Introduction to Terminology
In Instagram and Contemporary Image, Lev Manovich presents the term “Instagramism” as “an analogy to modern art movements,” suggesting that the use of Instagram is an art form that has “its own vision of the world and offers a specific “visual language” (Manovich 115). Manovich further offers differentiating categories of photography that result in the creation of a binary between “good photography” and “bad photography,” defined by the use (or lack) of “contrast, tones, colors, focus, composition, or rhythm” (52). However, Manovich indicates that, despite lack of consideration to photographic guidelines, a “bad photo” is “accepted,” if it features an “important subject” (52). The problem with Manovich’s statement is that it seems “important” is often associated to the capturing of objective beauty.
For the sake of my own argument, I have simplified this binary, considering acceptance of Instagram users as an entrance into “good photography.” My project, then established “bad photography” to be denying professional practices and featuring seemingly unimportant subjects, which will be further considered in the following work.
Critical Argument and Approach
In this project, I will be creating “bad photos” according to the rules of Instagramism, in order to expose the hyperrealism that is found in the typically “good photos” of Instagram. The presence of hyperrealism within such representations threatens user relationship between seeing and critically questioning, as it blurs the boundaries of authentic and inauthentic.
Through employing the theory of Jean Baudriallard, the type of photography that is most common and favoured to Instagram culture is seen to create simulated representations of the world that are disconnected from what is natural and otherwise known as real. By exploring the idea of the “bad photo”, I will be reverting this process of the hyperreal and introducing the “real” as a form of resistance through the creation of an Instagram account with a nine photograph collection.
Grounding in Theory
In “The Precession of Simulacra,” Baudrillard argues that we live in the “age of simulation,” in which “signs of the real” replace the actual “real” (Baudrillard 254). Therefore, it is difficult to distinguish the real, from what has been disguised as real. As I ground my argument in this theory, Instagram photos produce the signs that replace our interpretation of the world around us, which are experienced outside of the virtual realm. Moreover, there become little “distinction[s] between the real and the imaginary,” allowing the images on this social media platform to carry on with these “imaginary” representations without being questioned by its users (254). Without acknowledging the existence of the hyperrealism within these images circulated by Instagram, users are also unaware of the negative implications that it may have on them on an individual level, as well as collectively. Thus, such awareness is important to take action in the way we process visual culture.
Considering the Medium
The established photographic demands present in Instagram culture have created a small group of rebel users that have formed a presence on the social media platform better know as counter-instagram. The Sociality Barbie comes to mind in ironically becoming popular despite its content problematizing trending images by recreating the photos using a Barbie doll in the place of a real person. What Barbie does can be simply put as “convey[ing] aesthetic norms that induce a degree of conformity in how individuals use the platform,” revealing that “media practices on Instagram are subject to a set of unwritten rules” (Boy and Uitermark 616). This user demonstrates the implicit expectations of Instagram posts which force users to be conscious of trends to follow in order to optimize numbers of likes and followers.
Sociality Barbie mimics staged photographs made to look candid, in order unveil the absurdness of such depictions on everyday life. As the scenes are made to look unnatural through the use of a doll as the subject, captions like the following further parody the conforming structures of popular Instagram posts: “Just spending some quiet time drinking coffee and watching it rain. Oh and waiting for @icelandair to sponsor me and send to Iceland. #vsco #vscocam #liveauthentic #livefolk #kinfolk #visualcoop #finditliveit…” (Sociality Barbie). The mere use of extensive hashtags in itself is a parody. As consequence, every part of the circulated post is made to reveal issues within it and issues of other photos that mirror the characteristics that are fabricated or made to look like authentic moments that are in fact staged for the purpose of the photograph.
For these reasons, using Instagram in order to expose problems within the platform makes a powerful statement. Photos such as those of Sociality Barbie encourage discomfort of the viewer and hope for Instagram users to become more aware of the ideologies that restrict the ways of critically seeing. In my project, I aim to also generate responses through flawed, but realistic portrayals of everyday life keeping in conversation with the same absurd themes that are criticized by Sociality Barbie.
In order to resist the implicit rules of Instagram, my collection references common themes and subjects of popular Instagram photos. I was most interested in the following three types of photos: the selfie (Figure 1), the city views/landscapes and the product as subject (Figure 2).
With these categories in mind, I attempted to remove the aspects of each photo that were successful in creating an aesthetically pleasing image. That being said, I was able to organize my own photos using the categories as seen below.
The Unsuccessful Selfie
Selfies are “exemplary in that users develop an understanding of who they are as they craft intimate images for public display” (Boy and Uitermark 613). Such “craft[ing]” can refer to the idealized versions of the self, made possible by the many beauty apps that remove blemishes and enhance certain features. In this way, Instagram gives agency to individuals to depict how they wish to be seen.
While this freedom and choice is given, there are also negative implications that come from this (sometimes) unattainable image. In an NBC article, Jessica Wakeman shares her concern that filters provided by social media platforms such as Instagram, “creat[e] an unrealistic portrait of what people look like,” allowing for the fixation and comparison of these images, which as a result trigger depression, anxiety and other forms of mental illness (“Your favorite filter could be contributing to a mental health crisis”). This hyperreal version of the self becomes problematic when it is realized that this is not an accurate representation and can result in self-loathing, or a denial that can be associated with narcissism.
In my “real” selfie, I have taken a photo of myself at a very stressful time in which my body reacted with a pimple (Figure 3). This representation of the self is vulnerable and unedited. By embracing the blemish, I have subverted ideas of the selfie needing to be perfect or as close to perfect as possible.
The City Dump Sites
Instagram users are often highly selective of the places they take pictures of, specifically in the case of the city in which they live. Places that are considered “beautiful, enjoyable, humorous or interesting” are seen as preference, while other places that are “mundane and low-status places” are neglected and rendered “invisible” (Boy and Uitermark 612-613). The problem with this representation is that it allows “Instagram [to] constitut[e] a distinctive way of seeing that composes an image of the city that is sanitized and nearly devoid of negativity” (622). This selection of perfection of the city creates a hyperreal setting in which citizens that are users continue to be ignorant to the parts of the city that require attention, care and improvement.
In the collection that I have taken from Bad Photos of Insta, I have captured part of the city that is noticeably littered with garbage (Figure 4). This take on a landscape depicts a flawed part of the city, especially as the shades of brown and leafless trees suggest an absence of life. However, it exposes that in reality our city is not just new restaurants and busy streets, but also places that we pass by on a daily basis that are overlooked, and perhaps, need care from the city dwellers and more powerful institutions.
Much like our neglected parts of the city, garbage, for the most part, is avoided as the subject of a photograph. The taboo of focusing on garbage and waste may come from the “assert[ion] that certain items need to be trashed to create order” (Isle 466). That being said, seeing waste outside of designated container can be seen as unappealing, disturbing users and their overall experience. However, since Instagram offers a representation of the world and how it is viewed, without the presence of trash within this platform, it is assumes that garbage is always kept in order. On the contrary, waste and littering is an evident city problem and is extended globally.
Within this category, I have also considered garbage not just on the streets, but the containers and remains of what was left from a meal, allowing for viewers to consider or question what was next for the plastic container and where it would eventually end up. Its counter category would be the documentation of foodie experiences where the focus was on the food, and perhaps advertising the restaurant or bakery. In the photo seen on above, I have captured salad that had fallen on a sidewalk (Figure 5). It is a tragedy for the person that lost their food, but also for the sidewalk, which is once again left without being cleaned.
Captioning Final Remarks
In trying to capture “bad photos,” I was forced to look at things that, for the most part, I often ignored. I found myself constantly searching for garbage. It reminded me of the reality of our city being dirty as it is beautiful. Nonetheless, it allowed to me to be conscious of not only what I was producing, but also consuming in terms of the photographs I was liking and sharing. In comparing trending photos to my own of the collection of Bad Photos of Insta, it became quite evident of the drastic differences especially in how people, places and things were made to seem almost flawless. The dangers of hyperrealism are seen in the visual difference, but are also realized to have an effect on perception of our surroundings, and equally the self.
The aim of of this project is not for “good photos” to be seen as nuisance to the users of Instagram. Instead, I aim to present that these types of representations can be problematic if we are not able to differentiate between imaginary and real, as Baudrillard suggests. After acknowledging such differences, these idealized representations of the world can be used as optimistic visions for the future.
The process of such realizations, including the balance of good and bad, brought my attention to James Elkins’s book of How to Use Your Eyes. More specifically, my project is closely related to Elkins’s focus on “learning to see anything, learning to use your eyes more concertedly and with more patience than you might ordinarily… stopping and taking the time simply to look, and keep looking until the details of the world slowly reveal themselves” (Elkins ix). In other words, stop and smell the flowers, but the garbage too, they are as much a part of our world, then the avocado toast you had this morning.
Please visit Bad Photos of Insta for the full collections. I encourage you to use your new awareness and patience to capture the essence of the real world through your own Instagram posts.
Bar Buca. “Brunch Essential – Al Forno.” Instagram, 17 Feb. 2018, www.instagram.com/p/BfTQjynlYE7/?taken-by=barbuca.
Baudrillard, Jean. “The Precession of Simulacra.” Art After Modernism: Rethinking Representation, 1984, pp. 253–281.
Boy, John D., and Justus Uitermark. “Reassembling the City through Instagram.”Transactions of the Institute of British Geographers, vol. 42, no. 4, 2017, pp. 612-624.
Elkins, James. How To Use Your Eyes. Routledge, 2009.
Fajardo, Justine. “A Counter-Instagram User: Bad Photos of Insta Collection.” Instagram, 2 Mar. 2018, www.instagram.com/badphotosofinsta/.
Jenner, Kylie. “Hello.” Instagram, 3 Aug. 2017, www.instagram.com/p/BXWSPaHlK2R/?taken-by=kyliejenner.
Manovich, Lee. Instagram and Contemporary Image, 2017. manovich.net/index.php/projects/instagram-and-contemporary-image.
Morrison, Susan S. “Waste Aesthetics: Form as Restitution.” Isle, vol. 20, no. 3, 2013, pp. 464-478.
Sociality Barbie. “Just Spending Some Quiet Time Drinking Coffee and Watching It Rain.” Instagram, 9 Sept. 2015, www.instagram.com/p/7aplxyHjGZ/?taken-by=socalitybarbie.
Wakeman, Jessica. “Your Favorite Filter Could Be Contributing to a Mental Health Crisis.” NBCNews.com, NBC Universal News Group, 15 Jan. 2018, www.nbcnews.com/think/opinion/your-favorite-selfie-filter-could-be-contributing-mental-health-crisis-ncna837376.
Images in this online exhibit are either in the public domain or being used under fair dealing for the purpose of research and are provided solely for the purposes of research, private study, or education.