When I grow up, I want to be a photographer. I bought the cameras, the lenses, and the software; I've joined the forums, I've built three blogs, and I've had at least four Flickr accounts, a Facebook fan page, and two Tumblrs. Oh yeah, and I learned how to take decent photos.
What I hadn't done is found a community that worked for me.
At least I hadn't until I bought an iPhone and downloaded Instagram. Facebook (NASDAQ: FB ) has since bought the 100 million-user photo sharing application, though for me, it has eclipsed Zuckerberg's monster as my social media community of choice. If you aren't familiar, the concept is simple: It's Twitter for pictures. You snap, you apply hashtags (#familyvacation, #bucketlist, #blackandwhite), and you share with your followers, who "like," comment, and otherwise interact with you via your art.
I love Instagram because it has given me the opportunity to connect and collaborate with other photographers, and for my photography to be seen and judged by the industry.
Soon after joining, I started following other local Instagramers, one of whom advertised an upcoming Instameet, which is when users meet somewhere particularly interesting or picturesque and take a photo walk, posting photos to Instagram along the way, usually using a specific hashtag, like #dcinstameet. I decided to attend.
Looking for the group at your first Instameet is a little nerve-racking, because the only opening line you have is essentially, "Hey, are you the people who also like to take pictures with your phones? OK, cool." But it turns out that Instagramers are a friendly bunch, and spending time with them is like being among your own. No one looks at you funny when you point your iPhone at a pile of leaves in the gutter or ask someone to pose on top of a tractor with a serious face (or climb into a shopping cart). (All things that have happened.)
Meeting fellow Instagramers in person makes interacting with them via the app that much more fun. And seeing your own city through the eyes -- and aesthetic -- of other photographers is refreshing and inspiring.
As I became more interested in the Washington, DC, photography community, I started following the Instagram account of photography collective InstantDC. The group highlights local photographers, featuring them on its Instagram feed and sometimes its website, like all feature accounts do. Feature accounts are usually headed by a group of a few users, and they either focus on a theme -- like landscapes or black and white images -- or simply highlight Instagramers they like. (Other popular feature accounts include @instagood, @instaaaaah, and Instagram super-user @JoshJohnson, who created the famously unwieldy #jj community.) A feature from an account like one of these exposes Instagram users to all of that group's followers, multiplying the photographer's audience by, well, a lot.
Things got interesting when InstantDC featured one of my photos on its Instagram feed and its website. I then decided to submit some photos to the organization's Instagram contest, "Soul of the City." I found out I was a top 10 selection, which meant my photo would be displayed in their show during FotoWeekDC 2012.
Seeing my photo printed and displayed in a photography exhibit was an experience mildly surreal for me. But even more exciting was how my inclusion in the show reinforced my presence in the local photography community. As someone who had previously enjoyed photography as a mostly solitary activity, Instameets, exhibits, and talking to other people about my work were all new experiences for me.
But the cool thing about Instagram is that this sense of community isn't just local. It's everywhere. It exists any time two photographers decide to collaborate on a shot, like I've done with Instagramers from Vancouver and the U.K. It exists any time an Instagramer builds an audience around a hashtag, like #roofline_envelope, #thoughtfulseats, and #biketothefuture. And it exists any time two Instagramers fall into mutual support of each other's work, as I've had the joy of doing with many fine artists from around the world.
Since I joined Instagram in June, I have posted 273 photos, connected with more than 1,000 followers, and downloaded over 25 photo editing apps. But for me, Instagram is so much more than vintage filters, sharing what you had for lunch, or mass amounts of followers. It's a community that is actually about community -- artists supporting, inspiring, and collaborating with each other. I follow photographers from Tasmania, Hong Kong, Ecuador, and Iceland. I have seen the world one amazing, 1936x1936-pixel picture at a time.
And I love it.