Molly Benn: Instagram Eloquent photography
Morning. For the Instagram fiend, morning is a ritual that begins with one’s cheeks crushed against a pillow, a numb shoulder, eyes squinted, a stiff hand and a thumb already tense from running across the screen of a smartphone. Launched officially in October 2010 and acquired by Facebook in 2012, Instagram rapidly made a mark, not only on applications, but on our daily lives. Today, over 700 million daily active users around the world use the platform. Instagram is a source of novelty, of inspiration, of new connections, of rare discoveries, a vehicle for sharing one’s secrets and dreams, a way to invent and share...the list goes on. Created by Kevin Systrom and Mike Krieger and named “Application of the Year” by Apple in 2011, the platform amasses over 4.3 billion likes and 95 million photos and videos each day. Instagram has done nothing less than redefine the way in which we share our photos, while uniting a multitude of communities around shared values, passions and common interests.
Instagram speaks in images, an indispensable, inevitable, and unifying language that makes the now famous social network truly borderless and infinite. “Instagram is a window to the world, from one’s pocket or purse. It’s really a privilege to have that available 24 hours a day,” explains Molly Benn, the French community lead at Instagram, whom we met to discuss the importance of visual storytelling on Instagram. We also spoke with Alex Strohl, a French photographer and entrepreneur, considered by many as the most emblematic representative of the Francophone community on Instagram.
Introduction Molly Benn
On the 5th floor of a stunning building with impeccable French windows, complete with an astonishing view from the rooftop terrace, sits Instagram’s Parisian headquarters. From here, the Eiffel Tower can be seen standing sentinel over the grizzled, staccato rooftops as the ferris wheel at Concorde bows in reverence. The French capital’s agitation matches the meticulous frenzy of Instagram’s young teams, and so it is here that I meet Molly Benn.
Passionate about photography, fascinated by images, Molly recites the names of amateur and professional photojournalists out of sheer reflex, launching them automatically like tennis balls from a machine. From social causes to artistic work, from war documentaries to video games, from portraits to surreal, conceptual images, Molly Benn is interested in both the composition of images, and the stories they tell. “We’re more open, more tolerant, when we become ‘readers’ of images. We understand the world better,” she says. We wanted to speak with her about the impact of storytelling on Instagram’s users, the creativity of the up-and-coming generation of photographers, the tools
that help unite a community, as well as Instagram’s mission, that of reinforcing the connections between people, first behind a screen, then in the real world.
Hi, Molly. Can you tell us about your background? How did you go from studying History to becoming the French Community Lead at Instagram?
I studied historiography, which is the history of what we make of history, how that changes over time. For example, the way we’ve explained WWII in 1950, 1970, or even 1990, has differed. What’s behind the different versions of this story? I’m fascinated by that. My third year in college, I did an internship at one of the first websites created for photography online, a digital magazine that was created in 1996. The magazine eventually hired me, which meant that I gained a lot of exposure to the photography world, be it the photography of art galleries from the 80s, or even that kind that brought the Festival des Rencontres d’Arles to fruition. I worked with people who had never stopped innovating. What really hit me, though, was that the people in this milieu were completely unaware of the photography being shared on social networks. They talked incessantly about the rebirth of photography, but no one, and I mean no one, in any conversation, spoke about the elephant in the room. For me, it was impossible not to talk about social media, so I quit. I had a tough time finding what I was looking for, something that matched what I wanted to do. In 2011, I decided to create a blog to share the stories of people who did what they wanted, mostly photographers that I discovered on social media. That’s how OAI13 (Our Age is 13), my magazine, was born. From one social issue to the next, photography crafts a worldview, and Instagram was right in the thick of it all. If you plunge into OAI13’s archives, we were one of the first sites to mention @everyday accounts on Instagram. I also wrote an article titled, “Photojournalist? Don’t Fear Instagram” in which I explained all the photojournalism projects happening on Instagram. It was an empowering moment for photojournalists. One project, titled “Selfies Against the Death Penalty”, really hit me. A large number of photojournalists took selfies as a way to protest the death penalty. It was literally the first virtual protest, aside from petitions, and it was entirely image-based. I found that fascinating.
@InstagramFR was launched in January 2016. How have you managed to create consistency and cohesion while leaving a lot of artistic liberty to users?
When we started thinking about @Instagramfr, we needed—and we wanted—to represent the Francophone community. You can’t represent a community without listening to it first. So for the first 6 to 7 months, I spent an enormous amount of time unearthing all kinds of accounts in Francophone regions of the world we were interested in, in order to create a certain mood. The way in which Francophones—and in particular the French—express themselves, is quite fascinating because, in all realms possible and impossible, there is always a dose of “French touch.” The French have a rather strong link to spontaneity, a love of travel, and pride in their regions and history. After that phase, we needed to ensure that @InstagramFR had a unique visual identity, but above all, that it told stories. So, I simply concentrated on the stories while trying to create rhythm. That means looking first in specific domains, then slowly expanding your search perimeter. One domain leads you to another, and so on and so forth. Today, we have a pretty strong balance between values that are important for the French community, and creators—notably, teenagers—that are redefining the way we express ourselves in images.
Indeed, teenagers seem very, very active on Instagram…
Yes, the community of teenagers that depicts teenagers is very strong. What’s the meaning behind it all? What’s driving it? Last April, we held a meet-up in Paris. I asked one teenager that I met, “Why is it so important to you to create portraits of teenagers?” And he answered that, in the context of presidential elections, that people, no matter what their age or personality, form a very precise opinion about what teenagers are and do, what their youth is like. He needed to capture his friends to have a say in all that, to say “This is what my youth is actually like.” I wondered if this same idea was shared by different groups of adolescents, the ones we meet at different events. Defining one’s generation through portraits of one’s friends sends a strong message, it’s more than just taking pretty pictures. I see my role today as giving voice to that, and more than that, representing the values important to the Francophone community.