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Do Photographers Need Instagram More Than It Needs Them?

Richard Koci Hernandez, an Emmy-winning photographer and assistant professor at the Berkeley School of Journalism, joined Instagram in October 2011. Over the course of the last year, he became one of the the photo-sharing service's most popular artists, and also its most vocal advocate, defending the lowbrow app to his fancy camera–wielding brethren.

Yesterday, Instagram did something so offensive that even Hernandez decided he may have to give it up: It changed its terms of service so that all photos taken after January 16 can be used in advertisements without compensation or the creator's permission. The switch was an intolerable insult. Hernandez, along with dozens of professional photographers, posted completely black shots in protest and decried the injustice on Twitter

"To think that the things I post now could be sold by Instagram to Grey Goose Vodka, and I get zero compensation for that, that's like waking up and my neighbor sold my car," Hernandez says. Currently, Instagram’s corporate parent Facebook also reserves the right to use its users’ content “royalty-free,” but hadn’t so explicitly declared its intention to turn them into a giant stock photo agency that doesn’t pay the people it represents.

Many indignant shutterbugs jumped over to Flickr, where they'd started out years ago, before its owner, Yahoo!, allowed it to decline. Conveniently, the Marissa Mayer regime released a well-reviewed Flickr mobile app just last week, making it an acceptable substitute for Instagram. "For photographers, it's kind of like going home again," Hernandez says.

The problem is that Instagram has become a hard thing to quit. And prognostications that an exodus of professional photographers will kill the killer app are vastly exaggerated. 

Hernandez has around 163,000 followers on Instagram, and only 62 contacts on Flickr, which he joined in 2004. He usually shares photos on both services, but while an Instagram shot might rack up 1,000 likes and 30 comments in an hour, the Flickr version might get 50 views and three comments. Flickr is very well set up for professionals, with clear licensing rules and premium accounts for better service. Google+ also has a photo-sharing feature, which integrates seamlessly with your Gmail account. But for mass appeal, it's hard to beat the ease of use that made Instagram a pop-culture phenomenon. And being at the center of that is an intoxicating thing. 

"Nobody wants to be in the party of ten people. Everybody wants to be at the big rave," Hernandez says. "And Instagram is the big rave." 

It's not just social validation. Instagram has been marketing magic for Hernandez, and he says he's gotten many commissions after posting his work for free. 

"It's a vital, wonderful, friendly community that literally changed the course of my career, and I don't want to immediately give it up if I don't have to," he says. "For me, my Instagram account is the billboard on the side of a very busy highway. Who wants to tear that down to get a smaller sign on a country road?" So Hernandez faces a quandary. Despite the benefits of having his photos in wide release, the idea that Facebook would monetize them without sharing the proceeds or even giving him credit, potentially in a context he disagrees with—one can imagine even worse examples than Grey Goose—makes continuing to use the service ethically impossible. 

The vast majority of Instagram's more than 100 million users, many of whom are perfectly happy to use it as a way to keep up with their friends, probably aren't quite so principled—or even aware that anything has changed. Most don't take anywhere near as much pride in their work as Hernandez, much less rely on it for a living, and very, very few of them will go so far as to quit the service altogether. So while Instagram will be the poorer for those irate artists and activist celebs who do take their talents elsewhere, the outrage will likely die down—like it did after Facebook created the initially unpopular Newsfeed—and Instagram's user base will continue to balloon. 

Which doesn't mean it wasn't a typically boneheaded decision on Facebook's part. Taking user-generated content without allowing users to opt out is rife with privacy concerns. It's also wholly unnecessary: As Wired's Mat Honan points out, there were plenty of other ways to monetize the service that wouldn't further the perception that Facebook will do anything to milk its users dry (and pacify its shareholders in the process). 

And eventually, with Twitter booting Instagram and introducing its own filters, the tide may turn. The battle for your smartphone snapshots has not yet been conclusively won. 

But just like trying to get celebrities to embrace an alternative Twitter hasn't dented the original microblogging site, the departure of Instagram's finest won't force it to change (or at least not fundamentally, if CEO Kevin Systrom’s mildly conciliatory note yesterday is any indication). Everybody's a rockstar in their own social-media world, after all. And photographers, if they're honest about what's good for them, might come back to the party as well.