Instagram and the Failure of Reality

Perfect reality is the only one that satisfies

Photo by ian dooley on Unsplash

In the age of Facebook and Instagram, we tend to think that 21st century technology has uniquely burdened us with dilemmas of artificiality. We talk of “fake news” as if it were a brand new phenomenon, forgetting that lies and distortion have always played a part in public discourse, from propaganda to perjury.

And yet this age is unique for the widespread accessibility of the means of creating illusions. The reason we all understand what it means to “photoshop” something is that this most famous of image manipulation software is so widely available.

No age before has been so familiar with both sides of the practice; no age before has found it so easy to switch between being the recipient of artificiality to the maker of it — between innocent and perpetrator — in the game of truth-telling.

Photographs now refer to other photographs as their standard of veracity. “The photographic image gains its meaning by a continual borrowing and cross-referencing of meanings between images,” wrote the theorist Martin Lister.

Susan Sontag, in her landmark On Photography, wrote that “Photographs do not simply render reality — realistically. It is reality which is scrutinized, and evaluated, for its fidelity to photographs.”

Instagram is not just an app on your phone. To paraphrase from Sontag: Instagram is a means of beautifying the world. So successfully has been Instagram‘s role in beautifying the world that Instagram, rather than the world, has become the standard of the beautiful.

Instagram influencers show us what a perfect meal ought to look like, how a perfect travel experience ought to feel, how fashion and style ought to change us, how we should live and procreate, how we should stay fit and how we should be happy.

At the centre of the Instagrammable image is the self-portrait. For a long time it baffled me why so many people took selfies of just themselves — rather than of their friends and family — until I realised that the self-made self-portrait is all about being in full control of the choices: the perfect autonomous photographer.

The anxiety we might feel at having our photograph taken by others — according to their framing, their lighting, their choices — is placated by the ability to do it ourselves. A selfie is a truly digital phenomena because it doesn’t just involve turning the camera on ourselves but also the array of digital choices we make afterwards: which selfie shot do I select, which image filter do I apply, who do I share the image with?

With the benefit of these choices, self-portrait photographers are liberated to idealise themselves and their lives, and by that idealisation to create a new type of reality: a partitioned, closeted reality that can be quoted but never quite grasped.

It is a reality that is constantly slipping through their fingers. As the Instagrammable moment comes and goes with the conditions, as the light changes, as unwanted people walk in and out of the shot, so the possibility of grasping that moment draws close or recedes.

As such, it is a deferred reality: delayed, hindered, protracted. It is only truly satisfactory if the camera can be allowed to do its best work, by turning the world into a screened-off, disconnected series of instances.

“Once an object of wonder because of its capacity to render reality faithfully, [..] the camera had ended by effecting a tremendous promotion of the value of appearances,” Sontag wrote.

The perfection of this fleeting series of instances stands in opposition to the tatty and awkward conditions of actual lived life. In idealising the fortunes of love, life, food and travel, we can end up emphasising where actual circumstances fall short.

Is this a mistake? Perhaps it is a type of amnesia, a cultural forgetting of our dual roles as both makers and consumers of imagery. Perpetrators and innocents.

Christopher P Jones writes about culture, art and life.

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Christopher P Jones

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Art historian, writer, artist. Interested in fact, fiction and culture. Website


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