If you read my post yesterday you may have noticed an interesting fact I left out. Instagram is of course a company without profits or revenue but what it does have is users. About 10 million users. 10 million or so individuals who love sending photos to their friends. But wait couldn’t they already do that with their smart phone? Instagram does allow users to add crazy photo effects to pictures, although, this too could be easily accomplished before Instagram came along. So what is it that makes this app so appealing. It is simple to use and free; both points in its favor. But the app itself is not why Instagram is so successful. It is the photos.
A pictures says a thousand words...’ the most Cliche of phrases. True none the less. Recently Alison Nordström and Elizabeth McCausland released a new volume of Lewis Hine’s photographs. Hines’ was made famous by his photographs of Iron workers constructing the Empire State building and immigrants arriving at Ellis Island in New York. Instagram allows the average smartphone user to reproduce the brown hues or granny black and white that made Hine’s photos timeless. But it will take allot more to match the impact of his work as the photographer for the National Child Labor Committee. It will take content. Content that simply is not mainstream nowadays.
Hine’s photographs turned the hearts and minds of millions of americans. Images of young boys working in coal mines and young girls crawling under gigantic cotton lumes proved beyond a shadow of a doubt that child labor was a problem in america. Everyone in america saw Hine’s photos. How many of us have seen a photo of a modern day coal worker? Type coal miner into google images. You’ll find hundreds of photos from Hine’s time period and a few from our own. Download any photo of a modern coal miner to your phone and add the inkwell effect with Instagram and you have another timeless image like Hine’s.
The thing is you won’t. Images like those belonging to Hine’s still exist. Yes, of course we no longer have small children in the mines, but grown men are still descending into the dark unknown. Many more across the world in china are doing the same thing. Still more in between here and china take to the streets in places like Syria to struggle against repression and tyranny. Few if any photos arrive though from syria and of those that do slip out from china are few and seldom seen by the average american.
So what kind of power is there in a image that's never seen? Instagram takes photos from your phone and in moments broadcasts them to every other human on the planet. In three seconds a photo is snapped, cropped, ‘photoshopped,’ and uploaded to facebook, blogger, and email. Whether those other people choose to view them is another story. And that is the point we come to. Instagram is not a force to be reckoned with because of its ease of use or even the content which people upload with it. Its impact comes from the other people. It comes from people viewing and interacting with those images. It derives its true effect when you choose to view photos of cats wearing funny hats instead of images of rural africa. Instagram is as much about the photos we don’t view rather than what we really use it for.