Twenty-two-year-old Chris Parker is enthusiastically explaining to me how his Leica S1-601 camera works. With a customized 50-millimeter lens, he maintains the Leica isn’t just superior in its ergonomics, but also its 24-pixel sensor, 4.4-megapixel viewfinder and ability to automatically adjust to give its subject the best lighting possible. The latter, Parker tells me, is most important to him. Not because he’s a professional, or even amateur, photographer, but because he’s an “Instagram boyfriend” and his job is to ensure that his photos of his girlfriend Lilly are flawless.
The Instagram Boyfriend of today — a time when Instagram’s standard filters are no longer sufficient and when the dynamics of many relationships hinge on the app — is obligated to go the extra mile. This usually means taking pictures from unconventional or uncomfortable angles to get the exact right shot. At this moment, too, the Instagram Boyfriend isn’t just for influencers. A few weeks ago, for example, a male friend of mine recounted a story about how he’d pulled a muscle near his shoulder while trying to get a photo of his girlfriend posing in cobblestone alley in London’s Soho neighborhood. Unfortunately, he says with a sigh, “At the end of it all, she didn’t like anything I took.”
There’s a hilarious comedy sketch by the L.A.-based YouTube channel Wong Fu that perfectly encapsulates the Instagram Boyfriend’s call to duty. In it, Simu Liu instructs a group of hapless, but loving, boyfriends how to take an impeccable Instagram photo of their girlfriends, giving tips about the creative use of light and space, what types of plants to put in the background to “enhance the presence” of their partners and even an explanation of the rule of thirds — a skill that really only applies to professional photographers. And though the video is supposed to be satire, the majority of comments are from guys thanking Liu for “his tutorial.” “Saving this video for the next time I’m out with my girlfriend,” one reads.
As for Parker, when he started dating Lilly in his teens, they’d go to house parties where one or two people might have a camera, and they’d dump a bunch of pictures on Facebook, and maybe, upload a few grainy, heavily filtered ones on Instagram, which was fairly new at that point. But as time went on, Instagram became more and more important to their relationship. “Lilly saw her friends posting pics of themselves, and she wanted to do it too,” he explains. And while Lilly was able to take selfies, it wasn’t long before they weren’t enough. “Her friends were uploading pictures that you could see had been taken by someone else — most of the time, a boyfriend,” Parker says, laughing. “I took a few of her just using an iPhone, but you could tell that they were taken on an iPhone. I wasn’t a photographer, so I had to learn to become one!”
And so, he explains, “I watched a ton of YouTube videos on basic photography, photo editing and learning how to take a photo.” Meanwhile, after using a few of his friends’ professional-grade cameras to practice general portrait photography, he settled on a Leica.
There are, of course, entire Instagram accounts that suggest that the Instagram Boyfriend is resentful of his role — most notably Boyfriends of Instagram, which is filled with mocking comments like “Man is doing too much ? ?” and “Homeboy bending over backwards for the gram thoo ???.” Parker, however, believes that, if anything, Instagram (and, in turn, his Instagram Boyfriend status) has both enriched his and Lilly’s relationship and helped him find an unexpected hobby.
Now, he admits that this might make him an outlier among Instagram Boyfriends, but he has noticed that among his male friends who have found themselves in similar situations that there’s at least some passion for photography developing by osmosis. “Some of them do resent it,” he explains. “They give up after five or six goes, but that’s still a lot more than before.”
They also acutely recognize the importance of never falling behind the social media curve, wherever that might lead them. “You’re going to have to be willing to learn how the new apps work,” Parker warns. “Otherwise, you might literally lose your relationship.”