Starting out in mobile image-sharing can feel like walking into a crowded collector's attic, where it's hard to tell what is important or meaningful from what is not. It is true: one person's treasure can be another's junk.
With so many images available online, how do we find what interests and inspires us?
An initial foray into Instagram, EyeEm or iPhoneart.com can be like sorting through someone else’s cluttered attic. Some of us enter knowing what to look for and don't notice much else, quick and efficient. Others are hoping to stumble across surprises and hidden gems. Then there are those who review everything, less discriminate in taste and democratic in preference.
Why are you on Instagram (IG)? Are you there to admire or be inspired by photography? Maybe you use it for the social experience of keeping up pictorially with friends and family. Are you following news from celebrities, organizations or corporate brands? Perhaps you are using the app to share your own personal daily journal or diary. Certainly, a user's image stream can be a combination of these and more, and you can experience one or more of these without even knowing that the others exist.
One appeal of mobile photography is this ability to customize one's experience of sharing and viewing, to develop and maintain a personal curation of images and experience. This can lead to community or to isolation, depending on selection criteria, frequency and intimacy of communication, and the cultivation of relationships that extend beyond merely superficial contact. What and who do I let in or keep out out of my stream, my view, and, in essence, my consciousness?
I didn't make up or coin the term, "personal curation," but I find it apt. No longer is it only a third party -- magazine editor, newspaper, gallery director, news channel -- choosing what we look at, admire or deem "good." Image-sharing networks integrate or connect what could have been, and often was, distinction functions within visual culture: create, consume, curate and, arguably, critique.
My image stream reflects my own interests, taste and tolerance, circle of social acquaintances, and level of activity and reciprocity. I can comment directly upon the work of others. I choose who to follow. I discover work and photographers or artists through my own initiative or the recommendations of others. In fact, I sometimes wrangle between an impulse to stay with what I like and know, and a desire to explore what is different, less familiar or even strange to me. Do I follow many and stay in the shallow end, or follow few and dive into the pool's deep end?
Here is when my metaphor of the stuffed attic falls short, because an image sharing network isn't limited to the exploration of just one individual's personal domain but those of many. It's like peaking into millions of attics: the good, bad and the ugly.
To get the most out of the social experience is to distill images, as both a creator and consumer. It's necessary to filter and sort through the supply. I don't just apply this to my viewing stream or hashtag searches. I try to apply it with some discipline to what I post of my own work. I am primarily on image-sharing networks to share my photography with others and to find work that inspires me. It's important to negotiate the tension between inclusivity and selectivity.
I'm purposeful about what and how often I share. I apply the notion of personal curation to my own work by being discriminate about what I choose to make public. My own distillation process begins with only posting what I consider to be my best work. I know it's subjective. Everyone isn't going to agree with my assessment of my own work, but it's where I start. I get it wrong plenty, believe me! I limit the number of posts to no more than three per day, spread throughout the day. Doing this gives people time with each image and opportunity to respond if they wish. Spamming your own stream can lead to unfollows pretty quickly.
I post the best take of any given subject; it's not my desire to have my audience serve as my editors or to clutter their viewing streams with multiple frames of the same landscape from every possible angle I could conceive. Choose the best to share; leave the others. Lastly, I always provide a photo caption. On image sharing networks that support the feature, this means hashtagging (#) the details in the caption: location, medium or phone model, project and when possible, genre.
Tags help users find, filter and sort images. It's the tool that can turn a clutter-filled and senselessness experience amongst thousands of images into a personalized, meaningful one. Tags can help users organize their own images by giving images in a set a common project, vacation, holiday or location name so it's possible to identify and find groups of photos. They also help others to find work they're interested in.
For example, my photo caption on Instagram typically looks like this: title, #seattle, #mobilephotography or #iphoneography, and #streetphotography, #documentary, or #blackandwhite or #color. These are also some of the tags I search most often because of personal interest. I try not to go overboard on tagging. Too many tags on a single image is like no tags at all. The point is to select through a process of distillation. This does mean eliminating images from a search. Otherwise, what's the point?
Tagging can potentially have another effect, which is to remove or isolate your Instagram feed from other’s searches. It's a simple axiom: it's not possible to be both included and excluded simultaneously. Tagging depends upon common conventions of naming and to some degree, linguistic agreement. Recently, I was part of a discussion on Google+ about the many tags used to mark mobile photography. At one point, I counted more than 25 different possible tags shared in the discussion thread: #mobilephotography, #mobilphotography, #mobilography, #iphoneography #androidography, #cellphonephoto and many more. Different groups were using different tags, and images or users slipped through. To broaden the inclusivity of any of the tags, it would be necessary to arrive at some agreement as to a shared naming convention and its regular use. Such agreement is typically informal rather than formal.
Groups around specific tags can begin to transform into communities, with tags being a pass through of shared interest, perhaps an increase in frequency or familiarity of communication, and cultivation of relationships. This can be the case with tags such as #igers_seattle on Instagram and Twitter, which is a group of mobile photography enthusiasts in Seattle that also meet up for photo walks and other events. Similar groups exists around the world and are quite active.
In the end, before a crowded collector's attic becomes a hoarder's haven, it's necessary to use some self-restraint, self-editing and selective tagging to keep the communities of mobile photography and art from becoming a cacophony. Everything cannot be equally valuable or important. Photography enthusiasts who want to have a valued presence on an image-sharing network would be well-served to self-edit and organize our contributions less we risk losing our images amidst the visual noise and clutter of our own visual culture.
Star Rush, @starrush360, is Seattle-based a photographer, writer, and educator. Her photography has been exhibited in the United States and Europe, and published in photography magazines Actual Colors May Vary, Camerpixo, Dodho.com Magazine, among others. Rush is a founding member of the Mobile Photo Group. She teaches composition and rhetoric, and literature at Cornish College of the Arts.