A Never Ending Quest for Internet Fame. by Faizal Westcott


It's the dream that most photographers on Instagram are chasing: to strike it big on social media. But how do they do it? How do they become that 23-year-old photographer with three hundred thousand Instagram followers and resides comfortably in a three-room apartment in East Village Manhattan? How do they reach that point where brands and companies will flock toward them with their money, waving in their hands, begging to have him post photos of their products. What are they doing so right and what are we doing so wrong to get to that point? It's a dilemma many young creators are facing when it comes to taking on the goliath of social media and promoting their art. I call it the "Instagram Dream" and its implications for photography and artist growth should not be overlooked. 

Like the American Dream, the Instagram Dream feels universal and attainable by anyone, unless perhaps you are one of the 4 billion people in the world who still doesn't have access to the internet. Putting this into perspective, it's a first world problem indeed. Because the Instagram Dream feels reachable by anyone, the photography community on Instagram is vastly diverse in age, ranging from 15-year-old photographers to well-versed veterans in their 60's. My friend, Sam Burns, whom I personally met through Instagram, was featured in the Boston Globe for the work he shared on the app at the age of 18. This highlights the possibilities that can arise from such a platform, but the "dream" doesn't just stop there.

The American Dream is primarily achievement oriented towards a successful life, and if we use the national ethos as a framework for this "Instagram Dream" we find a similar paradox. "Success", as it relates to the American Dream, is quantified by money, and when money is the measurement of success, everyone in competition toward the dream will be competing for eternity because there is no limit to how much money one could have. Photographers on Instagram trying to reach that "dream" find themselves in that same paradox, but with "likes" and "followers" replacing money as the quantifier of success. The kids call it clout. 

 Image from urbandictionary.com

Image from urbandictionary.com

Defined by CLOUTGANGG in Urban Dictionary, "clout" refers to "being famous and having influence" and is commonly associated with having a large social media following. Clout is essentially the end goal of the Instagram Dream put into one fancy word created by millennials. Interpreting the number of followers and likes one has as a measurement of success online is obviously detrimental to the growth of the photographer or artist if he or she is in a constant race for more numbers. We are all social creatures, and when a platform like Instagram promotes likes and followers as indicators of what's good and what's bad, we are almost always going to be susceptible to some type of social comparison. As defined by Psychology Today, social comparison theory is our tendency to compare ourselves to other people in an attempt to evaluate our self for better or for worse. We deal with this phenomena on an almost day-to-day basis, some worse than others, but especially in the world of social media.

I've dealt with this mindset countless times in my photography journey, especially on Instagram. I'll share a photo on Instagram that I am very proud of, watch the likes slowly trickle in, and then scroll down my Instagram feed only to see another photographer post a photo, yet somehow amass five times the amount of likes I had gotten in half the amount of time. Consequently, I would continue to fall into the trap of thinking that they were better than me and that there was a reason that they were getting more likes than I was. What were they doing so right and what was I doing so wrong? The reality of what I was doing wrong in that moment was that I was giving too much thought to something that would only hold me back from becoming a better artist. I knew I couldn't be the only one intimidated by this, and through time and experience I've learned that this is something many artists deal with on a day to day basis. 

What we find in this endless cycle of comparing ourselves in a constant quest for more likes and followers, is that its greatly influencing the way we create and share content online. We will change and adapt to these online platforms, post at certain times of the day, and even change the way we take photos because of this dream. We find ourselves creating for someone else, and no longer for ourselves. We find ourselves forgetting the reason why we picked up a camera in the first place. 

The 'Suggested User' Era by Faizal Westcott

 Image courtesy of Taku Kumabe (www.smaku.com)

Image courtesy of Taku Kumabe (www.smaku.com)

You've been on Instagram for about a year now posting and sharing images consistently from the convenience of your iPhone. You've gained a small cult following of about 3,000 followers and you've built an attractive yet cohesive body of work on your profile. You're doing all the right things in this world of Instagram, but you feel like you're hitting a plateau in terms of engagement and the growth of your audience.

But then @instagram slides into your DMs.

Instagram congratulates you on getting featured on their Suggested Users List, a list of people to follow on Instagram. Your eyes light up with both excitement and confusion thinking, "what exactly did I do?"

Instagram doesn't exactly tell you why you've been featured, but lets you know that you're about to "gain thousands of new followers" And, oh yes, indeed do you gain followers. 

You rest your iPhone on the hardwood table as you stare, eyes dilated, at the notification feed of Instagram's app. All of a sudden hundreds of people are following your account by the minute. You had about 3,000 followers the other day and now you're sitting pretty at about 10,000 followers three days later after your internet glorification. This calls for some type of announcement to your followers and so you post one of your favorite photos letting your audience know that Instagram listed you as a suggested user and that nothing else will change about the content you put out despite your audience increasing by tenfold. 

About two weeks have passed since you became a suggested user, and your spotlight to fame has come to an end. Your time on the list has amassed you 35,000 followers and there is now a big fat 'K' alongside the number 35 on your profile page. Last week, your photos were gaining about 200 likes a post. Now, with your newly acquired stash of social media currency gifted by the gods of Instagram developers sitting behind their desks in California, your photos are reaching upwards of a thousand likes per post. You feel as if you had just won the lottery.

Today in 2018, the Suggested User List no longer exists and was replaced in a 2017 update that changed the list previously under @instagram's profile to suggestions of other accounts ran by Instagram. This was a smart move by Instagram as there wasn't exactly an algorithm for what lent one person instant fame over another. iPhone photographer Taku Kumabe was lucky enough to have experienced becoming a suggested user twice, the second time getting almost 700 new followers every hour. In his blog, Kumabe talks about his experience after getting featured out of the blue. After going from approximately 1,000 followers to 18,000 from his first feature, Kumabe increased his follower count by 830% reaching 153,600 new followers from his second feature alone. 

The Suggested User List catalyzed the prominence of many photographers on the app and scurried thousands of others in hopes that they would become the next lucky photographer. This became problematic for many photographers who used the platform to get their work noticed. Growing your Instagram following organically was already a tedious process, and yet a small handful of photographers were cherry-picked into becoming "stars". Wanting to become featured, many photographers found themselves sharing content that they thought would be deemed "featurable" and would get them the most likes and follows. In my opinion, this resulted in an oversaturation of photography that lacked creativity and substance but was trendy enough for it to be liked by those who weren't necessarily keen on having a photographic sense or eye. People were no longer creating for the sake of their own craft, but rather for the sake of getting featured. 

Now with the Suggested User List no longer existent, photographers with small followings have nothing but their own creativity to stand out from the millions of other users. Unfortunately, though, smaller accounts are now overshadowed by those who were previously lucky enough to get their following kickstarted by Instagram. Brands and companies looking to work with Instagram users look to those bigger following accounts rather than the occasionally more talented, but less clout worthy, photographers. In reality, these brands are just looking at your follower count and not so much your talent. Your follower count ultimately became indicative of whether or not you were talented enough to be hired and given opportunity.

One could say Instagram is no longer a platform for photographers to get their stuff noticed, but I say otherwise. Instagram may be highly saturated with the same photos of the same places, but that only provides more opportunity for us to stand out. You may not get the same amount of impressions as those before you, and you may not get any likes at all, but that's beside the point. Instagram is still an amazing platform that allows people to discover other artists. Create for yourself and find your own style. People nowadays are growing to understand that Instagram is an oversaturated gallery of photos and are willing to look for photographers who stay true to themselves and create for themselves. The beauty of photography is that there will always be an endless amount photographic opportunity. It's just a matter of logging off, walking out the door, and seeing what you can capture.

*Sponsored Content* by Faizal Westcott

Over the past decade, businesses across the world have burgeoned their presence on social media. It's almost impossible nowadays to go through an app like Instagram or Facebook without coming across an advertisement for a product or a sponsored promotion. According to Instagram's business page, there are more than 25 million business profiles on Instagram and more than 200 million users visit a business profile at least once a day. Social media has become the new TV, and companies are quickly riding the wave.





Within this rapid movement toward marketing on social media, photographers have found themselves at the center the Instagram business wave. Brands are willing to pay photographers who are proficient in Instagram's platform to take eye-catching images that'll help make their business attractive to their audience online. Photographers with large amounts of followers are also presented with the opportunity to get paid by brands simply to just post images of their products to their widespread audiences.

One of the most successful brands to use Instagram as a marketing tool was the watch company Daniel Wellington. The company would send out free watches to photographers who were active on Instagram in exchange for them to post a photo wearing the watch. All of a sudden, hundreds of images of the watch could be seen on Instagram, ultimately proving to be a successful strategy at the cost of nothing for the company. According to a 2017 article commentating on the company's success, Daniel Wellington became the fastest growing private company in Europe growing at a rate of 4,695% from 2015-2017. A couple years have gone by, and now such a marketing strategy has saturated everyone's feed with products and special deals. If Social Media has become the new TV, then sponsored posts on Instagram are the new commercial break. 

Instagram Hates Street Photographers by Faizal Westcott

Instagram hates us street photographers, but we understand why. Our unpredictability and often times confusing photos can be a lot to handle. We don't shy away from posting photos that might rub people the wrong way and our photography can just be too hard to fully appreciate most of the time. People want to relax and kill time while they're on Instagram, and not see graphic images from protests or the griminess of the city. 

The thing is, we aren't here to fit in with everyone else.

Street photographers are just a different breed of photographer. I've been shooting street style photography for as long as I've known how to shoot a camera. As someone who primarily shares street photography on their Instagram account, I've come to understand a few things about photography on Instagram and why we don't get enough love for what we do. 

Instagram's app design prefers eye-catching imagery.

Which photo would catch your eye the most if you were scrolling through your phone?

A post shared by Antonio Jaggie (@kosten) on

Yangon, Myanmar

A post shared by Vikram Valluri (@vikramvalluri) on

Most people would likely say that the vertigo-inducing photo by @kosten grabs their attention the most, and to a fair point. This isn't an argument to say that one photo is better than the other, rather this is simply putting light on the fact that in an attention deficit society a certain type of photo will always reign supreme. I've been following the work of Antonio Jaggie (@kosten) and Vikram Valluri (@vikramvalluri) for a very long time. They both have their own style, but as a street photographer at heart, I have a deeper appreciation for the work that Vikram puts out on his page. Each photo is a compelling story that is so unique to the exact moment he captures. They often make you stop, think, and analyze all the small details that are going on in the image. A good street photograph typically requires a bit of time to analyze and appreciate, but unfortunately, time is a scarce commodity on Instagram. As a result, we street photographers tend to get the short end of the stick on Instagram. Despite our patience to wait for the right moment to happen in the field, the majority of people on Instagram have no patience to view our photos when we share them on Instagram. Is Instagram a place for street photographers? Probably not, but we wouldnt still be here if we didnt love what we do.

InstaMeets: Turning Social Media Offline by Faizal Westcott

Instagram has always been considered a community, and despite the number of times we may feel stuck in an ever-present online world, social media platforms like Instagram hold a lot of power in providing opportunities in an offline context. Its often overlooked and misused, but we have this tool in social media at our disposal to bring like-minded individuals together to create, learn, and socialize with one another over a shared passion (and it just so happens to be photography). The photography community on Instagram is no stranger to this and it has brought together people from all over the world through 'InstaMeets'. 

Putting the social in social media, InstaMeets provide people of all ages and skill levels to come together and feed off of each other's creative energy. They have been an important function of the photography community on Instagram for a long time. I remember attending my first InstaMeet back in 2016 during the first week of the new year. It was held by @canahtam, a then Boston based portrait photographer who recently moved from Turkey and who had a relatively large following of around 150,000 on Instagram. The intent of the meet-up was to bring together photographers and models to create and network with each other, but most importantly have fun and take portraits. Looking to grow my portfolio, I saw this as a great opportunity to take some portraits of models whom I probably wouldn't have had the guts to work with by myself. What I didn't know was that this would become the start of something much greater; it provided me a community I had been longing for.

Showing up to these meet-ups was rather intimidating for me at first, especially the second one I went to which was organized by @pursuitofportraits in New York City. It was obvious everyone was feeling that same anxiety as I would watch people quietly trickle into the InstaMeet location and gather alongside people they didn't even know, or at least didn't know yet. Once things got kicked off and the creative process commenced, you could instantly sense the change in atmosphere. People were taking portraits of each other, exchanging contact information, and sharing their expertise. Most successful InstaMeets have some sort of itinerary where the group will shift to different locations throughout the city, and so was the case with this InstaMeet in NYC. We started in Battery Park and ended the evening on the Staten Island ferry. I made many new friends that day and learned new things about photography, and it only had me wanting for more. Here's a short video from an InstaMeet held in Boston (I'm somewhere in the video) that captures the vibe of the event well. 

 A group photo from my first InstaMeet. Image courtesy from @protraitmeet

A group photo from my first InstaMeet. Image courtesy from @protraitmeet

I did a little research on how Instagram promotes InstaMeets on their website to get a better sense of how Instagram envisions these events. What I instantly found was a short guide on how to not only attend an event but host one yourself. Anybody can set up their own meet up anytime and anywhere, and that's the beauty of this platform.

Social media comes with a lot of baggage and it can be easy to get caught up in this digital world of likes, followers, and disproportional opinions. InstaMeets bring what originally felt like an augmented reality into the real world and opens up the opportunity for photographers like myself to meet other photographers who, before, were nothing but an @username. It's essential for us to make use of these events because apps like Instagram aren't here for the long-term. Eventually they will fade away until a new platform arises, but the people we meet and the relationships we create have the opportunity to last a lifetime. 

Advice for Content Creators by Faizal Westcott

Photographers who are just getting started with using Instagram or any other social media as a means to share their work online may find that it can be extremely overwhelming. Millions of other photographers and creators already have well-established presences online and you might feel like you're very late to the game; why would someone follow you over these other big names? YouTuber and filmmaker Matt D'Avella, in his video, offers a lot of sound advice to anyone who just starting to get their work on social media. 

Matt runs a podcast called 'The Ground Up Show' on his YouTube channel where he chats with different creators about the lessons they've learned and how to make an impact. He talks with Hope Leigh, a brand strategist, about preparing for virality and how to create an audience on social media.

Matt's main lesson for upcoming photographers on social media is that it's important to consistently create and share good content. How consistent? Some might say every day, but Matt says at least once a week. Matt's a filmmaker at heart but the topic he discusses relates heavily to any photographers who are using Instagram to share their photos. 

People who are on Instagram, and social media in general, are typically easily distracted. They're consuming so much content at once while scrolling through these apps that only the best of content will earn a second of their attention. This makes it ever so important for photographers to consistently post their work (but it has to be good). Matt mentions only once a week, and this might be true with something like videos on YouTube, but in my experience using Instagram's platform to post photography, it really has to be every day. Yes, every god damn day. If you're really serious about this "business" that is social media, constant content is a necessity to generate a consistently growing audience on Instagram

A lot of photographers understand this concept, but many fail to do it correctly because they forget about the "good" part of the equation. A lot of shitty photography will only get you a consistent decline in engagement and not the new eyes that you want. Another mistake photographers make is posting AMAZING content once in a blue moon. This is just as bad and maybe even worse than posting consistent bad photography. The way Instagram's algorithm works is that the accounts you interact with the most (through likes & comments) will appear on your feed the most. That is why sharing great content consistently will get you the larger audience that you want because you wont be overshadowed by the other accounts people are following. This is all theoretical as I will explain in future blog posts that "great" content on Instagram isn't necessarily always "creatively great", or at least in my opinion.  

The State of Instagram by Faizal Westcott

Instagram first launched in 2010. One could say it really began to take off in 2012/2013 as one of the most popular social media apps alongside the likes of Facebook and Twitter. Now, eight years later, Instagram is currently the fastest growing social media platform in the world, passing Twitter and securing 3rd place as the most used social media behind Facebook and YouTube according to PewResearchCenter. Instagram was originally designed as a photo sharing platform where users could share what they were doing in the present moment by taking a photo with the in-app camera and then posting directly to their profile where people who follow them could see and interact. This is still the case today but it has expanded to much more than just that. Today, Instagram is used by businesses, professional sports teams, and public figures as a means to build their brand presence in an ever-changing market. Amongst the rapid growth, there has been an influx of artists using it as a platform to share their artwork online: many of which are photographers. Staying true to what Instagram was originally intended to be, the photography community on Instagram is still growing strong and has greatly influenced many users of the platform to pick up a camera. 

I wasn't one of those people. 

For me, photography started in 2007 when my dad offered me his camera to take photos during our trip to Indonesia. I was always fascinated by my dad's interest in photography. That influenced me a considerable amount. My dad had been taking photos for a very long time and even considered making it a profession had his mother not told him to pursue something else. Back then that may have been the right choice. But today, social media is changing the landscape for photographers and artists alike.

Flash forward to 2013; many of my friends had been on my ass telling me to make an Instagram account, but I would frequently deny their invitation because I wasn't "into social media" (so woke for a fifteen-year-old). That quickly changed when I finally conceded to the constant bombardment and created an account in 2014. Shortly after, my friends got sick of my baby photos and were on my ass again telling me to now post my photography. You could say I haven't looked back since

At this point in time, I have a strong love/hate relationship with Instagram. It has given me a tremendous amount of leverage and convenience to showcase my photography to a large audience at almost an instantaneous rate. But at the same time, it has opened my eyes to the shortcomings of such a platform and how relying on it as a means to improve artistic growth or get business is not as faithful as one would have originally thought. There are ups and downs, but to say the least, Instagram has and will continue to have an influence on creatives (like myself) as long as they continue to use it. This blog will explore how Instagram affects the way photographers create in this digitized world of social media.