The unsung street photographers of Bay Area Instagram

Pendarvis Harshaw, journalist, educator, and contributor to Everyday Bay Area, reflects on some of his favorite Instagram photographers and the ugly truth about popularity on the platform.

“Your children look up to you. If you a drink or do drugs, your kids might end up the same. If your a business savvy entrepreneur then your kids might be too. Watch what you do and say to your kids cause they soak it up quick. Put on educational programs not Disney and Nickalodeon movies all day.” Photo by Bruce Marley, @rastadave52

I mindlessly scroll past images — of former classmates, a famous person, a gym selfie, a sunset, a sponsored post, something my nephew posted that I wished he didn’t, a couple memes, an adorable baby smiling as if all is well with the world. I like a photo here. I scroll. I like another photo there. I scroll. I refresh and repeat.

And then it dawns on me: Instagram, a photography-based social media application, isn’t made for photographers. Na, it’s for socialites. It’s a popularity pool, a high school hallway, an echo chamber where artistic images captured by talented photographers get overshadowed by selfies taken by a half-naked people in bathrooms, who caption their picture with words that would make Aristotle claim plagiarism.

Of the 100 most-followed Instagram accounts, there are entertainers, athletes, a couple brands, and a few media outlets. But there isn’t one single individual photographer in the top 100 Instagram accounts; further evidence that this is an image-driven popularity contest. Because of that, true photographers don’t get the exposure (no pun intended) they deserve.

From top left: 1) Ruth. Photo by Rian Dundon, @rian_dundon 2) Santa Monica. Photo by Nathan Weyland, @nweyland 3) “Life’s like skateboarding. If you mess up it hurts! Some mistakes hurt worse then other mistakes. But you get up, dust yourself off, shake off the pain, and try again until you succeed. One thing you don’t do is give up.” Photo by Bruce Marley, @rastadave52

And then there’s Everyday Bay Area. It’s a part of The Everyday Projects, an organic collection of Instagram accounts from all over the place — there’s Everyday Egypt, Everyday Bronx, and even Everyday Incarceration.

Everyday Bay Area has connected with me all kinds of talented photographers, folks who publish photos on Instagram and beyond. People like Nathan Weyland, who captures everything California, from the surfers to the mountains, and he doesn’t mind stopping in West Oakland in between. And then there’s Bruce Marley, whose images of San Francisco’s hoods are far more attractive than the played-out shots of cable cars.

One of the primary goals of the affiliated accounts is to simply document humans in their natural course of action — and do so as artistically as Instagram will allow. Given that lens on life (pun intended), I started paying more attention to other photographers who do an awesome job at simply documenting this thing we call existence — especially the photographers who don’t have a billion followers.

Letter to the president in Oakland. Photo by Charles Ray, @chali_aesthetics

Recently, I talked to Rian Dundon, who says, “I make photos for myself. It’s the best way I’ve found for compartmentalizing the disorder of existence — and a reminder that I’m in control of none of it.”

In a similar stance, Charles Ray says photography helps him combat depression and PTSD. During a therapy session he was asked what he appreciates, and “all I could come up with was flowers and sunsets,” he says. “So, the therapist told me to capture that.” Beyond nature, he captures his environment, from the hood in San Francisco’s Double Rock to North Oakland’s Ice City. I love it all.

I love how Amanda Sade practices her craft in the traditional sense, by regularly going on photo walks and documenting what’s happening at the golden hour — a window to what it’s like to be a human on any given day.

Sade, who has never been “published,” tells me, “You know what’s crazy beautiful? I get most of my Instagram compliments in person! When I’m out on the town, I get affirmations from people who’ve seen my posts.”

From left: 1) West Oakland. 2) Open coffee shop in Oakland. Photos by Amanda Sade, @amandasade

Another awesome portrait photographer who doesn’t have a large following, and has never been published in the traditional sense, is Dexter Williams. He too uses Instagram as a catharsis, as well as a portfolio of his work. He’s split on whether or not Instagram is helping or hindering the photography industry, he tells me.

Former college classmate Forrest Loew, who isn’t Bay Area-based but has frequented the terrain, seems to believe that Instagram isn’t hurting the photography industry.

“Almost all of my paid gigs come from Instagram,” he told me. He says he’s definitely not concerned with the amount of followers either.

“I think it’s the who, and even more important, the engagement. Are people actually feeling my posts or not? The right people following and engaging with my posts are going to end up on more of the right people’s feeds.”

That same thought about valuing who follows you, and not being concerned with the amount of followers you have, is shared by a former coworker of mine, Eugene Chan. He photographs everything from broad landscapes to microscopic shots of food, and I had no idea when we working together that he was such an intricate photographer; really glad I found his Instagram account.

From left: 1) “Old parked cars sometimes make the best pics. Echo Park.” Photo by Forrest Loew, @forrestloew 2) “Separating yolks in the dark because we blew a fuse and we need to bake tomorrow!” Photo by Eugene Chan, @eugevon

The last person I talked to about Instagram and photography was my mentee, Van Pleasants. He’s a model, designer and photographer who’s looking to pierce the industry. He tells me that the ultimate goal is “traveling all across the world, getting paid and meeting all kinds of amazing important, and beautiful people who appreciate the art.”

Just about every photographer I talked to shares his sentiment.

So while twerk videos and memes pile up likes by the thousands, skilled photographers are pounding the pavement everyday, chasing their dreams and uploading their visions to a social network that uses photos, but doesn’t value photographers.

Artists like TheILLuminOllie, who takes awesome shots of street art, and Salihah Saadiq who captures some of the most notable figures of the Bay Area’s arts community, and Christie Hemm Klok, whose project on female firefighters in San Francisco is nothing short of five flame emojis. And the list goes on.

I appreciate these artists as further proof that art isn’t popular. And, although Instagram is a social network, I can’t get over the fact that it’s photography-based. So why don’t photographers get more love?

Hopefully, in the midst of your mindless scrolling and liking, you’ll check out their pages and glimpse into a mirror of everyday life in the Bay Area.

From top left: 1) “No matter where you been or where you at in life, if you treat people with respect, good things will happen. He couldn’t have said it better.” Photo by Dexter Williams, @dexwill87 2) Photo by Van Pleasants, @__mmbrvce 3) “Julie is one of the best people I’ve ever met. She’s part of the strike team working to put out the fires in Santa Rosa.” Photo by Christie Hemm Klok, @christiehklok

Pendarvis Harshaw is the creator of OG Told Me, in which he documents the wisdom of elder African American men in his Oakland community. He is a graduate of UC Berkeley’s Graduate School of Journalism, as well as Howard University’s School of Communications. He currently writes a weekly column for KQED Arts, where this piece was originally published.