Meghna Girohtra was one of the first few individuals in India to use Instagram to mobilise a community. She started by organising ‘photo walks’ where she simply asked people to show up at a specific spot in Mumbai and took this group around to some of her favourite spots in the city to shoot photos. The love for photography and Mumbai were at the core of Meghna’s mission and have remained so ever since. Today, she curates images of Mumbai city for her second account, @mumbai_igers and has amassed a following of 44.4k people. She is also going to resume photo walks soon which have been on hold since March on account of the global health crisis.

In 2020, when creating content online has become a lucrative business, Mumbai Instagrammers stands tall as a premier platform of carefully curated photographs. In a conversation with RaginiPuri, Meghna shares her journey on Instagram from 2012 until now. She talks about the changes she has seen on the platform and how she has remained true to her original intention- photographing Mumbai.

Considering everything Mumbai Instagrammers has achieved, to get perspective, what was your motivation for starting it?
Mumbai Ig LogoMumbai Instagrammers originally stemmed from the initial exploration of Instagram. Till 2011 Instagram had been available exclusively for IOS users. I had seen some of my colleagues using it and I was very enamoured by the initial retro frames they used to have. I made an account in 2012, which was when I had just made the shift from Blackberry to Android. At that time, the user base for Instagram was quite low in India because it relied completely on mobile photography. A couple of my colleagues and ex-colleagues started following me and I decided to follow them back. I connected with a bunch of people who were probably among the first Instagram users in India. Then, we started commenting on each other’s pictures and pretty much creating a small community within ourselves. It was very pure.

I am sure even you could not have fathomed the success your photo walks would gain so what were your initial goals when you organised them? 
I went to Sikkim and Calcutta in 2012 and that is when I posted a bunch of pictures from my phone. A year later, in January 2013, a bunch of us met up and decided to talk about Instagram and what we think of it. Almost 25 or so people showed up for that meetup and that is when I realised there was potential to translate this online community into real life. I organised my first photo walk in April 2013 and about 25 people showed up. Essentially I just wanted company while I go and photograph architecture and things I am passionate about. It made sense to go with people who shared similar interests so that I did not have to bore my friends or family. The first photo walk was such a memorable experience and even though I was the oldest in the group, it did not feel like it because we were all able to connect on photography and our love for it. So the initial goal was to get people together and make them comfortable shooting on the streets in their own city. 

You started using Instagram to create user-generated content way back in 2013 when people mostly used it for personal consumption. What do you have to say about the ability to create communities on Instagram? 
I have been a part of groups on Facebook prior to this but we never met anybody. On Instagram, however, the offline connections were instantaneous. I put up a picture of a lovely staircase in my office and somebody commented two days later telling me they were in my office. I asked them to join me for a coffee and it was as simple as that. Bear in mind, this was exclusively through comments and maybe exchanging numbers because there were no DMs at that point.

Initially, Instagram themselves did a lot of things to foster community building like organising Insta-meets. They would partner with people like me who were already doing the same to host these on their behalf. They also sent us merchandise for these events which was a hit among the attendees. This is when we developed a logo for Mumbai Instagrammers and made t-shirts too. So far, I had been coordinating photo walks from my personal account but this is when I decided to make a separate handle. All of this led to our first-year anniversary party which was a group of about seventy people and what a blast we had!

Since Mumbai Instagrammers has maintained a solid following on the platform for 7 years, how has the platform evolved since the beginning in terms of how users interact with it as well as how Instagram deals with its creators?

Community Drivers

Feature on Instagram’s Suggested Users

I think it has evolved from being a hobby-based affinity platform into a marketplace. In the process, it has lost a lot of its authenticity. It took away a lot from the fact that it was supposed to highlight phone photography right from the time in 2013-2014 when people started putting up DSLR pictures. The problem is not with how the picture is taken because, yes iPhones have great cameras but not everybody can afford one. However, when you take a picture on a phone you do not spend hours editing it before posting. In the initial years, I saw a lot of quick and frequent posting and that is the spontaneity I miss.

I also did not like that they changed the 1:1 ratio and allowed different sizes as I  believe it took away from the experience of the app. For a lot of us ‘puritans’ of the Instagram experience, this took away from the aesthetic appeal of the app. The square limitation forced us to learn certain ways of doing things and it was a part of the experience.

In 2015, a bunch of us got suggested by Instagram, in the country. This was for my personal handle @meghnagirohtra. I was quite certain that this honour was largely for my efforts as an Instagram evangelist and community builder. Though I did post several well-received photos too! I do wish Instagram continued facilitating the very popular #WorldWideInstaMeets that were bi-annual events between 2013-2016. There would be simultaneous meetups across the globe on a designated weekend, and the hashtag was omnipresent. Nonetheless, getting suggested was huge because I shot up from 3000-4000 followers to 28,000 followers in a month.

Your community on Instagram is very active as we can see the frequency with which you post. How do you ensure your audience is constantly engaged and that your material is reaching new people?
I guess staying relevant is tricky. There are weeks and months where I believe I am not relevant but I will go by certain steps of building a community. It has worked for me for almost 8 years now. There are many times people DM me and ask to get featured and I have to explain to them why I cannot do so because it does not fit with the feed I am trying to curate. Relevance is tricky to navigate on all social media platforms but I tend to go about posting things which I believe will attract the kind of audiences I want to interact with. 

As for reaching new people, I am not too fixated on this. It is more driven by my sanity, and I post whenever and how much ever I can manage to. I am not looking at trying to please everybody because I have realised it does not work that way. At times I have had long absences because I have looked at what other people are doing and thought I could not match up. Now, however, I prioritise content that appeals to me and I don’t pander.

Can you share some stories or anecdotes about how people who were personally impacted by your content or by one of your photo walks or even any other event you have organised may have reached out to you? 

Starbucks Horniman Circle

Mumbai Photo Walk

Oh, there are so many! When you get people with similar interests together it is bound to happen. There are people who have gotten involved romantically with somebody they met on one of our walks. There was even a couple who got married. People have come for a walk and at the end, they have said they had such a good time that they will bring their friend or cousin or anyone else along with them next time. I create WhatsApp groups to coordinate the smaller paid walks and sometimes I do not shut these groups down for months after the walk because there are some interesting conversations that take place. We socialise a lot beyond the walks so there have been drunk escapades too!

There are a lot of anecdotes like this but one of my favourites is of a group that met at a Bangalore walk a few years ago. They had not met for two years and then ended up bumping into each other in Singapore and I thought that was so cool. I even asked them to send me a picture. These types of friendships and connections have happened a lot. We are no longer just photo walk collaborators, we are friends. I have attended the wedding of at least 10 people I have met through Instagram. Anonymous online interaction is fine, but it is not authentic beyond a point, and that is what Mumbai Instagrammers stands for. I do not want to do just virtual ‘gyaan.’ I encourage my community to meet up, have good interactions with each other, and keep growing personally and as a group.

Since you primarily post user-generated content, what are some of the challenges you face with keeping your content fresh and on-brand?
My whole philosophy is to post whatever I find slightly relevant from a historical standpoint so there is no such thing as fresh and on-brand according to me. I will not feature certain kinds of images, purely because it is a personal mental block. For instance, although I am a huge fan of fashion photography, I would not do not very risqué pictures like fashion photographers do.

On the other hand, I recently profiled one of the best photographers India has produced, Rafique Syed. He is an icon for me and for a lot of us who grew up in the nineties. In that way, his work (fashion photography) may not seem on brand for Mumbai Instagrammers but I did not want to focus solely on people who are ‘Instagram superstars.’

Auditya Venkatesh is someone who perfectly captures what being ‘on brand’ is for me. He is a brilliant young photographer whom we have seen grow leaps and bounds on social media. He has a long way to go but I think he has started on a fantastic note in the past three years. I love his work and I love the fact that he started with only mobile photography and continues to promote the same. Personally, I have had offers to cover events and promote products, but I believe if their target audience and my audience are so different, no good comes out of the collaboration.

I am sure you have met a lot of interesting people through your photo walks and events. Since starting Mumbai Instagrammers, what impact has it had on you personally and how have you evolved as a person?

Mumbai Instagrammers

Founder @meghnagirohtra

Social media makes it so that you are always accessible to people. Initially, that made me slightly jittery. I thoroughly enjoyed the photo walks and collaborations I did in 2014 but after that, I felt like I was being stretched in too many directions. I also got very impatient with people. This is why I started doing paid walks so that I could control the crowd according to my liking. There have been times when people have shown up for the walks despite explicitly stating that there would be no walk-ins allowed. As a person who is very detail-oriented in my write-ups, I found it disrespectful when people would ignore them and show up for the walks.

On the bright side, I have seen more of Mumbai in the last eight years than I have seen ever. The photo walks helped me gain an understanding of the various types of people in different parts of the city. I also like to take a break from my gadgets so when I am doing these walks I put my phone on do-not-disturb mode. I also love learning about Mumbai’s history so I got involved a lot more with people who were documenting this history in various ways. I have grown up in various parts of this city and spent my whole life here so I love observing the way it has evolved.

Is there currently anything Mumbai Instagrammers is working on that you would like to share with us? Where do you want to take Mumbai Instagrammers in the future?
I am trying to explore video content now as well. I am looking at getting an assistant curator too so that I can start making some content which is skewed to certain types of experiences, eg- certain location or venues. In the past, we have done some very interesting work with some of these venues. One of the things I am very proud of is the fact that we are the only photo-walk community who has done a walk at the Jaye He museum thrice. I want to do more such walks. I have been contacted by several prominent organisations, in the past, so I do want to start contributing to tourism more. When foreign nationals have joined my walks in the past, it has been a great experience and we have been able to learn a lot from each other. It gives you new and different perspectives so I do want to explore these walks more as a cultural offering.

As for Mumbai Instagrammers, I just want the community to keep growing. It should be authentic and it should foster conversation among people when they post or share something. When people meet at a walk or a workshop, I want them to go and shoot with each other and not rely on me to organise something. If I ever had an office space, I would love to invite people over and discuss photography with them, not just as a skill, but as a passion too. I want to make physical experiences like this available for people as I believe they are a lot more tangible in the long run.

Our Takeaways from The Interview

Financial Empowerment for Women

Get your walking shoes and cameras ready! Prepare for some city walks with @meghnagirohtra and @mumbai_igers.