This post was inspired by a debate I participated in at the second Photobook NZ Festival in Wellington. We concluded that while Instagram is not the future of photography publishing it is an invaluable tool for photobook makers and self publishers to promote and sell their books. I argued that the photo book is the more superior format for encountering and experiencing photographs due it’s physicality and long term accessibility, and my hot tip was that the hashtag #photobookjousting will get your New Zealand and Australian photo book seen by those that count. Read on for arguments from both sides of the debate …
Marketing Manager of Momento Pro
Viewing photographs on Instagram is the antithesis of encountering photos in a book. Instagram is instantaneous, impermanent and detached from the viewer while photobooks are a wholly tangible experience that can generate real physical-emotional response, and hold our attention for centuries rather than seconds.
I believe that while Instagram will be a significant contributor to the future of photographic publishing for the purpose of marketing and promotions, it will never supersede the superior, more meaningful and enjoyable experience of viewing photos in a printed book – which has the capacity to be seen by the broadest audience over the longest period of time.
Both social posts and physical books can show off your work-in-progress, revive your archive, and expose your art to a broader audience, but posts are limited to a single image a few inches wide at screen resolution, and the accepted amount of text is more suited to headlines and hashtags than a paragraph that can have serious impact. their As such their ability to express or raise awareness of a complex issue is limited.
Instagram is also limited when it comes to creation and viewing time. Serious time is needed to create a beautifully resolved photo book. They need months, years, sometimes decades to produce, with plenty of time for review and reflection. ‘Serious’ time is not something I associate with Instagram. I think of’ ‘instant gratification,’ ‘split second attention spans,’ and ‘wasted time.’ Photographers need to invest significant time into curating a feed of substance, that a viewer can engage with, maybe even learn from, yet most are driven by spontaneity rather than strategy. Magnum photographer Mark Power says of his own approach to Instagram:
I just post when I feel like it. Whenever I’ve made something. It’s like picture vomiting.
Time is also needed to fully appreciate and understand a photograph. A few seconds scrolling down a small screen while switching channels or falling asleep just doesn’t cut it, or do the artist justice. The fleeting nature of Instagram also limits a photograph’s potential. Part of the beauty of the book is the ability to revisit it, to re-read and re-interpret the imagery, to give the photographs new meaning. Hence I believe that viewing photographs in book form is the superior experience.
Actually holding something demands you give you it attention. It is an intimate experience. The physicality of a book implores us to focus, to slow down, to succumb to the rhythm of turning pages, to consider the content of each spread before moving to the next. Haptic Theory also states that tactile interaction triggers a more intense bodily and sensory engagement, and emotional response, making a photo book a more enjoyable and memorable experience. Eric Kim describes this nicely:
There is a great beauty about a physical photography book— because that is all you focus on. There is nothing to get distracted from. Suddenly all the noise of the outside world shuts up (and all those little social media notifications) — and you become fully immersed into a book.
It should come as no surprise then that some photo book publishers like Michael Mack of MACK Books have dabbled with ebooks via MAPP Editions and failed convincingly – something he publicly admits – it should be no surprise then that the return to analog processes and physical objects is real, and the photobook renaissance is alive and well.
Another advantage of the photo book over an Instagram post or single photographic print is the ability to add complementary information to enhance the story. As the Reminders Photography Stronghold ‘Photobook as Object’ exhibition beautifully illustrates, the inclusion of maps, text and supportive ephemera like journals, miniature passports and loose prints, turns the reading into an active and performative experience. By comparison, Instagram keeps the reader physically removed and disconnected to the content, with the only sensation being that of the mouse or greasy touch screen.
Let’s consider for a moment that if Instagram could be the future of photography publishing, then how in the hell do you cut through when we encounter 90 million digital images a day? The content flow is truly ‘overwhelming.’ There’s even a term for it – Content Shock – coined by a content marketer Mark Schaefer, who believes that:
It is not sustainable because every human has a physiological, inviolable limit to the amount of content they can consume.
And if time is money, does Instagram offer a return on investment? Traditional book publishing included revenue and royalties for the creator, while photographers are currently fighting for the right to be paid for digital content in dollars rather than just ‘exposure’, as we can see in the exchange between professional photojournalist Raul Roa and Time Magazine. Likes and Followers do not put dinner on the table!
So what do photo book creators have to say about Instagram? In 2015 English-Australian photographer Sam Harris published a critically acclaimed photo book, The Middle of Somewhere, with Italian publisher Ceiba Editions. Prior to publishing his book, Sam had his feed featured by Instagram, that results in his followers growing by a massive 20,000 overnight, yet he believes that his photobook has done more for his career than his Instagram feed.
Without a shadow of a doubt, my success has been due more to my published books than Instagram. Instagram is good for reaching a bigger audience but there’s no comparison to a photobook. A photobook is meaningful. It presents a body of work. It will be around for a long time. You can return to it time and time again. You can have a relationship with it and hopefully future generations can too.
[ALL THE LIGHTS GO OUT]
And that, my friends, is what the VP of Google, Vint Cerf calls the digital black hole.
We digitise things because we think we will preserve them, but what we don’t understand is that unless we take other steps, those digital versions may not be any better, and may even be worse, than the artefacts that we digitised. If there are photos you really care about, print them out. – Vint Cerf
The digital black hole is the loss that happens when the electricity fails, hard drives die or ISPs malfunction, rendering your photos temporarily or permanently inaccessible. Unaffected however is the printed book. The printed book will survive and provide guaranteed access for generations and centuries. It seems ironic that while we can’t see a photograph stored on a floppy desk from just 20 years ago, we can still see photographs in a book printed over one and a half centuries ago! That’s because books are objects for preservation, so we can, and should, entrust our photographs to them.
Another limiting characteristics of Instagram when it comes to presenting photographs is its focus on the single image and inability to recreate the magic of pairing and sequencing images to create a work that is greater than the sum of its parts, reaffirming the book as the superior format for showcasing and encountering photographs.
There is however great opportunity for Instagram to promote photographic projects and photo books when used strategically. To reinforce this argument I tracked down the creator of the most valuable hashtag a photobook maker can use – #photobookjousting – to Ed Templeton in June 2012. Ed has 194K Instagram followers and 51 published photo books and zines, so he knows a thing or two about this topic. Here’s what he had to say:
So on that note I’ll leave you with one question to ponder – when the lights go out, or your lights go out, what will be a more meaningful photographic legacy? Your photo book or your Instagram feed?
And here’s a summary of the contributions from my co-debaters …
Instagram will never be the future of photographic publishing simply because the shareholders of Instagram are demanding a significant return on their investment. As such Instagram is going where the market is going and that couldn’t be further from photography let alone photographic publishing. Consider these two points.
Instagram are developing the platform to become a commercial hub that you never have to leave. That’s right you will be able to click through on that sponsored content and purchase stuff without ever leaving Instagram. According to Forbes magazine, Instagram’s future will be as the QVS or TV shopping Channel of the e-commerce mobile generation.
Instagram is increasingly going video. Video now accounts for one third of all postings, and growth is not slowing. If you look at Instagram’s development plan, it’s largely focused on video formats not stills – Hyperlapse, Boomerang, video filters. Instagram is going where the trends and therefore the profit is and that trend is video not stills.
In summary, we all us Instagram. We like it, but in two years time we will come to loath it as it has morphed into something we don’t like but still use. We are all standing on its platform but the train has already left the station.
Instagram is an integral link between Edith’s photography and her subjects.
Creator of Winter Gardens
Instagram is not the future of photographic publishing because it infringes too closely on the personal freedoms of photographic artists. By setting the terms on censorship, which are gendered and do not consider the importance and value of context, Instagram makes an indiscriminate decision about what is appropriate and inappropriate for us. Though community guidelines are useful, it’s not unreasonable to expect that most artists work within an ethical framework. In addition to this, is the loss of other personal freedoms such as the potential impact of increased social media exposure on a user’s mental health.
I decided to open an Instagram account after I moved from Chile to New Zealand in 2011. At the end of 2013 and after being turned down by the few galleries in NZ that would accept photographic submissions, I decided to self publish a series of small photo books featuring some of my work. The morning after I posted about it on Instagram, an order came in, not from Chile, not from NZ, but from France. I was stunned! By the end of 2014 I had sold 300 copies through Instagram alone, and mainly to people overseas.
Being far from perfect, Instagram is not the end goal nor will it ever replace a physical photobook BUT it has solved the distribution problem for me, and made it easier than ever for me to connect directly not only with my audience but with like-minded photographers and artists as well. So ultimately, without Instagram, I wouldn’t be participating in this debate or publishing my writing here!
I think I misunderstood Instagram and just thought it was people photographing their friends, and discovered there were a number of people, a number of artists, who were taking it very seriously and doing very imaginative work with Instagram as the medium.
A lot of the photography I’m doing and thinking about at the moment is directed at Instagram – Stephen Shore
Book page spreads from “Complements’ by Michael Mahne Lamb, finalist in the New Zealand Photobook of the Year Awards 2017