Sharing photography online in 2022 is a fraught endeavor. It’s easy, sure, but for all the wrong reasons. You’re faced with algorithms favoring short form video, feeds that never gave your image more than a few seconds of attention anyway, quality compression, and small screens to boot.
The recent uproar about Instagram’s push further into short form video isn’t surprising, nor is it the first cycle in photographer’s grief with the app. Just look back at when Stories came out. That’s the thing about Instagram, it’s purpose was never to serve photography itself. Back when it was photo focused it still pushed the never-ending scroll and shortening attention spans rampant online today.
Instagram’s greatest accomplishment was essentially democratizing photography via its filters, easy sharing, and social connection. Now people who never had an interest before had an easy entrance to the rabbit hole, and photographers were connected to millions of people ready to view, share, and connect with their work. What Instagram did for photography is incredible and toxic at the same time. A large number of our generation’s photographers think in an aesthetic grid instead of deeper questions about their work.
All this is also why for all the complaints you see, no platform has risen to beat Instagram. Do photographers want a still image focus? Yes. Do they also want the possibility of connecting with Instagram’s two billion users? Of course. You simply can’t beat the scale.
This isn’t an article about beating Instagram, or about how we wish social would go away completely, but it is an article about what I hope to see from photographers moving forward—a vision for a better future for sharing work online in new and creative ways. The best part is the answer already exists, and existed long before Instagram was even created.
What’s next? The rise of the photo newsletter.
(I also hope alongside this we see a resurgence in personal websites and visual storytelling in magazines, but photo newsletters are my focus)
What is a photo newsletter? And why?
It’s email. Images shared via email.
So simple, yet completely underrated.
Email is alive and well. A private space where readers decide what matters enough to them to subscribe to, to correspond with individuals or groups, with all the multimedia capability and user base you need built right in.
Why email for photographers? A handful of reasons:
- Low barrier to entry—Everyone knows how to email. You don’t need to spend weeks learning a new skill to get up and running. While we’ll never knock learning new skills, not having to learn video or the newest social platform allows you to spend more time on the work itself.
- Flexibility—Email is a creative tool as much as a delivery method. You can use multimedia such as writing alongside your images, experiment with sending cadence to effect how your work is received, make a time limited project that lasts a week and then self-destructs, create entire project concepts around the inbox, the possibilities are endless. Think bigger than your Instagram grid.
- Email is slower—Is it as slow as a print or a physical photo book? No. But when you open and read an email you are choosing to view it, one at a time. It’s a better viewing experience for photography and you can make it as high quality as you’d like.
- Low commitment—For both photographers and audiences. Choose your cadence, no algorithm defining how you should produce. Subscribers can choose exactly whose work they want to see.
- Low cost—Email tools are cheaper than ever, many with free tiers to get you on your way. Email lets you think bigger than your Instagram grid without the overhead required to make a book or the
- Own your platform and audience—Don’t leave your audience to the whims of algorithms or companies looking to profit off of you. Keep control over your audience and the platform on which you build it.
Sharing photos via email newsletters is an amazing opportunity for new ways of distribution, storytelling, and connection.
Writers successfully made the transition to, for lack of a better word, privatizing their work. Newsletters are everywhere, from small bloggers to greats like George Saunders have adopted newsletters as a way to create work, share it, and build an audience for that work. It’s big enough that entire software products like Substack have cropped up to support them.
Why can’t photographers do the same?
What about community?
Email is an inherently closed platform without public comments, likes, or a timeline to share. We’re not saying newsletters will replace social or can beat social in terms of mass community. They don’t serve the same purpose. What email can do is help build your community. A photo newsletter is your space to create work, share it, and connect in a much more ambitious way than a reel, grid post, or tweet. Market your newsletter on social, absolutely. But social isn’t The Work itself. And while the conversations aren’t public, they can still easily happen, all someone has to do is hit reply. Those conversations will be deeper than a quick comment on Instagram, without all the growth hacking, follow backs, and spam bots.
Those conversations can become clients, collaborators, and community over time.
Should you expect the numbers or shareability inherent in social platforms on your newsletter? Of course not. But we’d argue the opportunity for more creative, ambitious projects, space for the actual work itself, an engaged audience that you own, and freedom to create exactly what you want is why photo newsletters should reign.
Start your own photo newsletter
There is amazing work being done by photographers across the internet on social. Again, this is not a social media hit piece. I watch my favorite photography Youtube channels like Alec Soth, Bryan Birks, and William Sheepskin as soon as they hit publish. I went through the white border phase on instagram alongside you. The ability to share work with people across the world is an incredible thing. The internet is a gift. Let’s find creative ways to use that gift in a way that serves our art and each other instead of an algorithm.
Will photos on the internet ever be as good as viewing a print or photo book in person? Likely not. But we can say that while also loving what the internet enables and using it like our favorite expired film stock: creatively.
I’ve mentioned personal websites a couple times already, and I hope this newsletter movement is a piece of the resurgence of photo websites. But folks need a place to deliver that work and build their community, and I believe newsletters can fulfill those purposes and even take on life of their own as a creative medium. So yes, spend more time on your website, but get that newsletter up and running alongside it.
I would like to see the golden era of photography on the internet come next, and newsletters could be the entry to help us get there.