You Don’t Need a Big Following to be a Fantastic Photographer

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When I reached 100 followers on Instagram, I thought I had arrived. Instagram was largely new to me, and a confusing place at first, too, because there were, and are, no metrics, unlike Flickr where I had put my photography up until that point. Instagram was the place to be, and if I could get enough traction, my worth as a photographer would be solidified in hearts and numbers. There were folks with followers in the tens and hundreds of thousands, some even in the millions. Wouldn’t that be nice? A massive following the thought wasn’t, and it took a while for me to shake it.

Numbers and hearts guided nearly everything I put up. I’d close the app and put my phone away, letting algorithms do their thing. When I’d return to the app a while later, the orange bubbles would send a shot of dopamine through me. The higher the number, the stronger the spike.  There would be some mornings when I’d wake up to a huge spike. Someone had found my feed and gone through most of my photos, tossing a heart every so often. Occasionally, I’d take risks by putting up photos that weren’t so clear-cut, photos that I ostensibly liked more than the ones that got more attention, and I’d be dismayed when there was a slow drip of hearts.

My growth was slow, and even now, it’s a very modest number. I was also under the impression that the camera mattered. My phone wasn’t a serious enough tool. I’d shuttle jpegs to my phone over wi-fi, trick them out in VSCO, and put them up, thinking that an image made with a capital C Camera would bring in more accolades, both in hearts and followers. That, too, proved to be nonsense. The camera didn’t matter at all, and I eventually stopped tagging my images with manufacturer names, camera models and lens types.

What mattered was the photograph. What mattered more than that was who I was photographing for. For a long time, I photographed to boost my numbers. I photographed for the audience that would hopefully arrive. Maybe I’d get on somebody’s radar. Maybe I’d make some fruitful connection. Maybe I’d be happy with myself as a photographer because I’d have the numbers to prove it.

Those numbers never really came. I stopped photographing for an audience that might arrive one day and started photographing for myself. If an image gets a handful of hearts, that’s more than enough. Some are better received than others, but what matters is that these are images I like. I’m not content – I don’t think I ever want to be content – but as long as I keep making images for myself, I’m okay.

Once I stopped photographing for an audience, I regained my sense of self, which is perhaps the biggest gain, and it’s what I’d advise for anyone joining Instagram, or any other service really. Maintain your sense of self. Numbers’ll happen, but don’t let the promise of them guide your work.