What the heck is ‘Snapchat’?

The ever-evolv­ing world of so­cial me­dia is con­stantly keep­ing us guess­ing — Luke White ex­plains how you can keep ahead of the pack and get eyes on your art

The Photographer's Mail - - Film-making - Luke White

OK, I get it — th­ese days pho­tog­ra­phers are ex­pected to have a pres­ence on Face­book, LinkedIn, and In­sta­gram, not to men­tion keep a reg­u­larly up­dated blog and send fre­quent email news­let­ters. And then there is Twit­ter, Tum­blr, Be­hance, Pin­ter­est, Google+, YouTube, Periscope, and more.

Back in the mists of time, Face­book ruled all so­cial me­dia. Then a few things changed. A dou­ble blow — old peo­ple join­ing Face­book and ad­verts — meant two things: the plat­form stopped be­ing cool, and peo­ple who had pre­vi­ously ‘liked’ your page stopped see­ing your posts. At the time, a lot of pho­tog­ra­phers were pretty up­set, as num­bers of peo­ple see­ing posts plum­meted un­less you paid to spon­sor them. I take the point of view that pho­tog­ra­phers had a great run for a while, and that Face­book is not ob­li­gated to pro­vide a valu­able mar­ket­ing plat­form for free — it is a busi­ness just like yours. So, pho­tog­ra­phers dis­cov­ered In­sta­gram, a demo­cratic place with no ads, no old peo­ple, and where all posts can be seen by fol­low­ers.

How­ever, In­sta­gram has re­cently changed the rules to the same ‘bait and switch’ that its par­ent com­pany, Face­book, pulled a few years ago. Users will no longer see a stream of pho­to­graphs laid out chrono­log­i­cally; in­stead, al­go­rithms de­cide what you will see and in which or­der. While In­sta­gram claims this is to cre­ate a bet­ter user ex­pe­ri­ence, it’s pretty clear that it is gear­ing up to start sell­ing more ads and pro­moted posts to brands. Can you see a pat­tern here? You’ve got it — so­cial-me­dia plat­forms come and go. They be­come gen­tri­fied, and pho­tog­ra­phers need to get used to it in or­der to be aware of trends, and where their tar­get de­mo­graphic is aim­ing its eye­balls.

Now is the time for Snapchat. You might have heard about Snapchat from chil­dren, or in the news­pa­per, and dis­missed it as a baf­fling app for kids, or a thing used for sex­ting. Think back to your first im­pres­sions of In­sta­gram dur­ing the early days: ‘an app for tak­ing ter­ri­ble smart­phone photos and ap­ply­ing twee retro fil­ters’. Or Face­book: ‘it’s just for stu­dents’, or ‘I pre­fer MyS­pace’. Snapchat is no longer about send­ing dis­ap­pear­ing self­ies of you and your BFF vom­it­ing rain­bows. It is all about the ‘Story’, rather than the ‘Snaps’ (di­rect mes­sages). A ‘Story’ is a nar­ra­tive of pho­to­graphs or videos that lives for 24 hours, and can be viewed by any­one us­ing the app.

Back in Oc­to­ber, Mario Testino shot the Burberry Spring/Sum­mer cam­paign on a phone for Snapchat. Not be­hind the scenes, not up­load­ing his ‘proper’ pho­to­graphs via the app — he shot and pub­lished the cam­paign live in Snapchat where it lived, un­re­touched, for just 24 hours be­fore dis­ap­pear­ing. Testino de­scribed the for­mat as be­ing “much more instant and gen­uine”, and per­haps he has a point. Of course, be­ing one of the most fa­mous pho­tog­ra­phers in the world shoot­ing for one of the best-known fash­ion brands was al­ways go­ing to help the Story. And the pho­to­graphs were screen-grabbed and dis­trib­uted freely by blogs, news­pa­pers, and Burberry, mean­ing they hardly dis­ap­peared, but the idea was there. And there is a lot to be said for be­ing ‘first’.

Artis­tic uses of the medium have al­ready emerged. Fine-art pho­tog­ra­pher Alec Soth is best known for his books

Sleep­ing by the Mis­sis­sippi and Ni­a­gara, shot on 10x8-inch colour neg­a­tive. Last year, he sold an ex­hi­bi­tion of 25 orig­i­nal pho­to­graphs, de­liv­ered by Snapchat, which would dis­ap­pear im­me­di­ately af­ter de­liv­ery, hav­ing only ever been seen by the buyer and Soth. The edi­tion of

Dis­ap­pear With Me was limited to three buy­ers, and cost $100. It sold out al­most im­me­di­ately. Is this a case of the em­peror’s new clothes or is it some­thing else?

It is hard to build a fol­low­ing on Snapchat: you can’t throw money at ad­verts or spon­sored posts. Each per­son who fol­lows you is hard won, and you need to re­ward them by in­vest­ing your time and cre­ativ­ity (rather than cash) into in­ter­est­ing con­tent. Growth is slow and or­ganic, and all the bet­ter for it: you have the pure at­ten­tion of your Snapchat au­di­ence. If you have 100 Snapchat fol­low­ers, 90 will watch your story. It won’t stay that way, so make the most of it.

One of the ap­peal­ing things about Snapchat is its speed. Mind you, the cur­rent ob­ses­sion with near-instant in­for­ma­tion is noth­ing new. In 1889 Lon­don, the postal ser­vice would de­liver 12 times per day. In­sta­gram posts are no longer al­ways instant, they are of­ten shot with ‘real’ cam­eras, and have usu­ally had some sort of post-pro­duc­tion or fil­ter ap­plied. There is a raw­ness to Snapchat that lends a cer­tain au­then­tic­ity. Don’t dis­count the short life of a Snapchat story; the 24-hour win­dow is com­pelling. All pho­to­graphs dis­ap­pear even­tu­ally — an am­brotype may last 200 years be­fore it fades or is de­stroyed, a sil­ver print might last 70 years, this mag­a­zine a year, and a Snapchat story a day. Just be­cause a mes­sage does not live on in some archive does not nec­es­sar­ily make it less im­por­tant. Ci­ti­zen Kane was cre­ated in a time be­fore TV and video; Welles in­tended for peo­ple to see it on a cin­ema screen just once. If you saw Kevin Spacey on stage as Richard III, you would prob­a­bly re­mem­ber it. No one took a photo of your first kiss, but you have not forgotten it.

So, what sto­ries will you share on Snapchat? Things that will give peo­ple a glimpse of your vis­ual style, your life, hu­mour, and your per­sonal brand. If you’re on as­sign­ment shoot­ing White Is­land for The New York Times’ travel mag­a­zine, you can be damn sure there are peo­ple out there who will find that in­ter­est­ing. If you’re shoot­ing a Jeep cam­paign in a stu­dio, stick some sweet be­hind-the-scenes on there. Do­ing a per­sonal project pho­tograph­ing her­itage-bred chick­ens? Share the sto­ries of the peo­ple and birds you meet. Fash­ion shoot? Run around and film the mod­els and your team and ask them a cou­ple of ques­tions.

Don’t worry too much about what to Snapchat. To be­gin with you’ll have hardly any fol­low­ers, so not many peo­ple will no­tice if it’s a bit rub­bish — the same way that the first photos you ever took were pretty av­er­age. Snapchat is pretty con­fus­ing at first, al­most pur­pose­fully so. Which is what made it so ap­peal­ing to teens — it’s a pri­vate club with no old peo­ple. But it is in­evitable that the grown-ups are com­ing, just like they did with In­sta­gram and Face­book. You’re al­ready too late to be an early adopter, but you can be an early ma­jor­ity, per­fect­ing your Snapchat skills and wow­ing your lag­gard peers and clients when they get around to it. Which they will. You can also still bag a de­cent user­name at this point. And if you don’t un­der­stand the hi­ero­glyph icons and how to use Snapchat, just Google it for Pete’s sake — it’s 2016.

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