On a hot August morning in a cafe in Berlin’s Prenzlauer Berg district, I am meeting Christoph Kuenne, editor-in-chief of DOCMA, one of Germany’s leading magazines for image editing and photography, to speak about the power of influencers and my own path to success as a photographer in social media. This is the English version of the interview.
DOCMA: Your Instagram name ‘@jn’ is so incredibly short. How did you manage that?
When I registered on Instagram in October 2010, the platform was a mere week old. Back then you could basically pick any handle you wanted!
What made you decide to go with such an unknown channel at the time?
For me it wasn’t initially about sharing my pictures with the whole wide world; I just wanted to share them with a few friends. I was excited about the pictures I was taking with my new iPhone 4. I wanted to show them to friends and talk about them. Among ourselves we had really wanted to use Flickr, but the Flickr app was complicated to use and kept crashing. Simply uploading something quickly was relatively burdensome. Instagram was easier to use and ran reliably.
Since then you’ve uploaded 6,755 pictures; that’s an average of 850 pictures per year. Why have you been staying with it for so long?
The joy of conversing with people who are passionate about the same things was the most important thing for me in the first couple of years. I wanted to develop as a photographer and enjoyed being part of the international community. When my account reached 100,000 followers in 2012, I was invited onto my first Instagram trip. The journey literally catapulted me into a new life.
In what way?
Until then, everything had basically just been about great fun, even though the sort of fun that was requiring a degree of discipline: I posted every day three or more pictures on my account. My day job was here in Berlin at Free University, in the Education Sciences.
On this first trip, it suddenly clicked and I realised that Instagram was more than a virtual photographers’ society. We flew to Israel, were put up in luxurious hotels, and suddenly I was standing opposite Shimon Peres, who was then the Israeli President. I saw that what we were doing had more meaning than just uploading pretty pictures onto the internet.
What changed your perspective? Living the high life or having contact with a powerful person?
None of the above, really. These were just the external circumstances. I realised how important it was for people and organisations of influence to channel images of themselves and of their causes; given that they could not control them in the first place. A universally accessible platform like Instagram does take away some control. Yet, when you find a way, an arrangement, with important representatives of this platform, you can positively influence the image of yourself which is going to be shared with the world.
What I observed on the trip reminded me of the patterns that I had observed in my doctoral research. There I’d looked at human networks and how members of networks are guided by complex and indirect influencing patterns. It felt to me like a déjà vu of this mechanism in social networks and I realised what power we influencers can have.
The power of the influencers. That sounds fascinating. Are they really so influential?
Increasingly so. You can measure it in the growing interest from businesses. They too want to use the influence of photographers for their image and integrate these ‘multipliers’ in their campaigns. There are also very practical examples, for instance in tourism.
At the beginning of August, the Canadian influencer Fruitypoppin (1,3 million followers) posted a picture of herself on a sunflower farm. As a result, thousands of picture takers stormed that field, until the police closed off the streets around the flower nursery. Allegedly there were 7,000 cars on one day alone. The farmers’ son has been quoted as saying: “I can only describe it as like a zombie apocalypse.”
This shows how pictures from influencers can create a tourist attraction, something worth seeing that before simply hadn’t been worth seeing. You don’t even have to look that far for examples. There is this little bridge called Rakotzbrücke in Kromlauer Park near Görlitz, close to the Polish border. That bridge also had to be closed last year due to crowds of picture takers and tourists. It was in danger of collapsing. Hardly anybody had heard of it before it became a popular subject on Instagram.
How has the world of Instagram influencers changed over the years?
In the earlier years pictures took centre stage; their creators were perceived as photographers und gained glory for their creativity. Gradually, however, aesthetics lost their significance. Today, many Instagrammers don’t see themselves any longer as photographers but think of themselves as content creators. In my eyes, that’s a sign that pictures on Instagram have been re-evaluated – they are now more like a commodity whose value is measured in likes and comments.
Relatively soon, a group of Instagrammers emerged who made themselves the subject of their pictures. It started with selfies, but now many let themselves accompany by photographers. Their followers can participate in their staged lives, often in intimate moments. To the viewer these pictures look like postcards from friends. They reassure: everything is okay. The captions explain and appraise the contexts of the pictures. This form of representation is perfectly suited for marketing deals, as you can present yourself with a product, which is – in the most believable way possible – being embedded in the presented life style.
Another change is that the world of the pictures and its protagonists, which once were a subculture of sorts, has now entered the traditional media. Instagrammers have become style guides in women’s magazines; they are experts on TV programmes and they have programme slots on the radio. That’s true for social media figures of all channels.
What exactly do the pictures shot by influencers do with us consumers?
They appeal most of all to our desires and create demand. We influencers are seen as ‘authentic’ media – a horrible word – (laughs). We influencers are considered peers, and therefore the viewers think that what they are seeing in the pictures is attainable. These things seem in easier reach than what they’d find in glossy magazines or in traditional TV commercials.
If you consider the example of place again, well, then some Instagrammers would like to be there too, would also like to take such pictures. But alongside the ‘what’ – the world outside of your own four walls, photographed with your own brought along camera – there’s undeniable allure in the ‘how’ as well. Many German Instagrammers model their photo style after American examples and try – often very successfully – to translate these styles into the German context. That way they turn the supposedly known into something special, which then increases the attraction to look at it. That’s the case for passive viewers as much as for active imitators. It leads to a new perception of the world around them.
Once you’ve taken pictures of your own world, the next step is to then jump onto a budget airline flight to other fantastic destinations on the globe. If you think about who benefits from such a behavioural change, then you realise the dimensions that we are talking about: next to the camera and smart phone industries, all kinds of providers in the area of tourism and mobility, stretching to fashion as well. You naturally also have to be suitably dressed.
For many cities who want to boost tourism that is an exciting field. Some have already begun constructing buildings, including hotels, in a way that they are what used to be called photogenic - and is now much better described as Instagrammable.
What kind of pictures does one need to take to be successful?
There’s no standard recipe. As a landscape photographer, you can’t simply copy the ‘American style’; which means taking an elevated position, choosing a mountain range as the background, photoshopping some fog into the picture and steeping the entire composition in a colourful look – and voilà, there you’ve got your successful pictures.
One possibility might be to think about what makes a valuable picture. There’s the content first of all. A picture showing a famous person is worthier to most Instagram users than one featuring somebody with whom they don’t associate anything. It’s also preferable to photograph in places where you require privileged access, or which are hard to get to. You can push this even further, by gaining access to some place illegally, by crossing barriers or by risking life and limb for taking a picture. It goes without saying that this is bound to have undesirable side-effects for the photographer.
So, it’s not about finding spectacular motives, but one does get rewarded for investing time and effort into the creation of a picture. One can, for instance, elevate a picture through complex and drawn out camera techniques or photoshopping. Alternatively, you could expose yourself to extreme inconveniences. Nature photographers do this, when they lie hidden on the lookout for days – to observe animals and shoot their top picture at exactly the right moment.
Returning to your own photos, what do they show that interests so many others?
I guess they show places of longing which tell a story. They are mainly about the atmosphere created by light, about mobility, and about people – who often remain abstract. One of my favourite subjects is cars; I post them each week under the hashtag #asundaycarpic.
How do you earn your money?
Since I gave up my job at university in 2016, my income comes from three areas: I take on classic photo commissions for company communications such as BMW, Nissan, Seat, Volkswagen, Land Rover, Lenovo, Kodak, HTC, Sony, Adobe or Huawei. People also book me for talks and workshops. In addition, I represent Lumix cameras as a brand ambassador.
What exactly does a brand ambassador do?
As a brand ambassador you support – as a freelancer – the introduction of new products. You do this in person at events as well as through the media on your own digital channels. You produce images which are made with the new devices before they are available in the shops. Again, workshops and presentations are part of this.
What’s in your gadget bag when you are out and about?
My Lumix camera, of course! I like them because they are so small. More often than not, I have a GX9 or a G9 with different prime lenses with me. Add to that iPhone and iPad, which I use for working on the raws with Lightroom CC and for data backup. Nearly always I carry a tripod, a neutral-density filter, and increasingly the mini drone Mavic Pro.
Which trends are you spotting in street and landscape photography?
In street photography, I expect a partial turning away from street portraits that don’t keep a distance. I think photographers will stop moving very close to their subjects physically or with long telephoto lenses. I’m seeing more and more abstract compositions, which weave window reflections or raindrops into the picture. This trend could also be an indirect consequence of new, stricter regulations.
In landscape photography, the use of telephoto lenses is growing. It contributes to a stronger, staggered alignment of elements in the pictures. One can also detect a growing preference for the vertical format, as subjects in portrait orientation look better on smart phones.
What does the future hold for Instagram from your point of view?
If those in charge don’t repeat the mistakes Facebook made, Instagram will in the future remain the platform where picture-based stories are told. The fact that Instagram is traditionally very international plays a role: As it’s picture-based, language barriers don’t come into play as much as, let’s say, with Twitter.
I expect changes for the marketing done by influencers. It will have to become more professional. This concerns the ethical standards, just to stay credible. Such standards are now still being violated too often by many who are in the business, for instance when likes and followers are being bought. On the other hand, the new professional group of influencers will in the foreseeable future need to build stronger networks and form its own professional organisations to fend for its interests.
Thank you for taking the time for this in-depth conversation.