Instagram Ruined Photography for Me

The story of why I stopped taking photos

Published Jul 17, 2021 - Updated Sep 16, 2021

The following is a text I've been thinking about writing for years. Both as a cautionary tale to anyone getting into photography, and as an explanation for why I stopped. I've been reluctant to share this, but here's what happened.

Beginnings

Starting from when I was a kid, I've had a fascination with photography. I used to loan my mom's camera and capture everything that caught my eye. I wasn't any good at all at the start, but after getting my own camera as a birthday present, I improved.

Sometime after that, I started an Instagram account. At first, it was private, and only a few friends viewed what I posted. Limited reach. Getting encouragement and feedback kept me going.

Going public

Getting older, I made my account public. The motivation for this was to get more feedback. I’d always lacked any significant mentorship in my photography, and I wanted that from people who were better than me.

The discovery mechanism on Instagram was mostly based on hashtags. To get your posts noticed on a hashtag page, you need to get it popular. It wasn't obvious then, but that was the start of significant pain.

So I started using the hashtags that all the other posts used. Now I started getting likes and followers from strangers. At first, it was delightful. This many people like what I do? Wow.


What I didn’t know was that for each new like and follow, a little dopamine was sent out into my brain. Every little bit of attention was a hit of a drug I didn't know about. After a while, you get used to it—wanting more and setting ever higher standards for yourself. Did the latest post get fewer likes than the last few? The photo must be worse.

Soon, I started thinking about how my photos would be perceived even before taking them. I'd reject compositions that I liked before even clicking the shutter. All based on a vague grasp of what appeared to perform well.

Gaming the algorithm

Set on getting more: likes, followers, comments, I soon found ways to improve my metrics:

  1. Optimizing hashtags. Post with tags like #nature also used other tags. I'd locate these and fill my own posts with them. There are even websites made for this.
  2. Posting at specific times. I would look at the dominant geographic regions of my followers, and map out optimal times to post. For example, lunchtime on the US west coast.
  3. Faking interest. I'd view posts on a hashtag, open the profiles of the posters, and like a bunch of their posts. This led people to my profile.
  4. Deleting posts. If any of my posts performed badly, I'd delete them.

Result

Looking back at these tactics, they seem desperate. In a way, they were. I found myself in a highly competitive environment—too young to reflect on what I was doing: chasing metrics. I had completely lost my original goal in the process.

Using the tactics above, I reached 700 followers. All at the expense of mental health, which had gotten worse the further I got. By then, even picking up my camera gave me anxiety. So in March 2017, I stopped. My mental health quickly improved.

I've been thinking a lot about whom to blame here. There seem to be no simple answers. At its core, Instagram is simply a photo-sharing platform. Maybe the situation could have been prevented from my side. Still, I know that many others use it in similar ways, whether they want to or not. With what’s coming out now about Facebook’s internal research, I suspect this experience is not uncommon.

Solution (in progress)

I haven't posted anything on Instagram since then. I'd still like to get back to taking and showing some people photos, but I'm still working on the best way to do this.

For now, using my phone reduces friction a lot. Some of these go on my Unsplash, but I'm still looking for the right place. Twitter appears to have a more natural and personal discovery mechanism due to interactions from people you follow being exposed on the feed. But I don’t know. If you know of a better platform, please contact me!