#LightBoxFF: Oliver Lang's Crash Course on Adapting to Instagram

7 minute read

Welcome to this week’s edition of TIME’s LightBox Follow Friday, a series where we feature the work of photographers who are using Instagram in new and engaging ways. Each week we will introduce you to the person behind the feed through his or her pictures and an interview with the photographer.

This week on #LightBoxFF, TIME spoke with Oliver Lang (@oggsie), a photographer, mobile photography consultant and co-founder of the Mobile Photo Network (@mobilephotonetwork). Lang, a strong believer in the power of the smartphone to change people’s relationship with photography, explains how photojournalists could benefit from using a platform such as Instagram.

LightBox: What’s mobile photography, in your mind?

Oliver Lang: Mobile photography is photography. Though if you say that mobile photography is only photography it’s like saying there’s no difference between driving a car or catching a bus, it’s just transport, right? Yet the actual experiences are vastly different. No one questioned the name “mobile phone” when it was used compared to a fixed line phone. Over the last few years as mobile photography became the photographic experience of hundreds of millions of people across the world it was often called the death of photography, or worse. Today we discuss mobile phones in terms of megapixels and screen resolution, and I believe that mobile photography isn’t the death of photography, it is the death of the phone. A generation of professional photographers will appear from the impact of mobile photography, and true professionals will adapt and find ways to work within the new visual environment.

LB: How have mobile phones changed photography?

OL: The crucial difference that has made mobile photography one of the biggest turning points in photographic history is that anyone can both create and consume mobile photography from the same single device (and not from a mix of multiple connected devices). A mobile phone camera is the most common photographic device in history. Today nearly everyone walks around with one of them. It’s this use of the mobile phone camera for mobile photography which has revealed an absolutely crucial point about mobile photography. I share images shot from a mobile phone to an audience who view my image on a mobile phone via social media. My audience and I use the same device. This is a unique point in the history of photography.

The previously perceived barriers to photographic involvement (lack of knowledge, equipment and experience) are mostly removed by the shared nature of the device and the common social experience. The social use of an accessible and affordable device means that everyone feels as though they can create, or attempt to create, images of the highest quality. I don’t believe that this means that everyone is a photographer, I simply believe that if anyone wants to try to be one then they can try.

London Liverpool Street Station, July 18, 2014

LB: Where does Instagram fit in this equation?

OL: I think that Instagram is the leading platform for sharing mobile images across mobile devices. There are other apps and older photo sharing services, but Instagram was designed in a way that not only allows you to share images, but also to build audiences and communities. I can’t see, at the moment, anyone overtaking it as the leading platform although there are some interesting niche players who are expanding the medium.

Before Instagram, I was part of a global community that shared mobile photography images on Twitter using the hashtag #iPhoneography. The images we shared were often hosted on a blend of secondary sites like Flickr or Tumblr, so while this initial community experience was crucial to my photographic development it wasn’t very cohesive. So when Instagram launched with the essential building blocks for interacting with a photographic community through photography it completely took off, and has actually continued to improve as a platform.

Recently Instagram added a set of photo processing controls where previously there was only those unfortunate filters. To some photographers these improvements won’t seem interesting, but to millions of people who haven’t had any experience or prior understanding of post processing, let alone photography, these new tools will have just opened up a huge potential photographic experience. When you think about these small changes, their incremental effects and the role they play in the curiosity that all people have for visual communication, it becomes very interesting for photography. This global community is the crucial element of mobile photography.

Instagram isn’t a purely photographic platform, it is a visually participative platform, and this means that it’s one that photographers can quickly adapt to and use as a part of their photographic practice.

#SelfieSchool at @tategallery, April 4, 2014

LB: Do you think professional photographers, especially photojournalists, have been using Instagram to its full potential?

OL: I’ve watched seasoned photographers adopt Instagram, how they initially engage with an audience and what sort of information or context they share. It’s clear that while most have immense photographic experience, they aren’t sure how to make use of this new publishing platform. They don’t know how to interact with an audience.

There are a lot of great photographers already on the platform, some of whom are not professional photographers, so there is a good basis for comparison to what others have done. There are several guides published by various photography websites usually quoting previously suggested users (with massively inflated followings) but these are purely around aspirational photography, where if you put a car in the shot you’re suddenly in advertising. I don’t think there’s much discussion specific to photojournalism. There are accounts like the New Yorker or Burn Diary who hand the reins over to a photographer every few days, which is good for photographer awareness, but very few lessons are passed on or applied from previous photographers.

Most photojournalists have struggled to work out where Instagram fits into their work, and many have no idea how to maintain the quality of their images when shooting with a mobile phone. There are notable exceptions including Michael Christopher Brown, Ben Lowy and Andrew Quilty and several others who have all shown the potential for documentation from a mobile phone, particularly around and during existing assignments.

I think that using Instagram is great for photojournalists because it helps them see their photographs through other people’s eyes. They’re connected directly to their actual audience who are literally in touch with them as they reach through the phone and like or comment on an image. With Instagram, they can get direct feedback from their audience instead of through a photo editor.

But, they also learn the frustrating aspect of Instagram, where boring cliche photography gets likes while incredible photojournalism can often go under appreciated.

Once a photojournalist begins to develop their audience, they should be thinking of how they can leverage their following to obtain funding for assignments. They should connect with local Instagram users, if there are any, in the communities that they are visiting to take on a interactive, curatorial role. They should let go of the preconceived ideas of photojournalism, forget the hero image, the World Press Photo awards and the potential portfolio of images. They should instead create communities around which a new audience will appear, out of reach of a traditional faceless media.

Of all I have learned in mobile photography, it is that the value of an image is completely relative to the context in which it is shared. Photojournalists have never had so much opportunity to control their image context. They never had so much interaction with their community. The change to the audience experience has already happened, it’s time that photojournalism changed as well.

Oliver Lang is a photographer, mobile photography consultant and co-founder of the Mobile Photo Network (@mobilephotonetwork). Follow him on Instagram @oggsie.

Olivier Laurent is the editor of TIME LightBox. Follow him on Twitter and Instagram @olivierclaurent

See more from TIME’s #LightBoxFF series here

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