of news, journalism and documentary. In an art context of course we know that anything goes (the debate on what is good or bad in art is another conversation).

My bottom line is that if someone looks at your photograph and says “Wow, cool effect, what app did you use?” Then you have failed to properly relay the message.

One difference between so-called “pro” and “amateur” photographers, I think, is the use of metaphor and abstraction to tell a story. Photographers who are interested in doing that kind of work will do that kind of work with whatever camera they use, and photographers who are interested in taking photos of the world around them as they see it will continue that work as well.

One place that I think the vehement anxiety about this comes from is the deep insecurity many photographers feel about their own work. I don’t think this is a bad thing and I wish there were a word that meant what insecurity means and has a less negative connotation – what I’m trying to say with a word like that is something along the lines of, “fear that our struggle to make meaning out of our lives and this world will never quite succeed.” This fear can be a good thing as it drives us to do better and more meaningful work, but the dark side of this is lashing out at anyone who is seen as usurping our chances at fumbling towards knowledge of self and knowledge of other.

Fear is intrinsic to the process – how we harness that fear is another matter.

When we all take more pictures, we all think about pictures more often, and a more visually literate society (whether is sepia toned or over saturated) is more likely to appreciate, endorse, encourage, and yes even occasionally participate in, this great unending quest of ours.

Cemal, I couldn’t agree with you more. It took me several years to realize this after stalling out with casual shooting.

Although the tools made it easier to produce and manipulate photos, ultimately they had little impact on the quality of my work. I found my ability to define and sustain a vision throughout a project stagnated while I spent more time trying to keep pace with the tools.

What’s the problem? Like digital photography before it, the smartphone photography revolution is simply broadening the photography opportunities.

It’s almost like a ‘gateway drug’ to hardcore art, fashion or commercial photography. The more people in the art form, the better. Ok, not all will re-invent photography (or even achieve anything approximating originality or a serious body of work). Who cares – some will, and there’s some genuinely interesting visual imagery being created with instagram, hipstamatic, et al.

Give people the tools to record and tell stories and we will become a more visually literate world. And this can only be of benefit to the art form. Admittedly it may make a little more wacky where the funding goes, but that’s life!

Going after Instagram or Hipstamatic, or whatever else may come down the line is a very tactical and symptomatic conversation. To me, the real issues are: 1) The role of intention in photography, 2) Commitment to a final image to present, 3) Working towards a body of photographic work. The current state in photography is such that most photographs miss all three. The core reasons are quite likely the rapid development of technology, ease of access to and use of this technology. Yes, many “special effects” were applied in the age of the darkroom, film, hypo, and so on. The difference between those alterations and the current crop is the three factors I started with. A photographer producing cyanotypes in the darkroom had intention, commitment to what comes out, and make that a part of her or his body of work. Whereas today, I will try this filter; if you don’t like it, wait a minute, I will try the next. The intentionality of the finished work and commitment to it are sorely lacking as a result. What seems to matter more is validation, acceptance to particular circles (no matter how detached and remote), winning a “contest” of some sort.

I don’t quite care what tool or technique any photographer, any artist chooses to use. After all anything is fair game in art. The part that worries me is the subservience of vision to the technique rather than the way I prefer to see: subservience of technique to vision and art.


You and Ashley have done a good job of shifting the terms of the conversation. As you say, camera phones and apps are tools. It’s time to get over the “angst and anxiety” that they provoke and move on to more interesting questions.

I hope it happens. But I doubt it will. Or, more likely, people will find something else to worry about.

I’m not telling you anything new when I point out that angst and anxiety surrounded photography long before Hipstamatic, long before Susan Sontag told us that “the camera doesn’t rape, or even possess, though it may presume, intrude, trespass, distort, exploit, and at the farthest reach of metaphor, assassinate,” and probably long before Kodak promised that “You press the button, we do the rest.”

Camera phones and apps reflect long-standing anxieties in a couple of ways, I think.

First, they make an already easy medium — “Your press the button, we do the rest” — even easier. I don’t mean to say that it’s easy to create a body of work like, for instance, Ashley’s. That’s exceedingly difficult. But anyone who’s taught photography knows that if you take ten kids who have never made a photo and give them a camera, one of them (at least) is going to make a decent picture before the day is over. You can’t get that kind of result with a paint brush or a piano — and it’s been driving some people crazy for over 100 years.

Of course, other people have been countering with “It’s a democratic medium. Rejoice!” for over 100 years, and the message still hasn’t gotten through to everyone.

Second, there’s the problem of the photo’s ability to lie. And to tell the truth. At the same time.

You can see problems that this confusion creates in the Sontag quote above. She worries about photography’s ability to lie, to “distort.” But it can also metaphorically “assassinate,” which means that some people must see it as the truth.

David, you discuss this in the post that you link to on everyday photography. We know that, like all photography, apps filter reality. At the same time, however, we continue to take most photos at face value.

There’s no way out of this conundrum except to embrace it. Trouble is, most people don’t like to live with unsuppressed contradictions and ambiguity. It’s not a comfortable place to be. Hence the inevitable angst, which has a lot to do with repressed anxieties bubbling to the surface.

We’ll all get used to camera phones and apps, just like we got used to the Kodak Brownie and the Polaroid. But I wonder what we’ll worry about next.

I don’t even have a smart phone, but I’ve never been able to understand the angst about Hipstamatic or Instagram. As already mentioned, Polaroid SX-70 was never denounced for its particularly unique portrayal of reality- and if you really want to get unreal, nothing quite does it as well as B&W.

David-please excuse typos: I’m on my phone walking around trying to make my son take a nap…Additionally, know I’m speaking for myself here only:

I don’t really enjoy the Instagram/Hisptamatic look of anyone’s work, but that’s unimportant. I do however, find the widespread use of the program to be fascinating.

It was initially difficult to think beyond the trend aspect of it. More than anything, I despise when people follow one another to be in the in crowd. It’s our job to find our own expression, vision, and I’m not convinced that’s a question of gimmicky looking old photos or choosing a lens named after another photographer (it surely is for some people, of course, which I don’t mind in the least). 

I don’t think it’s so dissimilar as to when Canon  released a full frame sensor and the 24mm f1.4—so many shooters ended up with the same super shallow depth of field look. Or people doing their post prod with 10b in Rome in which everything had that dramatic, desaturated look. Or pre digital when people would shoot Ektachrome/Kodachrome with an 81b filter…etc. The look gets boring pretty quickly, and I don’t think too many people doing the same thing serves the wider audience.

When I have managed to get beyond the fashionable aspect of the phenomenon, I find that I love the fact photographers are challenging their own conventions. This is experimental as far as photojournalism goes—the manipulation of images is extreme, that’s unarguable to me, and it’s brilliant that many people in the industry are allowing themselves this artistic interpretation of what they witness. We appear to be becoming liberated in regard to how truth and facts have been defined by our elders. We’re experimenting, but usually whilst arguing that we’re not.

At times it’s been very engaging as a viewer. Purists are very upset though, as expected, and rather than defend the use of the phone and application, photographers often claim it’s no different and ethical within the old ethical framework. The conversation, as I’ve witnessed it largely ceases there and it’s not been constructive.

I’d be far more interested to see people acknowledge what it is: that how your eye saw the scene is extremely different from the filtered Instagram version, and where the lines may in fact be— can we photoshop telephone lines out now? Is that different from having Hipstamatic add sun flare or change the colors of buildings/clothing/skin? The lack of discussion about this is more damaging in my eyes than any other aspect. Do boundaries need to be set? Perhaps. Are our readers visually sophisticated enough to realize an app has manipulated an image this way and it doesn’t represent reality as defined by ethics of the 40s or 50s? Does that even matter?

I’m clear on where I stand on all this, and obviously I’m somewhat of a purist. In Iraq I demanded of myself that I shoot only in color because it added another layer of information and fact, but I’ve since come back from that perhaps hardcore line to allow myself the use of B&W. Regardless of my stance though, I always love seeing what others are doing and how. 

Finally, the work needs to be content driven with careful attention paid to light, composition and information. As with any photograph, that’s what excites me and that’s what has always separated us from citizen journalists or amateur photographers. Writers are not frightened by the idea everyone can write, and we shouldn’t be confronted that so many people have cell phones.

Some of my favorite experiments, all of which include amazing content and solid understandings of ‘standard’ photography: Stanmeyer with his Holgas in Bali, Winter on his phone in Afghanistan, Henner on his computer with Google Maps, Steve Dupont using Polaroid transfers with the Raskols in Moresby. In the end, if the work is good, and ethically sound, I don’t give a damn what camera/technique is used.

The second we stop thinking, provoking, debating and evolving is truly when a medium wallows. Therefore, I’ve not seen a photo-journalism industry as healthy and exciting as today in many years. 

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