#72: Instagram, Newsletters & Community Building

Instagram always sparks conversation and strong reactions. What is it about this app that animates and causes anxiety for photographers?

#72: Instagram, Newsletters & Community Building

Instagram always sparks conversation and strong reactions. What is it about this app that animates and causes anxiety for photographers? Are newsletters a better solution?

Instagram: I have been on Instagram since the beginning in 2010, and right now I have 2,290 followers, give or take. I am thankful anyone would choose to follow me but in the big ecosystem of Instagram, that number of followers barely registers.

There are numerous photographers who have been wildly successful at using Instagram to build a following, community and successful business. Generally, if you can get over 10,000 then I think you enter into a different league.

And then there are very accomplished photographers that have a much smaller following than I do. You probably fall somewhere in between! But no matter your following size, if you are a photographer or artist, you probably have an opinion on Instagram. Whether we like it or not, it has been a central focus for photographers sharing their work on the internet for a long time now.

This week Instagram basically announced they are no longer a photo-sharing app and will focus more on short form video, creator tools, and ecommerce. This should not surprise anyone, especially given the rise of TikTok. Short form video and entertainment attract the eyeballs, which bring in the big revenue.

For some photographers, this means it’s finally time to abandon Instagram and find a new home. But the alternatives are slim, at least if you’re looking for an app with the same type of reach as Instagram.

There are options like VSCO, 500px, Flickr and newer upstarts like Dispo and Poparazzi. But all of these have their shortcomings too and I doubt many photographers want to invest time doing what it takes to build an audience on a new platform.

Whether you like it or not, the audience is on Instagram. That’s what it comes down to. People want to be where there’s an audience. I predict most photographers will stay put, and adapt to the new strategy, just as they always have.

Of course, there are a lot of things Instagram could do to improve the photography experience. I think they could build a ‘portfolio’ front page since many photographers essentially use IG as their portfolio. That could happen, especially since they said they are committed to building more tools for creators.

One of the main issues with Instagram is that it just tries to do too many things. No surprise here. Efficiency is not their goal. They want you wasting time hoping around Stories, the Feed, Reels, shopping. Anything to keep you on the app.

Something to think about as well. Why is it that short form video is taking off?There’s a reason, and my theory is that it has to do with our desire for more authenticity and real connections.

I think we’re moving into a moment where people want more humanity, and authenticity from their feeds. They want to see you and they want to hear you. A stream of photos can sometimes feel like just more marketing.

At the end of the day, I think serious minded photographers really just want a feed where they can see good photographs from photographers they appreciate, admire and like. There’s a certain joy in scrolling through a feed of photographs and watching a photographers share a new projects, or evolve their style over the course of a year.

An app like Instagram has made it easy and convenient but if I have learned anything in my 20 years hanging around the internet is that these platforms are going to change and evolve, so you’re going to have to accept it, or adapt a different strategy for sharing and engaging with photography.

And you’ll never guess what I suggest!

Newsletters: It’s not going to surprise you but I think newsletters are the best alternative if you are looking to move away from focusing on Instagram. With newsletters, you own your email list so even if the platform changes their algorithm or disappears, you still have your audience.

I think newsletters give some photographers anxiety because they think they need to include a lot of writing. It’s true that most do follow a fairly standard format, and if you’ve been following me, you’ve noticed I tend to oscillate between aggregation, commentary and original material.

But there’s no reason a photographer can’t just send out a weekly newsletter with 10 photographs they really enjoy with a short two or three sentence introduction. I guess people think that the email inbox is more valuable and that nobody will use it to just look at photographs.

But why not? On your phone, the inbox is just another app, and if you use Gmail, it’s easy enough to create folders.

If you have a folder for photographers, it would be just like your Instagram feed. There are some dedicated newsletter apps out there as well but I have not enjoyed them.

I think the newsletter + Twitter strategy is effective as well. You can promote a newsletter in your Instagram Stories feed as well.

One thing to keep in mind. All of this really only matters if you are trying to build an online audience. Many editorial and commercial photographers don’t bother because they get their clients through networking. The portfolio is king. An online audience is nice to have but not hugely necessary.

You might also be thinking that if you’re photography is good enough, the audience will find you. I actually somewhat believe that!

Focusing on refining your vision and completing projects is definitely a worthy strategy. No matter which direction you take, there will be trade-offs.

Community Building

Do you know the Online Photographer? It’s run my Mike Johnston, and might be one of the oldest photography blogs out there. He’s made his living from blogging for several years now. And if you go visit it on any given day, you’ll notice numerous lengthy comments on many of his blog posts.

He’s achieved the holy grail. He’s built a real, thriving, dedicated community. He creates real value for his audience and they reward him for it and have kept coming back.

That’s somewhat of an old school example, and my understanding of Gen Z tends to be minimal. I know there are active forums on Reddit and maybe Discord or other places.

They key as Melissa Little points out in the Tweet above is to find your people. If you are reading this and you get excited about walking and photography and art, and nature and existential dread, then you are my people!

Community comes in a many forms, and you can define it how you want. My hunch is that a forum probably wouldn’t work so well for my people because we tend to introverts, and the social pressure of writing in front of other people is just too much. I have anxiety attacks every time I publish one of these newsletters.

But what I have found is that when it comes to 1:1 conversations, we are very engaged and excited to talk about our ideas. I have started working with a couple of photographers to help them develop their walking and photography projects.

If you feel stuck or stalled on a project or don’t know where to start, drop me a line and let’s chat: info@bryanformhals.com

The Anxiety Over Not Making Photographs

Photography: That thread on Twitter struck a chord with some people. I probably need to dedicate more time to writing about it at some point. I recently finished my first project about walking in Saint Cloud. I set a goal of completing it my June 20th, the first day of summer, so it’s essentially a spring project. I walked several hundred miles and made over 5,000 photographs. I have been editing and working on the text, and will probably launch it relatively soon.

Right now, I feel like I need to take a break from making photographs. I can’t add any more to the archive. I have a couple of ideas for the next series in my mind, but that can wait.

I want to be careful about offering any advice here because I simply don’t have any concrete answers. If you feel like you need to be out constantly making photographs or art, then I think you need to do it. On the other hand, I also don’t think it’s healthy to put unnecessary pressure on yourself to produce.

Photography and art require doing much more than actually creating. You need time to think. You need time to learn, and experience new things in life. Sometimes it’s better to focus on in the inputs rather than the outputs. Be kind to yourself.

Languour by Donavon Smallwood

Photography & Walking: Donavon Smallwood won the 2021 Aperture Portfolio prize for his project ‘Languor’ which is about the experience of black New Yorkers have in the Upper part of Central Park.

“It’s all been a bit surprising,” says Smallwood, who is 27 and self-taught apart from a single class on photography in high school. “When I look back, I can see that my own mood reflects what I see and what I produce. When I began photographing in the park, I’d go out and walk around for as long as I could, but I was always pretty relaxed about it. Sometimes, I’d maybe even take a nap. In my own way, I was seeking a process and it arrived out of me doing it.”

There are so many aspects about this project that I absolutely love. It started out on a hunch and with walking. It feels deeply personal, and of the moment. It hits on the theme of equitable access to nature and parks. The photographs are poetic, quiet and extremely beautiful. It’s a nice, tight edit that leaves you wanting more.

No question he’s a rising star, and will probably have a lot of opportunities coming his way. It would be absolutely amazing to interview him about his experience walking. Perhaps I’ll reach out!

On that note, I have been working on a few interviews with artists about their walking practice. Expect those in the future, probably after I switch platforms. Shhhh. Another secret, don’t tell Substack or Squarespace. More on that later!

Further Reading

I’m a photographer, writer and creative consultant from Saint Cloud, Minnesota. This is my newsletter on art, walking, and mindfulness. Each issue, I share new work from my projects and try to make connections between ideas, articles and people that fascinate me. You can email me at info@bryanformhals.com or follow me on Instagram & Twitter