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
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.