Instagram favourite @blaowphotography (aka Alex Douglas) took time out from snapping London’s hip, trendy creatives to talk to Exetera’s hip, trendy creative Hannah Peck about popularity, portraiture and the pursuit of perfection in social media communities.
What’s it like to be part of London’s expanding Instagram community? Secret rooftop gatherings with smoke bombs? Rap battles about lens measurements?
Instagram is a tool to connect people, but it can also be quite fickle. First and foremost, it exists online and all the communities primarily exist for the photos you get. Yes, I’ve connected with incredible people who I consider good friends, but the thing that connected us were the photos we got together – the photos we would later post and share. The real community is made up of those who aren’t looking for anything out of it. With any online platform there’s money to be found. But the actual community are the people who are like “let’s hang out and eat some good food, and take some amazing pictures.” These people are so talented and force me to up my game. I know I wouldn’t have taken some photos if I wasn’t immersed in that creative environment. And yeah we do buy smoke bombs. They’re on a par with a vertical picture of a flat white or the other clichéd hip things. It’s all jokes but they get the most likes. We don’t do rap battles about lens measurements [awkward pause]. Rap squats are having a moment though. I’ve never felt more comfortable while doing praying hands.
So you became popular on Instagram through the community? Yes, entirely. Instagram suggested me as a user once – this only happened because I was constantly around other creative people who were plugged into the community. I was out there with them, taking photos for the sake of the photo – not particularly for the following or showcasing my portfolio. Do you feel you have a responsibility in how you display the body on social media? I know there’s an aesthetic that people want to see. If I started posting pictures of guys with beards and girls with nice trainers and a nice bum, I’d get way more likes. It’s easy to fall into posting things purely for the response, but I’m not necessarily interested in that – I have a responsibility to the individual I’m photographing. To be honest, I never think about people’s bodies when I’m taking their photo – I’m all about capturing their face. I know many would disagree, but I think it’s the most effective way to tell someone’s story. The rest of the body is just another part of this narrative. When you capture the sadness or joy in someone’s face, it communicates something entirely different. There are obviously people who do more explicit stuff (with Instagram’s blessing of course), but however much someone’s shape or marks or blemishes hint at a narrative, I feel you’re cutting the story short too quickly. When you look into someone’s face you can engage and converse with that story – the viewer can’t help but talk back.
Do you think there’s too much emphasis placed on the body in the mainstream media?
I think there’s an objectification of human beings in mainstream media. I’m seeing it all the time and it increasingly comes from both sides. We’re increasingly exposed to this impossibly edited and flawless lifestyle that doesn’t actually exist, but we also have the tools to create it. The subject is now objectifying itself in response and it’s not real.
That’s interesting. Do you think this ideal stifles diversity? Or can social media actually encourage and facilitate difference?
I think social media definitely encourages diversity. People who might not be as present in existing and wellestablished platforms – take Hollywood, for example – are constrcuting their online presence with the same tools as everyone else. Social media is democratic. We all came to Instagram with zero followers. Obviously people have started to cheat the system in the past three years, but on the whole I still feel it’s a level playing field. You don’t just see this self-making process in the photography industry either – we’re seeing it in other creative industries like fashion and music. All these guys are given a platform to showcase what they do best through a truly democratic forum.
Can you give us some examples of this diversity?
Some of the online communities in New York are amazing. Collectives like Street Etiquette are showing the way forward. They’re doing what we should all aspire to. What groups like them have done for the black community in fashion and photography is phenomenal. Same goes for Street Dreams and the InBloom collective. In the UK, the likes of Hannah Faith are actively displaying and celebrating their cultural heritage in their photography and music. I love that.
Speaking of distinct identities, why do you include a short caption about the subject’s own talents and strengths in your portraits?
I’m constantly around creative people, and for a long time I was scared that I would never be as good as them. But when I started to push those people forward and appreciate their success, I found my own work improved and I felt happier. Writing a caption is a way of celebrating these people. The work they do is so incredible, so of course I’m going to want other people to look at it.
Who’s doing exciting work on Instagram at the moment?
So many. Emmanuel Cole (@ecolephoto) is the King. The Godfather. Holly Cato (@h_cato) is the Queen. I met a South-African guy called Dave East in London, (@daveast) and got to spend some time with him – you’ve go to check out his stuff. Issac Cambridge (@i. cambridge) is also very talented. I haven’t actually been photographing much grime stuff lately, but him and another guy called Jonny Fensekka are taking over. Sticking with grime, there’s this girl called Vicky Grout, and every time she uploads a set of photos I just want to smash my computer because they’re so damn good. I feel like I might as well give up on everything. Those are just a few. I also have to shout out two guys I work with: All Things Common. They inspire me all the time. Everyday I go into work and come out wanting to take a better photo the next time I’m shooting. It’s by far the best and most enjoyable environment to work in.
• All photography by Alex Douglas. You can find Alex on instagram at @blaowphotography