Smartphone camera app Instagram recently backtracked on changes to their terms and conditions in which any given user would have waived their right to compensation, should the company have used their photograph in an advertising campaign. As a direct result of this, thousands of users closed their accounts.
I didn’t find it so easy to decide where I stood on this. Yes, the principle of not paying up was all wrong. Yes, it’s rare to see people vote with their feet, and therefore quite refreshing. But I couldn’t help thinking how little difference it would make to almost all of those people.
I use Instagram for the same reason as everybody else: instant snapshots. Looking through all of the photographs I’ve created using Instagram, none of them would be of much use to anybody else: photographs of book covers, amusing notes and pints of beer. Most of them aren’t even relevant the following day. Not even to myself. No creative thought goes into my Instagram account beyond the necessary framing and filter choices. Neither of which are difficult. It’s instant, and that’s all that matters. Often, the photograph doesn’t even need to be in focus.
In short, if Instagram wished to use anything from my account for an ad, I’d be less concerned about payment than having my name associated with it. And Instagram would spend so long searching for genuine art on their servers that they’d be better off commissioning a real photographer for a couple of days.
The debate goes beyond this particular issue, though. Especially now that it’s been settled.
Here’s Guardian columnist Jonathan Jones’ slightly pompous take on Instagram: “It is hard to see what people feel is so personal or precious about the images they upload to Instagram – that was my sink, those are my clouds, that’s my view from the plane window. Not only does Instagram share pictures, it offers filters and a Polaroid-style formatting to make them look special – the catch being that every picture looks special in the same way.”
There’s a hint of snobbishness to his comment. He is right, in one sense. Instagram doesn’t encourage either the photographer or the viewer to stop and think. Convenience – and connection – are the important things.
But the other side of that argument is that if you want thoughtful, beautiful photography, don’t look to a smartphone app driven by the general public.
In the same article, Jones remarks that: “…the aura of seriousness that once attended the taking of a photograph… has given way to constant, impulsive and yet strangely pointless image-taking.”
The simple answer to this is that the “aura of seriousness” is still there if you treat smartphone cameras as a separate entity to proper ones. Which you should. Jones’ entire article is written on the assumption that all photography equates to art. Or that it should. That has never been true.
From a quick photograph of your children in the snow, to a photograph to remind you of your holiday while you’re snowed in at home, to a half-decent visual joke that simply works better as an image than as text – there’s nothing wrong with sharing a throwaway photograph. Little interactions like these are thoughtful and usually very nice.
Jones appears to lament this, and gives an anecdote from a visit to Kew Gardens to illustrate his point: “There I was, having fun snapping water lilies, when I realised that about a hundred people were doing the same thing. Grannies, kids, babies, all with cameras and a sense of being artists.” He refers to this sense as a “delusion of grandeur”.
Next time you see a grandparent or a child on a family day out holding a camera, do everybody a favour and tell them not to be so big-headed!
As an artist myself, it’s a lovely thought for me that so many people are engaging with their surroundings. Showing an interest. Taking part. It’s very easy not to bother.
Constant, impulsive and yet strangely pointless? We could be talking about eating chocolate. Or drinking tea. Or stuffy art critics’ pot-shots at popular trends that they don’t understand.