On 21 July 2011, nine months after its quiet launch in San Francisco, Instagram, the photo-sharing social network, saw a massive surge in users. Was word of mouth finally paying off, or had a flattering article about them appeared somewhere?
Neither, as it turned out. Justin Bieber had signed up, using it to tweet a photograph of LA traffic. Back then, Bieber had 11 million Twitter followers, nearly double the number of Instagram users at the time. The result was that Bieber’s legions of young, digitally savvy fans joined the site, and the singer unwittingly helped it to become one of the fastest-growing social networks ever launched.
Then along came Facebook. In April 2012, it bought Instagram, a profitless concern with 11 employees, for US$1bn (Dh3.7bn), making its twentysomething founders, Kevin Systrom and Mike Krieger, extremely wealthy. Today, Instagram is heading for 100 million users. How did a straightforward, unoriginal idea become one of the internet’s hottest properties?
Instagram makes it easy for people to take photos on the go with their phones and quickly upload them either to its own social network, Facebook or Twitter. Today, people connect with friends, family, even celebrities through social media, and personal photos create even deeper ties.
Another reason networks such as Instagram have caught on is the aged aesthetic of the pictures, created by adding different ‘filters’ at the touch of a button. Photographs are square in shape, similar to Polaroid or Kodak Instamatic pictures, and most filters add a dreamy, sun-bleached appearance, as if they were taken decades ago.
More importantly, the filters turn average, hurried snapshots taken with mobile phones into photographs that look a good deal more professional. With filters that beef up colour contrast, mundane shots of friends at a party can look like something taken by David LaChapelle with hours of post-production. Instagram has democratised photography: it allows people to become good photographers without needing to invest the time or the money in becoming one.
Instagram wasn’t the first app to offer photo-sharing or the technology to digitally alter photographs. Hipstamatic, the popular app that launched in December 2009, brings an analog-camera experience to the iPhone. Once you’ve taken a photo and applied a filter, you can upload it to Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Tumblr or Flickr straight from the app.
This social element is powerful, says Hipstamatic Co-founder and CEO Lucas Buick, 30. “As the world becomes more connected, photographs serve as a universal language. They transcend the spoken word to represent shared human experiences and emotions, which is incredibly powerful. ‘Showing off’ a great shot inspires others and that’s what Hipstamatic is all about.”
In other words, we are all photographers now. For some professionals, this is a threat to their livelihoods. But a growing contingent, from photojournalists in war zones to fashion photographers in studios, are embracing photo-sharing and social media. And by doing so, they are actually changing the face of photography.
Two award-winning photojournalists, Balazs Gardi and Teru Kuwayama, are at the forefront of this new mobile and social photography movement. Gardi has travelled around the world from Dubai to Dallas documenting everyday lives, while Kuwayama has spent the past decade working in Afghanistan, Pakistan, Kashmir and Iraq. They started using Hipstamatic to photograph Marines in southern Afghanistan a few years ago for a groundbreaking experimental social media project called Basetrack. They were embedded with a battalion and, using iPhones and Facebook, connected more than 1,000 troops with their families back home. The project is now a digital book.
For Kuwayama, using his iPhone camera instead of his usual one has its advantages but it was the social media side of the project that was most rewarding. “Working for magazines like Time or Newsweek, you have no idea if your work is having any impact. With Basetrack, we had a deluge of direct correspondence, which can be exhausting but is very rewarding.”
Hipstamatic’s Buick says professionals such as Gardi and Kuwayama are turning mobile photography into an artform. “Someone who considers light and composition is going to create very different results to someone using the app just for fun. For example, the way David Loftus (food photographer for Jamie Oliver), Ben Lowy (photojournalist for The New York Times, Rolling Stone and CNN) or Chiun-Kai Shih (fashion photographer for Harper’s Bazaar and GQ) use Hipstamatic is very different from the way a novice photographer uses the app.”
British fashion photographer Nick Knight, who has worked for Vogue and Christian Dior to name a few and founded the fashion website SHOWstudio.com, started using Instagram earlier this year.
With his iPhone camera, he shot model Cara Delevingne backstage at a show for designer Philip Treacy, and even documented roses in his garden. “For me, Instagram is like a visual notebook. Just as Twitter offers an outlet for a quick thought, Instagram allows the same thing for the visually minded. At the press of a button, I can publish my work to half a million people and that’s extraordinary. Photography used to be a lengthy process, taking weeks or months to appear before an audience. Now it’s instant.”
It’s the ability to build relationships that may explain how a simple online tool has the power to recruit millions of followers. The digital world has connected us like never before, but lacks human warmth. By enabling us to share our lives photographically – not to mention pictures with a nostalgic aesthetic – Instagram is helping us to deepen our virtual relationships. In light of this, its US$1bn sale price might one day be considered a snip, says Hipstamatic’s Lucas Buick.