After 187k Followers, I Deleted Instagram as a Professional Photographer

All images by Charlie Naebeck. Used with permission.

I topped out at 187k followers on Instagram – I spent day and night constantly checking numbers, likes, comments, and often lost time that would have been better spent on things that actually matter. I once had dreams of becoming a popular photographer in New York City – A photographer called upon to photograph the who’s who of the fashion and commercial worlds. Enter a “real” photography career – people don’t really call you. You have to call them and often times hope to get through to someone that cares, let alone someone that actually hires you for what you are worth. 

For the Exposure

They say that it is a good idea to put your work out there in as many places as possible – to post, share, or insta-book-chat-whatever. So I did just that. I even went as far as to hire a social media manager to run my accounts at one point to optimize posting to get maximum engagement. And for a while, it worked. 

Did 187k followers actually help me in any way to obtain work? No! Did I get one single thing out of Instagram outside of becoming a digital rat hitting the feeder bar for self-gratification? No! Did the people who are in positions to hire see my work to get me hired? No!  

On a positive note, from my experience with Instagram, I will say that it was very easy to find willing subjects willing to partake in my book projects – projects that I often lost money at instead of gaining in my career. Everyone always “likes” your work, but I found that most are not willing to financially invest into photography enough to make a proper living wage. 

I also often struggled, wishing that I could see my friends in person instead of through a phone screen. There is a lack of personal connection that is taken away when you can only talk through chat, posts, or stories. 

The Pandemic

In December 2019, I had planned on charting a course to teach a 20-city workshop tour. I was going to spend time with family for a couple months before hitting the road, and it was going to be my personal escape from hiding behind my phone to see a lot of my friends and followers in person. In March of 2020, just one month before my scheduled launch date, word of the pandemic hit. 

At first, I changed how I interacted with Instagram. I thought I could post something fully authentic to inspire others through a hard time, as, one by one, every place around the globe seemed to go into lockdown. I launched weekly donation-based Instagram live workshops on several popular photography topics. And I got a handful of my students that joined regularly. But that in-person face-to-face connection you get when teaching an actual class in person was still severely lacking.

The Hungry Instagram Followers and Mental Health

A couple of months into the pandemic, I also realized that personal relationships with people I am close with had dwindled. Everyone seemed to be tired of seeing the same regurgitated images that I had posted prior from my archives, and my engagement severely dropped. I also think that everyone was simply tired of being on social media and hearing about pandemic things in some ways. But nonetheless, I was no longer getting the numbers that I once saw. 

As a creative, I myself have also suffered from deep bouts of depression. Photography, in general, always has a way of bringing me back to life – It is my voice, my heart, and a language all on its own where I do not need to say words to express myself. I stumbled into a bout of depression, which felt like it was impossible to get out of. 

I began to do other things like building a wood and metal shop from the ground up to make things. I camped in nature and learned survival skills. I started my own t-shirt line online. And I wrote lots of music. 

During this time, I didn’t post much on my Instagram. It felt super discouraging with the engagement numbers that were coming in. So in October of 2020, after realizing that it felt like I was chasing popularity on Instagram instead of actually spending time with family and friends in my life that matter, I decided that it was time to say goodbye to Instagram. 

Leaving Instagram

I genuinely think that the time that I spent agonizing over numbers, likes, comments, and things of that nature on Instagram affected my health, it affected my relationships, and most importantly – why was I doing it? It was not getting me anywhere! 

I carefully deleted every single post in my feed and gave myself time to re-live some of the good memories. And then I messaged everyone that I could find in my friends list that I actually know in person that I was leaving Instagram for good. If one leaves Instagram, I highly suggest connecting in the old-fashioned email or phone method with anyone important. And for some people, the only method of contact that I had with them prior was on Instagram. 

My finger hovered over the “would you like to permanently delete Instagram?” button for approximately 30 seconds before I clicked it. Once I clicked it, a state of sudden panic set in. What on earth did I do? What will I do? How will I share my work? 

But I can say for a fact several months later now that it gets much easier. Instead of likes or comments these days, I prefer phone calls, texts, writing letters, or emails. My friends and I find this a much better way to communicate. And quite honestly – no one has asked me why I am not on Instagram anymore. I would advise anyone that has experienced things like I have to push the delete button also. You may find that life goes on outside of Instagram. 

Charlie Naebeck

"If there is one thing that I have learned, it is that life is about being happy and sharing adventures." - Charlie Naebeck 2021 Partial Client list: Madison Square Garden, Birdie Box, Studio Now, Adorama TV & Education Center, Conde Nast, Pinner & Co, CCMP Capital, LP, Columbia University, The University of Michigan, Price Waterhouse Coopers, Jordan Matter, GQ, Vogue IT, and House of Blues Chicago. In addition to commissioned work, Naebeck has successfully published four books to date: Resonance (2014), Glimpses (2015), In Crossing (2015), and Kinetic (2017)"