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The lure of Instafame

Vijay Verghese, Editor, Smart Travel AsiaInstagram pulls in millions but who really cares. And is travel photography dead in this press-button age? All is not lost…


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by Vijay Verghese/ Editor

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Instagram yoga poses

I believe Instagram: This what regular well adjusted working class people do every morning

I JOINED INSTAGRAM. Yes, I succumbed. I was told I was a complete idiot for not signing up especially as a travelling journalist with an arsenal of clickers. Indeed my dad’s vintage leather-grain Russian Zorki had set the ball rolling in the early ’60s along with a Brownie-style box camera, which I thrust into the snout of any dog I came across. Along with the lens dribble came a few shots, mostly blurred, of startled canines slinking away. My mum was delighted, but less so when I invited the ‘models’ – a family of five strays – to our home, a gracious white colonial expanse with generous lawns where some manner of crude photography, teen acne, lawn cricket, and heatstroke convivially came together in the 40C Delhi summers.

Then came a svelte but hardy 35mm Olympus OM1, a Nikon FM2, some Canons and, after running through Sony’s NEX line, Nikon’s monster 36 megapixel D800 that requires a Humvee – or a muscle-bound assistant – to cart around. It cost a fortune but is a delight to work with, along with the bragging rights that come with a camera of this class and heft.

So I visited Instagram and was immediately impressed by the scope and range of the photography on offer despite the odd limitations of a rather small and fixed viewing format. Here was aurora borealis by the mile, the Milky Way in stark pinprick clarity shot through a Grand Canyon arch or through a Peruvian forest canopy, animals in every pose imaginable, picture-postcard reflections from Venice to Holland, and the Herculean Himalaya in all its moods and majesty.

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Remarkably, much of this was shot on an iPhone. And here I was, shopping for a Humvee.

I have an iPhone 5s. I point. I shoot. I send it to Instagram where it is shrunk to an immaculate square that careens across mobile phone screens around the world along with millions of other tiny squares. It is a welter of creativity where art is judged not on its intrinsic merit but in terms of ‘followers’, ‘engagement’, and ‘influence’.

{Selfie queens with arms outstretched stand atop vertiginous cliffs perusing saffron sunsets just waiting to be pushed off their perch by fed-up purists...

This is interesting. Art, once the preserve of wealthy royal patrons and hugely talented, if impoverished, artists like Michelangelo and Leonardo Da Vinci, has morphed beyond the closed-world realm of sniffy magazine art designers and frowning photo editors, into an unimaginably diverse and open ecosystem of applications and delivery systems, many targeting that tiny bit of visual real estate in the palm of your hands – a cell phone screen.

Selfie queens with arms outstretched stand atop vertiginous cliffs perusing saffron sunsets just waiting to be pushed off their perch by fed-up purists. Yet, these are people with thousands of followers. Twenty thousand is about par for the course. Many attract a following of over 100,000 and a few have crossed the million mark. There are about 400 million ‘Instagrammers’ now waiting to follow you into the sunset.

Added to the ecstatically narcissistic preoccupation of pre-teens and celebrities is the compelling ripple of private lives unfolding – dogs, cats, kids, young lovers, churches, winding roads, burgers, dim sum – and the brilliant work of professionals who have gravitated into this arena, some blushingly, some clearly in thrall of this new self-marketing medium that in many senses totally outclasses Facebook as a social media platform without the limitations of language. The stage belongs to all.

So is there a downside? It is said, a fine line separates genius from madness, brilliance from baloney. And sometimes mass means mess. We have always assumed that ‘quality’ is an aspiration we work towards with a combination of education, acquired skills, and experience. In other words, it takes time to acquire a craft, and the accretion of years to attain prominence in any field. Instagram is insta-fame for an #instagood #photooftheday. It is an alluring shortcut to stardom and instant celebrity.

Photographers and artists shackled by Instagram’s mobile phone architecture (without a true PC offshoot though it can be viewed passively on a website), have recourse to a range of filters and tweaks available on Instagram as well as programmes like BlueStacks that enable users to run applications and games on a PC or Mac. Using BlueStacks you can edit pictures on Photoshop or any professional software and then upload the finished product from your computer to Instagram. It’s not fail proof but it helps. Others simply edit their work and then e-mail the files as attachments that they download onto their cell phone.

So despite the proliferating mind-numbing blah and scammers posing as aficionados with the promise of securing vast numbers of free followers, art is not dead. Travel photography is booming and seeing a new renaissance.  Whether followers actually have time to peruse and appreciate the cascade of images flooding their screens, whether marketers truly get the ‘engagement’ they dream about, and whether young ‘travel influencers’ actually influence anyone other than their rapturous parents, remains to be seen. The jury is out.

It is smart to make a distinction between photographers and filter philanderers who thumb through effects to gussy up their dreary world; between professional journalists and casual bloggers; applied art and applications. The assumption that an app will transform you into a professional is deeply mistaken. The fact that I have Excel on my computer doesn’t make me a chartered accountant or a finance whizz. And no filter, howsoever nimble, can replace a professional eye.

Yet there is much on display that deserves applause. And, for most, it’s neither about applause, nor art. It’s simply plodding quotidian personal history being recorded – to be shared with friends.

So, like so many others, I have blushingly signed up and joined the fun, if not the Game. Here's some of our stuff. What do you make of it all?

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