Does Instagram Kill Creativity?

Since the Last Blog Post

I was humbled by the response to the previous blog post, and it has taken me a little while to find something new to say. 

Many people are asking many of the same questions about Instagram these days it seems. Its pretty obvious that there are a few things troubling people about the way that it is being used. 

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This is an attempt at unpacking Topics about Content Creation and Creativity.

Overlapping here seem to be some other, related concerns about content creation, its environmental implications and the creative trajectory it seems to be taking due to platforms such as Instagram. Let me get to the point by first asking the central question:

Central Question: is Instagram killing creativity?

On Instagram, it is common to see certain “spots” over and over and over again. Many times, these  locations themselves are extremely beautiful, and it is pretty easy to understand why many people want to go there.  A (very) short list to make my point, it could be much longer:

  • Lago di Braies, Italy 
  • Skogafoss, Iceland
  • Horsehoe Bend, USA
  • Moraine Lake, Canada

Here’s the question: why do so many that go to these beautiful locations end up taking such similar pictures, or why do all of the most similar pictures somehow end up becoming the most popular, so popular in fact as to be considered caricatures at this stage?

Certain images just work (I’ll try to explore and unpack why a little later) and when someone sees that another persons image form a beautiful location works, that person might/will try to take one for themselves, to get a slice of the pie. When we start to unpack the motivations for why people behave in this way, we can get closer to the answer. Wanting to have beautiful pictures of yourself, your friends or your partner in beautiful locations is an end in and of itself. But it is not without its own problems.

Joe Shutter Iceland Does Instagram Kill Creativity?

Photographic Plagiarism

When you see somebody else's photo, you are seeing the result of somebody else’s creativity, an application of their equipment at a specific angle, in a specific time and in a precisely the right place (or the best possible place given the circumstances and prevailing conditions). 

What we arguably have here is something that Eric Bennet calls “photographic plagiarism”. Photos are being “stolen” through lack of imagination and creativity, resulting in a propagation of the kinds of photos.  

Here, we can see clearly that the motivation is all wrong. Yes, please be inspired to visit iconic locations, and yes please be further inspired or sufficiently inspired to go to an iconic location and look for a shot that has not been taken! Of course, there are intrinsic limits to this, some places only have one good angle. However, most places do in fact have many different and interesting angles, and all you have to do is seek them out. Seek, and you shall find. 

— Joe Shutter


How has this happened?

Its not all bad though, and in my opinion there are some excusable reasons for this.  There are some factors that are worth considering; intrinsic factors relating to how picture-viewing on Instagram actually works:

Joe Shutter Iceland Does Instagram Kill Creativity?
  1. Viewing size: lets face it, the iPhone+ sizes helped a lot, but the viewing size for Instagram is tiny. This massively impacts the effectiveness of what is posted on there.
  2. Some things just WORK: The age old photographic problem of two dimensional photo, three dimensional world means that communicating a sense of depth is one of the most important ways in which to make the photo powerful.
  3. Little people: after depth comes scale. This is the real reason why Instagram favours those “little people” shots, because it works!
  4. Depersonalised portraits: a person is facing away from the camera and looking out to a beautiful landscape. The facelessness easily allows you to imagine that that person could be you. This is again another very successful image motif. 
  5. This unholy alliance means that the same image concepts get re-hashed again and again in the same places. 

attack and defence

What am I saying? Attack and defence in the same post? Sort of.  Its all about the process.  What I want to see is that everyone is developing their own style. To do that sometimes its necessary to copy others a bit, especially if you're are just starting out and don't know what you're doing.

the basic formula

To borrow an analogy from music: when you start to learn jazz for example, you will enjoy a specific lick and then learn to play it. eventually you internalise the musical concepts that make that lick interesting and apply it it to something new. The formula goes something new.  

The basic formula looks something like this:

imitate → assimilate →innovate

However, if you make no attempt to apply to new concepts and locations, you get stuck with:

imitate → assimilate → imitate→ imitate→...→...

Why would you want to copy other peoples work and live in their shadow forever? To do so demonstrates a lack of courage, but more importantly is an example of creative bankruptcy.

Joe Shutter Iceland Does Instagram Kill Creativity?

Prints of all photos in this post available in my print shop

Creative Bankruptcy

As a photographer and content creator, you should be always and continuously striving to push the boundaries of your own creativity. Of course, it is impossible to be influenced by nobody, but that’s not the point.

The point is that people are going into a beautiful place, and taking the shot they have seen on Instagram, and rolling out again. I believe this is the wrong approach, which we can call creative bankruptcy. 

Copying other people’s pictures is creatively bankrupt.

There, I said it. 

Instead, draw inspiration from many sources and be authentic. Follow what speaks to your soul. There a million sources of inspiration, and you don’t ave to rely on one (or one social platform. Draw on many; books, conversations, history, architecture, paintings, natural forms. Anything. The mores sources the better. You can even use Instagram to start, there are few better places to start, but make sure you go over and above!

Joe Shutter Iceland Does Instagram Kill Creativity?

Solution: Thinking outside the “box”

What is this “box” that everyone keeps talking about, exactly? Well, in my opinion, it means different things to different people in different times in different places. Having said that, it does encapsulate the “zeitgeist”, or spirit of the times.

The box gets constructed and deconstructed constantly. Call it creative destruction. What’s outside gets brought inside. Non-standard thinking becomes standard, and suddenly, the box has changed. There are so many ways in which to add your own creative flare to a shot that by not thinking outside the “box” and exactly the right time, when you spend all this money and all this time going somewhere incredible 

It is always better to spread yourself less thinly rather than more; focus on a few locations and spend more time there


Possible cause: time poverty and hyper-connection

We live in a world where people seem to have less and less time for things, for life in general. In our hyper-connected world, there is a huge amount going on, a million things pulling at our attentions. 

It is not possible to make up for your lack of time by by trying to see as much as possible. The world is an uncertain place, messy, unpredictable and cannot always be optimised. If you try to do too much and something goes wrong, the knock-on implication could potentially ruin your entire trip.  

Possible cure: allow more time for creative flow

Slow down. Take your time. Explore the angles. This will increase your chances of making a real creative contribution to yourself and to those with whom you share your images. You will feel better for it too.

So, does Instagram kill creativity?

Joe Shutter Iceland: Does Instagram kill creativity?

To answer the original question in a word: no. Instagram does not kill creativity necessarily. It is the way in which people use Instagram that has become the problem. Use Instagram to inform yourself as to the state of the box, as a springboard to launch yourself outside of it as much as possible.

Go forth and prosper.

the world awaits, and its all yours for the taking.

feedback welcome!

As ever, I invite comments and feedback from those that took the time to check out my post. Its all about the conversation. I look forward to seeing  what you have to say below in the comments!


Joe Shutter is a freelance photographer and content creator and workshop leader working between the UK, Iceland and wherever the world calls. Check out the upcoming workshops in Greenland and Iceland this summer for more.

Joe also leads tours around Iceland, to show you a side that many miss, and few rarely see. come and Roam with Joe in Iceland!

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