The 10,000 club

Like a lot of social media Instagram has become a bit of a marmite thing. In this new monthly feature dedicated to mobile photography platforms we profile image producers with 10,000+ followers. We ask some of those questions which can’t be replied to with “likes’ or emoticons. We look at where they stand on mobile-based photography, what their ambitions are and if social mobile image making is the future of photography.

Like it or not Instagram is a busy platform, with over 150 million active users and a superfluous number of photos uploaded each day. Everything from architectural photography to food is trending, but is having a massive following more important than a great picture?


We speak to Martina Govindraj, @YesZebra, a London-based urban and architectural photographer. With over 900 images on her account Martina has accrued a huge audience of 16K followers. While it’s a sure fact that Instagram has created a vacuum, where tribal celebrity culture is revered and the currency of a photo is calculated by the number of likes it has, Martina hangs tough among those who misprize its existence.

When asked about the users, mostly female, who fanfare their Instagram accounts with pert shows of skin to boost the number of followers, Martina says: “What may have been on the top shelf has now moved onto various websites and it filters through to things like adverts for ice creams – it’s the sexualisation of pretty much everything.

“When I grew up it was the page 3 model and we would say it liberated those women. I can see both sides of the argument but I’m not going to argue with either. I don’t think you can police the entire internet.”

With an increased following comes an increased responsibility; oftentimes a rise in abuse, hate mail and stalking. Ultimately it’s the pestilence of any social media and celebrity-driven culture, but it’s certainly not the defining characteristic of Instagram. Martina says: “Instagram is not a closed network it’s global.”

Perhaps it’s the fact that she radiates positivity, but Martina’s outlook on Instagram is far from bleak.

Used with permission©Martina Govindraj

When did you start using Instagram?
It started off as a hobby. I’ve always been into photography, but a few years ago I decided I didn’t want to take a big DSLR out with me anymore. It drew too much attention. With Instagram I wanted it be about me and my phone. I would go out every weekend with groups of Instagrammers. I met a wealth of people – so many great photographers who started going to the meet ups. I was really lucky because it was an intake of people all at the same time. One thing led to another and then I saw a message on my Instagram, and I just thought it was one of my friends. When I opened it, it had suggested user picture and it was from Instagram saying ‘we think you fit all our values, we like what you’re doing, keep doing it. But you’re now on our list.’ So if you go into Instagram and want to know who their suggested users are, whoever Instagram are following at the moment those are the people – they keep them on their for a few weeks at a time. It’s a global thing. Then my numbers just started to rocket.

For most people they ask ‘How did you get so many followers?’ It’s not just about taking good pictures, it’s about your engagement. You could take the best pictures in the world, but if no one knows it’s there no one is going to see it. Engagement is talking to other people on Instagram, liking other people’s photos, engaging them, following certain hubs so you can get a feature – that’s what I was doing, there were certain hubs where I was taking pictures around London and they would say ‘I really like this picture’ and they would feature the photo. I was getting lots of followers on the back of that.

How did these meet ups start?
It was actually something called Instagram London Group. So it either #IgersLondon [sic]. That’s where I first started going, because I saw something on Twitter, they were doing a big meet up at the V&A. It’s a really good group for people who don’t know anybody in London.

Who are some pioneering Instagrammers that have inspired you?
There’s a guy called Conor MacNeil @thefella, his landscape photography which is mostly iPhone imagery with some DSLR are absolutely breathtaking. @whatinasees – mostly iPhone.

What are the fundamental flaws of Instagram?
I think with everything on social media the celebrity is everywhere. You can’t stop that. Advertising is everywhere. You can’t leave the house without seeing some sort of brand – your clothes are probably branded. I’ve just accepted it as part of life. I don’t think that you can have all of the benefits if you don’t have some of things that people don’t like. I like that Instagram levelled the playing field when it comes to advertising – now you’ve got people that are being asked to advertise themselves. They take their spin on a watch shop. I’m positive about it. It used to be so elitist. For me I could never do design and I was never encouraged to do what I wanted, but Instagram opened up a whole window of opportunity. People will tell you it’s flawed – those are probably the same people that are on Flickr, and who are photographers and they are probably very talented but they don’t understand Instagram and their understanding of Instagram is they’ve taken a great shot and not a celebrity taking a picture of their breakfast who has 10,000 likes. I don’t think they equate to the same thing, they are a completely different audience.

Does mobile-based photography have more influence than traditional photography?
It depends on the genre. Instagram is mostly mobile photography because it’s all about instant photos, but then you’ve got Flickr and Tumblr etc. – people want high resolution images for their work and billboards. Professional photography still holds a lot of weight. I think because everyone pretty much has a phone there are a lot of mobile photography pictures. I think it’s pushing the envelope and boundaries and making people think and work harder.

Before it was about how did you take that picture now it’s about how did you get so many followers…..I think it’s a different time and generation when it comes to social media. There are a lot of us who use Instagram, but because we’re slightly older social media wasn’t available for us in the same way it is available for teenagers now or people in their twenties. Teenagers are using Instagram in the only way they know how. There aren’t a limited amount of likes or followers to go around. Even artists are using Instagram now to network.

Usedwithpermission2©Martina Govindraj

What is validation on Instagram?
There are a lot of photographers that I like who like and appreciate what I’ve done. For me that is validation. If someone you admire says what you’ve done is good that is the best compliment anyone can give you.

What are your ambitions with Instagram and photography?
I’ve been very lucky – I’m now an ambassador for Olympus Visionary because I use their camera. I’m not conventional and I don’t think I will become conventional. I don’t want anyone to change the way I see the world – I used to think it was strange but now I like it. I’m very niche. My main ambition is I want to do something else with my photography outside Instagram. I’ve been working on my own website recently. Ideally I’d like to have some kind of studio. I’ve been very lucky to collaborate with a number of brands and I’m very lucky I don’t do it for a living, so I can be very picky about what job I chose to do.

Follow Martina on Instagram @YesZebra

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