Why don't you like my work ?

Instagram and the battle for attention
June 27, 2020
Why don't you like my work ?


I’m often asked by workshop attendees and fellow photographers  “Why am I not getting more likes ?”


Love it or hate it, Instagram came into our lives and has given us a voice to show our work to the world. The real question is, how do I actually get the world to see it?

After six years of hard work with hashtags, tagging companies and engaging with people, I  reached the mythical 10,000 follower mark. Granted, I was late to the game with Instagram. I realized that it was going to be a lot harder to gain a following than those early adopters.


Sure, you can go buy followers, but what’s the fun in that ? The idea of saying thanks to comments from bots is very appealing but humans are far more interesting. 

After hitting 10,000 followers, my account started going nuts. Within months I had added thousands of new followers, which before would have taken years to achieve.


My engagement was up, often seeing 40-50 percent like to follower ratio per post. Just to give you an idea, 5-10 percent like to follower ratio per post is considered to be great. Somehow I had snuck in the back door and my work was being seen by a wider audience.


My account went from 10,000 to 45,000 within 1 year. 


Example of a post that received 50 percent engagement 

Example of a post with 50 percent engagement



I was being careful about what I posted, finding that scenic shots would garner more attention than my street portraits.


Black and white abstract images have become the trend of the day. 


Its important to remember that people are viewing images on a tiny phone screen. How is someone to see the intricate expressions on a portrait or a detailed street scene on their phone ? I feel this is why abstract images are always more appealing to the masses.


One day I looked at my feed and saw that everything was starting to look the same. It was not representative of my full body of work. 


Don’t get me wrong, I love nothing more than to play with shadows and shoot steam shots of New York. But it can’t be everything and I certainly cannot let a social media platform dictate my work because I want more likes !


March 2020 the Covid 19 Pandemic was starting to effect our lives in New York.  I noticed a massive decline in likes. My engagement was still the same and I was still gaining followers but the amount of likes had dropped by at least 50 percent. 


I was not changing what I was shooting but no matter what I did nothing changed. I tried posting different times of the day, showing older work that had seen great responses in the past, you name it , I tried it. 


Now you would think this would be a massive blow to the self esteem but I actually saw it as an opportunity.


I was no longer concerned about how many likes I was getting.  It was more important to share the kind of work I wanted to show.


I started to archive all my older work and rebuild my feed. Because of the changes with Instagram, it gave me a fresh perspective. It was liberating. I was no longer concerned about the numbers, if my work was not going out to a wider audience.



Pictures from my Instagram archive


A lot of people I know have spoken about how numbers had rapidly dropped. I don’t know if this is due to a change in the algorithm or if people were just choosing not to use Instagram anymore. Everyone was effectively in quarantine, so just short of doing selfies all day, what were people shooting if they were not outside ?


With a large part of the world not being able to see the like count on Instagram I wonder why in the USA we have not adopted this ? 


I was fortunate enough to do an Instagram takeover for LFI magazine in Germany and found it so refreshing. Nobody could see how many people liked an image.  I found my work was getting much more attention and engagement from people genuinely interested in the work. 


An interesting comparison was that in the time my Instagram account dropped, my website traffic had doubled. 


It may all sound very stupid going on about how many likes and views we get on our work. But years ago, photographers had agents to help get their work out there. These days, you are the photographer, sales person, and marketing manager. Having great platforms like Instagram have enabled us to reach a wider audience. 


From this experience I learned I need to diversify my marketing efforts. You cannot be solely reliant on one platform for the very reasons I listed above.


Instagram is a fantastic platform but we do have to be conscious of the fact that it is, after all, controlled largely by a computer. So when you start to get down, wondering why your work is not getting the attention it deserves, realize some of the greatest names in photography ever to live are getting less likes than you are !


About the author

Phil Penman

UK-born, NY-based photographer Phil Penman has documented the rapid flux of New York City's streets for over 25 years. With clients ranging from People Magazine to The Daily Telegraph, he has photographed celebrated living legends, including Jennifer Lopez and Bill Gates, and captured historical moments such as the September 11th Terrorist Attacks. Penman's distinctive style, versatility, and dedication to his craft has won him prestigious awards and exhibitions, including the Leica Fotografie international Picture Prize and distinction as one of the "52 Most Influential Street Photographers" alongside industry legends, Henri Cartier-Bresson and Sebastião Salgado

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