With over 52,000 followers, Merlin Kafka is one of the heavyweights of Instagram. Having only been using Instagram since 2013, he has more than 300 photos and has entranced viewers with his geometric and minimalist style. A clear and sensitive distinction between the clean lines of his urban shots and ethereal views of the Scottish countryside demonstrate Kafka’s immense talent in a wide range of photographic subjects.
What’s your day job and where do you live currently?
Currently I’m studying Product Design in Glasgow. These days my life is not too exciting – I spend most of my time in the library as the end of the year is approaching. However, in a few months I will leave Glasgow for a while to move to Singapore.
How did you get started in photography? Was it through Instagram or earlier?
Picking up my dad’s DSLR was what got me started in photography. I began to play around with the settings and different techniques. Back then I was interested in documenting my travels through photography. After that I took a large number of photos mainly with my iPhone, simply because it was easy to use, I always had it with me, and I could reach it quickly to get that snap on-the-go.
How and when did you discover Instagram and did you adopt it straight away?
I joined Instagram around two and a half years ago. I can’t remember exactly who or what got me into it, and I also didn’t adopt it straight away. It was merely a platform for me to share moments of my life and memories from my travels back then. If you scroll way back on my feed you can still see a few photos from China almost two years ago, but I have tidied up the photos a little since then. Last year I started treating it a bit more seriously. I discovered Instagrammers such as Trashhand, 13thwitness and Alexstrohl. It was like a door to a different world of photography had opened for me. I had never seen anything like it and it inspired me to go out and be more aware of what I saw in my daily life. Instagram was sort of a catalyst for me – the platform motivated me to improve my photography.
How did your popularity increase? Was there a turning point or did momentum simply build?
Once I started taking it more seriously, I noticed an increased engagement within my own little community of people who I followed and who followed me. I also got in touch with other Instagrammers, some of whom I am proud to call good friends today – you could say I developed a sense for how the whole community thing works on Instagram. A few months ago I received a message from Instagram that they had put me on their list of Suggested Users, which was a huge honour for me. From there the numbers skyrocketed.
You’ve done some sponsored work on Instagram. How did that come about and was it an easy decision to take up the offers?
I have only done one or two sponsored projects to date – there have been a number of opportunities but I decided not to do all of them. For me personally, it’s not the right way to ‘capitalise’ on Instagram, if one is interested in doing that. Once I got the chance to collaborate with one company however, I made the decision to take up the offer. I simply enjoyed their minimalistic, classic design and already had a number of ideas in my head of how I could present their product in a creative way. Going commercial is always a big point of discussion – in the end I try not to take Instagram too seriously though.
Do sponsored shots restrict you creatively? Is the money justified by following a brief or is it simply a bonus for a shot you might have taken anyway?
Restrictions can enhance one’s creativity I believe. Constraints help you to focus and can give you some sort of guideline with your photos. I can only hypothetically speak about monetary aspects, as I haven’t taken up any offer that involves that. If the money is justified, it leads back to the question of selling yourself, if one intends to make profit from Instagram – that’s ok for me. There are a number of examples where it works perfectly. If you prefer to stay non-commercial then any amount of money would not be justified – it’s really up to the person in my opinion. All that matters in the end is the work.
How would you describe your style of photography and subject matter?
You tell me! This is one of the hardest things for me; I feel that my style has constantly changed over time. I’m always trying to keep a balance between having a visually cohesive gallery of images and just posting the photos that I personally like the most, which would result in a less cohesive style. Overall my aim is to capture moments in a cinematic, atmospheric way: photographs that tell a story and that are aesthetically pleasing.
What brings you inspiration and has your style/inspiration changed over time?
Great minds. People who have an idea of something and pursue it inspire me as well. I also see music as a great source of inspiration. When I’m shooting I always listen to something. Different music inspires me to take different kinds of photos. Sometimes silence is bliss as well, especially in the environment of nature.
How have you approached the editing aspect of Instagram? Do you use the app for editing?
I don’t use the Instagram app for editing at all, actually. I use Lightroom to edit my DSLR shots and apps such as VSCOcam, Google Snapseed and TouchRetouch to perform minor adjustments or to edit iPhone shots.
More generally, what gear do you use for your photos?
I use my iPhone to take shots on the go when I don’t have my camera. I like the simplicity, speed and flexibility of it, and the fact that I have it with me at all times. Most of my photographs are taken with my SLR camera though.
What do you think of being ‘Instagram famous’? Is it a title that you’re proud of? How do you think it stacks up to other forms of social media fame?
I don’t like to call myself ‘Instagram famous’ – I want to add that I see the whole ‘numbers’ thing (followers, likes etc.) very critically. Of course I am proud of my success, but in the end it’s just a number in a mobile application. It’s seen as too prestigious in my opinion, and I don’t want to get too attached to it. Being ‘Instagram famous’ as you call it also makes things a lot easier, and it opens doors, sadly. The number of followers should not have an influence on such things in my opinion. The Suggested Users list on Instagram has created an extremely powerful tool to lift people up to a certain status and exposure that is almost scary in my opinion. With the click of a button they could potentially make anyone ‘famous’ over night. It’s an interesting concept in my opinion, and a very powerful mechanism.
Do you have any advice to budding photographers in general and Instagrammers in particular?
Don’t take Instagram too seriously and get stuck in a creative loop. Reinvent your style on a daily basis, try new things, meet the community, utilise every opportunity to take a photograph. Also experiment with different conditions in case you’re shooting outside – rain can create great atmospheres, for example. Get inspired by other people, try to emulate their styles and learn from it; from that you will inevitably develop your own style.
See more of Kafka’s work on Instagram @the_kafka and at http://merlinkafka.co.