You have been around long before I ever picked up a camera, and you will undoubtedly be around long after I fire off my last exposure. Photos resonate with people, which is why I, like so many others, love your craft.
I downloaded Instagram in 2011 amidst a string of medical problems that forced me to be bed ridden. At that time, with no prior knowledge of what constituted a good photo, I used Instagram as a creative outlet for sharing quick snaps off my camera roll with an audience that was mostly a few friends and family members.
I didn’t have exposure to photos other than my own, so I was operating in a creative vacuum. It wasn’t until I ventured to the popular page that I realized how much room I had to grow. But this wasn’t a defeating moment, rather a challenge in my mind to do better.
From that point on, I dedicated all of my free time to learning everything I could about you. Weekdays were spent drooling over cameras that I couldn’t afford, researching places I probably wouldn’t travel to, and following everyone who seemed to be making waves in the Instagram community.
Come time for the weekends and I was exploring the world around me, my iPhone in hand. I was determined to be one of the greats. I was 14 at the time, impressionable as ever, and incredibly hopeful for what our future held.
I remember the moment I hit 1000 Instagram followers. It was in 2012, I was sitting in class, phone between my legs, trying to hide the glow of my screen from my Chemistry teacher’s gaze as she introduced the idea of polar and non-polar bonds. About halfway through her discussion of water being a polar molecule, it tipped. 999 turned into 1000.
This was my moment, proof that I was good at something.
That moment was important, yes, but not because it was proof of my success. Instead, it was the root of a bigger problem: my mindset, which held success publishing photos online to a higher degree than my own personal success as a photographer. But, at the time, I was ignorant to all of this.
I was on cloud nine, seeing everything I had worked for come to fruition. I didn’t see an end in sight and my enthusiasm only grew with each new follower. Every photo was doing better than the last. Comments and likes poured in with every new post.
Until one day, they didn’t.
They only seemed to “like” photos if there was a sunset, camping trip, or dressed up pet involved. People were being sponsored and promoting things they didn’t care about. I was flooded with offers to advertise socks, watches, cases, lenses, social networks, you name it.
I felt like no one cared about anything other than the number of my followers and the amount of likes that I received; I knew for a fact that very few of the people that followed me really connected with anything that I was making. And, just like that, I stopped taking photos. I stopped caring about you.
For months at a time I wouldn’t venture out to take anything. There was no magic to it anymore. Why take anything if I didn’t want to share it? Why take anything if people wouldn’t like it? At this moment, I realize now, I no longer loved photography.
As hard as this point in my life was for me, I found a new drive from it. I found myself looking around more. I found that when I did take photos it wasn’t with the intention to post it anywhere, it was to capture something that made my heart race faster. I found myself looking at you as a means of expression, not a means of attention.
I didn’t feel the need to constantly post more eye catching content. I now post becuase I want to show what inspires me, and in turn hope to inspire others. I am taking photos for me, and goodness it is liberating.
Author’s note: I don’t mean to write this as an attack on Instagram, in fact, I still believe that at its core, Instagram connects people to ideas and cultures that they would have never come across otherwise. Instead, I write this to challenge the belief of so many that social media success brings with it a better life, a better job, or a better portfolio. I have been down that road and back, and I am here to tell you that it is not as rewarding as you may think. Instead, I encourage you to foster a love for whatever it is you feel passionate about, regardless of what other people may think or react. If you want to share it, then go for it! Sharing photos is part of the fun, as long as it isn’t the driving force in why you do the things you love. As for me? Photography and I are on better terms now, and things are looking up.
About the author: Owen Weitzel is a photographer and a design and media arts student at UCLA. In his spare time, you’ll likely find him running trails, designing logos, or exploring with a camera in hand. You can find more of his work on his website and Instagram.
Image credits: Header photo by Luis Romo and courtesy Owen Weitzel