Opinion - Does Instagram Exploit Photographers?

book cover with word opinion on front. A current hot topic amongst the creative community (for now anyway, April 2018) is that photographers who use Instagram are ‘working for free’. The argument being that the photographers are providing content to the site that Instagram exploit by posting around to other users. (Here’s a PDNonline article about it here.)

How you define ‘exploitation’ will likely be different for every person who tries to give you a definition but as we see it, it means where person A takes advantage of person B for gain at the expense of person B. That can be in terms of time, money or anything that person A feels they can get out of person B. Sorry if that doesn’t fit with your understanding. If you feel strongly that it isn’t correct, please add your own thoughts to the comments below.

The argument then is that Instagram is ‘exploiting’ photographers, so let’s drop those terms in to our definition of exploit and see how it looks. ‘Instagram is taking advantage of the photographer for gain at the expense of the photographer’. How though does the exploitation fit in that scenario? Is it that they are taking interesting free work that other people want to see, then mixing that content with advertising that creates revenue for the hostng site? Actually, if we were to be brutally honest with ourselves, that is technically correct. Photographers do post their work up on the site for nothing and Instagram happily take that work, treat it as content and show it to anyone who’s interested enough to take a look alongside those ads. Our view is that isn't exploitation but why?

What we've described is only half the story and here's the rub; photographers are exploiting Instagram for their own benefit too. They have seen that Instagram is a hugely successful site that offers opportunities for creatives to have their work seen by important people in their chosen industries so the photographers take advantage of that. For free. Instagram makes no charge for anyone who decides to become a part of their community and yet for people who create great work and manage to get it seen by the right people, the benefits can be life-changing.

It’s probably useful to think about this in terms of risk and reward (a subject we touch on in another article here. ) The creators of Instagram made a decision to start a business around a site that shares photography. The risks of that approach are many, including starting a business, which costs time and money, having to set up the infrastructure to handle millions of images, more time and money and also going up against other established photo sharing sites such as Flickr. There was certainly no guarantee that their business model would work so the risks were big. As we all now know it turned out very well for Instagram and they’re enjoying the rewards of a massive success.

Now, at no risk to themselves, photographers can pile on in there to take advantage of, or exploit depending on how you look at it, Instagram’s benefits for nothing. Adding their best work for all to see in the hope that it catches the right pairs of eyes and leads to whatever kind of success they are looking for. Thing is, photographers who don’t agree with how Instagram are using work, they don’t have to use the site. Nobody is forcing anyone to put their images up there but the reality is that because the chances of those key people who might actually see your work, it makes sense to be a part of it. In fact there may be more risk for the photographer by not being on there.

My own personal view is that Instagram is just another marketing opportunity. I have to get my work seen by people and if it wasn’t on Instagram, then it would have to be somewhere public. Those alternatives may cost me money. Printing costs for instance. Photographers still make use of mailed brochures of their work and these packages are not cheap to produce. They look great and obviously impress more than a tiny image on a smartphone screen but the risk is they don’t impress anyone enough to get commissions. However a targeted mailer may well offer a better chance of impressing someone than the chance discovery of the creative’s images amongst the many millions of others also trying to get the attention of the important people. It’s just one of a few marketing streams creatives like me have and exploit to get our work out there.

Any discussion around this topic is never going to end with a unanimous agreement amongst photographers who have an opinion about it. Each person will have a different perspective and a different reason for using Instagram or indeed not using Instagram. I don’t feel that anyone is being exploited as to me the Instagram/photographer relationship is a two-way-street where everyone wins. Instagram get their content and the photographer gets a free platform to parade their work. If you have any thoughts about this why not leave a comment in the section below.

All images © Peter Hatter
Article Date - April 2018
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