Instagram's Photographer of the Year & My High Horse

By Vanessa Boynton

(Image Credit: David Guttenfelder for the Associated Press)

North Korea photojournalist named ‘Instagram photographer of the year

When I read that headline a few weeks ago I was hit with so many competing thoughts it was hard to articulate even a single word in response. A photojournalist (true professional) in North Korea (incredibly harsh atmosphere) winning an…Instagram award.


On one hand, chief Asia photojournalist David Guttenfelder for the Associated Press has been recognized for his extraordinary images of life inside North Korea, and rightly so. It’s a collection of revealing photos that might not otherwise be afforded to us, and certainly not in such an accessible, widely-sweeping manner.

On the other hand, he’s being recognized by a platform so frequently mocked for its users’ often banal, overly-filtered subject matter, the name “Instagram” has in many ways become synonymous with “hipster food photography”. I would have expected their photographer of the year to be the user with the most popular shots of club sandwiches, PBR and bare feet condescendingly buried in sand on beaches where you currently aren’t.

But then I read the article. And I actually looked at Guttenfelder’s Instagram feed. And, having completely descended from my high horse and actually endeavored to crawl beneath it, I realized I had fallen victim to the very line of thinking I’ve been battling for nearly a decade. The truth behind Guttenfelder’s accomplishment is this: no matter how new a platform may be or how unremarkably it may be used by some, it can still enable a unique, entertaining or provoking message to make an profound impact.

He has done what many photographers and photojournalists – nay, what everyone – is being forced to do.


I said everyone. And if you’re a communicator for your brand, personal identity or product, I mean you most of all. It is critical that we all recognize two things: one, that instances of media consumption occur in completely different ways than they once did, and two, that more and more of those instances are occurring through visual communication alone.

These lessons aren’t new. The biggest names in marketing, PR and advertising have been teaching them for years, but all we really need to do to find sufficient evidence is take a look into our own past. From the very beginning, we as a species have expressed our loves, fears, dreams, designs and history through visual means. And quite amazingly, we now have more opportunities to chronicle who we are, what we want and how we live than ever before.

Pew Research Center’s Maeve Duggan, who authored a report on photo and video sharing last October, said it best: “Pictures document life from a special angle, whether they relate to small moments, personal milestones, or larger news and events. Mobile connectivity has brought these visuals into countless lives in real-time. This all adds up to a new kind of collective digital scrapbook with fresh forms of storytelling and social bonding.”

Any brand that proactively adjusts their communications strategy to reflect this trend is far ahead of the game. And digital imaging brands, in particular, have fewer excuses than most as to why they haven’t engaged their audiences visually and socially. It doesn’t matter whether you prefer the click of a shutter or the silent flash of a smartphone. What matters is the unique perspective you can provide in a single moment and your willingness to put it out into the world where others can experience it, learn from it and pass it along.

So just take the photo, already.

…And maybe consider joining Instagram.