The Instagram paradox: rituals falling at the hands of commodity

Even if a picture is worth a thousand words, the rise of Instagram has been phenomenal. The app astonishingly went from being created by a tiny team of six to being bought by Facebook for $1 billion in less than two years, a testament to its importance within modern culture. Indeed, that it is now used as a verb – “to Instagram”, or simply “to ‘gram” – underscores its position as a staple in many people’s lives.

The app’s tagline reads ‘Fast beautiful photo sharing’, seemingly encapsulating its appeal. Instagram has made it quicker and easier than ever to share snapshots of your life with the world, with its myriad of filters making sure those snapshots are aesthetically pleasing. It seems a perfectly formed (and tiny) package that does its job and does its job well.

Instagram’s filters have invited ridicule from some quarters. But this ridicule is steeped in resentful nostalgia – filter effects used to only be achievable through the chemical by-product of the film used, and thus were limited to those who took photography (and developing) seriously. It is now an almost effortless process for even the most casual photographer to “beautify” their photos through adding these effects. The dedicated photographer, once an animal of such prowess, has been ubiquitously usurped. Of course, events that require professional photography equipment in order to capture crystal clear photos (such as weddings and proms) are likely to remain loyal to the professionals, but the need and demand for the awkward guy wearing all black and clutching an SLR with an obscenely large lens has greatly shrunk. And, as technology is improving constantly, even this final frontier may be conquered by smartphones in the (not so distant) future.

In a sort of pseudo-Marxist fashion, this is a good thing. The once elitist power of photography has been taken away from the few and given to the many. But there is something altogether more baleful at work here. Susan Sontag’s seminal work On Photography highlights how the language of photography is indubitably grounded in violent possession: we “capture” images of things, look for good “shots”, place things into “frames”. We do not think of the connotations of these words when we utter them, but this is due to the repeated automatism with which we use them, rather than because the words themselves do not hold such connotations. Popular usage has desensitised us, making us take their meanings for granted.

This was far less of an issue before the advent of the Internet. Photographs held a special significance, as both film and the subsequent development process were relatively expensive. One was limited by the fairly small number of shots achievable on a given roll of film, and the whole process was relatively lengthy. Unless one made copies of a given print, each photograph was a unique, tangible thing. Thus, viewing photographs had something of a ritualistic quality to it, in that one had to carefully remove prints from their protective sleeves or boxes, being careful to hold them by the edges, in order to appreciate them. Photographs, and the memories they unlock, were luxury goods.

The Internet, smartphones, and Instagram have turned this on its head. People are no longer limited by the number of exposures on a reel of film, but by ludicrously (and increasingly) large digital storage capacities – whether this be merely within the phone itself, on a memory card, or in the Cloud. The development process has been entirely removed. Photographs are no longer unique or tangible, and can be shared endlessly. Rather than luxury goods, the viewing of which was a ritual in itself, photographs have been commodified. We scroll through Instagram when the person across the table from us is boring, or when we are waiting for our tea to brew, or when we are supposed to be working. In short, photographs have become the entertainment we turn to when our own lives don’t prove stimulating enough. To borrow Sontag’s term, we are now ‘aesthetic consumers’, passively double tapping images that we like, and scrolling past those which we don’t.

Photographs are now markers of half-truths, which we exude in order to construct an idyllic representation of our lives. People ‘gram their meals, but not the ensuing washing up. But the meals in this analogy are also themselves devalued. The value we attach to the image of the thing invariably affects the value we attach to the actual thing. Thus, if the images become commodified, so do the things. Experiences become products we consume in order to try and live a certain lifestyle.

This becomes ever more problematic when applied to people, rather than things. Whereas they were once “captured” in unique photographs that were treasured, their images are now mere commodities designed to be consumed. If we bump into a celebrity, our first reaction is to get a selfie with them and share the photograph on the Internet. We must always elevate ourselves by showing that our lives are better than those around us, while simultaneously demoting our lives to the realm of consumable entertainment.

Modern technology has placed the power of photography in the palms of our hands. But with this power, one of the paradoxes of modern life is now that we are surrounded by images, the influence and sanctity of the photograph has been largely eradicated.

Originally published in Industry magazine, volume viii, pp. 4-5

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