To the untrained eye, Ishtaarth Dalmia looks like your average millennial with a smartphone: forehead creased in concentration as he uses his iPhone to capture a cup of coffee, a few orchids, or a mountain range somewhere in northern Kashmir. A closer look reveals what he uses to edit most of his more than 300 pictures on Instagram. The VSCO Cam, an app that has taken the photo-sharing world by storm, and given rise to a new community of photographers.
When Instagram reached peak popularity in 2010, additional photo editing apps cropped up by the dozen, all promising to outdo Instagram’s existing filters by enhancing picture quality and look. In the midst of this, a company named Visual Supply Co. quietly launched their own, and today VSCO Cam sees downloads in the millions, a consistent place as one of the market’s top apps, and a cult, loyal following of photographers who swear by it. “I was experimenting with different apps,” says Ishtaarth. “VSCO Cam stood out in the way a photo looked, after it had been processed.”
Instagram is now full of hashtags like #vscocam and #vscoindia, all with as many as 23,000 pictures pouring in any second of the day. Part of VSCO’s appeal is the minimalistic, crisp look pictures have after being edited. “I take pictures of anything that looks beautiful in real time,” explains Aqib Anwar, whose shots shuttle between Dubai and Chennai. “The app took what were ordinary smartphone pictures and converted them into incredible, almost professional-looking shots.”
Armed with an app that could turn any scenario aesthetically pleasing, photographers soon began to use it to document the city around them. Elise Hanna, whose account has drawn more than 30,000 followers, started capturing Chennai through VSCO’s camera after moving from the United States. “My family and I have travelled extensively around the world,” she says. “Taking pictures helps me process a new world around me. I use my feed as an opportunity to share a city to people outside India, who don’t know much about it.” Channelling the mundane city routine into the extraordinary is what Ambika Narayanan, an employee at KPMG, believes the app can do. “There’s that look of sophistication. I like documenting the sky, the sea, the streets… anything about the moments in a routine that stand out.”
Through exploring these hashtags, photographers began to reach out to each other, and soon a community grew. “Through VSCO, I’ve made incredible friends, some who I’ve met personally,” says Elise, “We comment on each other’s pictures, and the conversation continues from there.” Tips and advice are usually exchanged, says Aqib. “You can always ask someone about their choice of camera and filters. The common usage of VSCO has connected people to the extent that there are insta-photowalks and insta-meets.”
Quirks in photographer decorum also came up as the app’s popularity grew. For example, it’s considered polite to ‘spam’ someone, i.e., leave a dozen or so likes on a photographer’s picture if they like one of your own. “That’s the great part about this community,” says Ayesha Firdous, another app user. “Instead of competition, you have people who will encourage and support you, and kindness is not something you always see on social media.”
“It’s not just a picture, but a journey and community that you take with you everywhere you go. That’s what’s amazing about mobile photography,” Elise concludes.