Is Instagram Ruining Photography?

Berlin-based photographer Timotheus Theisen discusses Instagram’s impact on his work.


The advent of Instagram marked a momentous change for photographers the world over. While the platform enables users to reach potential audiences and clients of previously unthinkable dimensions, critics argue that the quality of photography suffered by becoming too similar and formulaic. For photographer Timotheus Theisen, Instagram is a double-edged sword.

At the age of 13, Timotheus aka @tatendurst was first introduced to a 35mm Contax camera from the 1980s by his dad. In a five-hour session at the kitchen table, he learnt everything about shutter speed, exposure and film speeds. Building on these basics, Tim took his camera on trips with Youth Scouts to Berlin’s surrounding forests and uploaded his output to MySpace. 

As a result, he gained some notoriety, attracting the attention of some local bands. Soon, he was shooting shows across town. After assisting a well-established commercial photographer in Hamburg, he landed a job as junior photographer at an auctioneering house, helping establish the company’s cataloguing department. Four years later, the company went out of business. It was then that Tim started his career as a freelance photographer. Now, Tim works for clients around the globe as well as producing and exhibiting his own creative work.

We spoke with Tim to learn more about the trials and tribulations that a modern photographer faces in the new Instagram dominated media landscape.

Hi Tim. How important is self-marketing in today’s job market as a photographer?
Self-marketing is everything. Building relationships was always essential for photographers and I don’t think this has changed in the digital age. The classic strategy of chatting up agencies, art directors and brand marketing officers hasn’t changed because they are still the people who will ultimately offer you work. It’s a people business. The quality of your work is one thing, but if nobody wants to work with you as a person, they won’t book you a second time. The only difference is that it is possible to get booked directly through Instagram.

The American writer Joan Didion once said: “not working is true misery.” How do you cope with being out of work between jobs?
I’m never really out of work. There is always something to do. If there is no commercial project coming up for the next week or so, I do my accounting, I call up clients and I meet people for coffee. I try to connect with new contacts. It’s actually beneficial because I have time to come up with my own projects. I take time off to concentrate on my own projects, in that time I don’t accept any commercial offers.

In an environment heavily driven by the attention economy, do you find it hard to gain attention for your projects?
I believe you have to liberate yourself from that way of thinking, but when you publish something you do hope it sticks with people and that you will be remembered for it. Back in the day, people had to go to galleries or had to buy magazines to be able to look at art. Nowadays, with platforms such as Instagram everybody can view beautiful images whenever they want to. For me, seeing the output of other artists on Instagram can be inspiring but can also bring me down as I start comparing myself to them and maybe think my work isn’t good enough or that I need to improve in certain ways. This form of competition can be nice but also very daunting and not very productive.

We’re bombarded with beautiful images all day, every day on Instagram. Do you think the amount of content published online has the potential to trivialize art?
No, definitely not. There is this misconception nowadays that everybody with a smartphone has the ability to take a good photo. I mean, sure they can get lucky but they lack the expertise, the routine and the years of experience – they’re not going to get a good picture every time. The human side of photography is still the major component. The flood of images on Instagram might even elevate art because now there is so much crap on the Internet, so many shitty images of flowers, dogs and lunches.

For your recent exhibition you explored the streets of New Orleans during Mardi Gras. How do people react when you are taking photos of them in the streets?
People in the US and in Germany react very differently to cameras. A project like mine in New Orleans would not have been possible in Germany. Germans have this weird idea of privacy, even in the public space. Americans, on the other hand, love being photographed, especially during Mardi Gras when they put all this effort into their costumes. For example, a German street photographer I know displayed a picture of a busy subway scene in a gallery and he actually got sued by a woman that was in the photo.

Our online behavior sometimes seems very careless when it comes to privacy. Taking this into account, how do you feel about the extreme reactions of people when it comes to being in a photo?
It is good that people are worried, but it’s not a small artist like me that will bring them down. When you fly into London your face is being scanned fifteen times just from the plane to the baggage pick-up. I mean, Germany isn’t as bad as France, the UK and the US, but still organizations like NSA and GSHQ know everything about everyone and they save this information. When you think about this constant surveillance we live in, it’s ironic how people react to being in a photograph. All of a sudden, they have this “I own myself” attitude. I mean what do they think is going to happen? I think, there is a certain arrogance in it, like “I’m so important I can’t be photographed.“

While we are on the topic of privacy, Instagram is known to exploit behavioral patterns of their users by targeting them with custom-made content. How do you feel about being part of this development?
I know it’s a thing but somehow it doesn’t seem to apply to me because it never shows me what I would want to buy. The whole development is pretty evil in the way the application is crafted to release dopamine and keep us hooked on the screen. I think it’s everyone’s personal responsibility to use these services responsibly.

In 2017 the Harvard professor Shoshana Zuboff said that “Digital technology is separating the citizens in all societies into two groups: the watchers and the watched.” Where do you see yourself?
As I don’t work in the technology sector, I guess I’m one of the watched. Since I only control my own content but I don’t control what happens with it or how my location services are being tracked and saved. None of us has any control over it.

Instagram has also been critiqued for creating echo chambers because certain content is known to be popular and is therefore emulated. Does this phenomenon affect photographers you know?
Yes, nude women is kind of like a currency – those posts will get you the most likes. I try to avoid it, but I know that a girl in a swimsuit will get 1000 likes, while a portrait of an older man will only get 200 likes. Some photographers work in a broad range in their everyday business but will only post female models on their social media channels to get this form of attention.

I think so, although the most attention we give online images is probably around two seconds, which is different in print. That is why it is important to still do exhibitions. People need to have the opportunity to be able to take their time and appreciate the images for what they can be, while also creating a space where they can dialogue about their experience.

Has the role of the photographer changed as a consequence?
20 years ago clients had much more trust in photographers. Especially in smaller commercial shoots people are quite interchangeable nowadays. Today shooting digitally and having instant results visible changed how jobs are being executed today with clients being able to helicopter their photographers. But therefore it is important to build trust and there is always going to be a market for good photography. Having a fancy camera, doesn’t make you a good photographer just like owning a fast car doesn’t make you a race car driver.

Does this mean there is less space for risk-taking in the creative process for photographers today?
There is a sense of boredom in the aesthetic of the German advertising market. By contrast, advertisers in Paris and London produce fresh and exciting content. The German market feels quite conservative and not many people are willing to take risks. However, if they try something different and it works, everybody jumps on it and it all looks the same again.

Follow Tim on Instagram at @tatendurst

Marie Herr