Instagram – life ruiner?

Having been an Instagram user for a good while now (433 photos and counting), I have taken my fair share of banter over my usage of the service, primarily from my long-suffering boyfriend who frequently turns around to find I’ve scampered off out of sight after something has caught my eye.

An article in my twitter feed, with the title bait of ‘How Instagram almost ruined my life‘ tempted me into reading it recently. Expecting a cheating husband exposed, or a private photo accidentally shared, the voyeur within me was a little disappointed to find that it was yet another article about the “tremendous problem” that Instagram is causing to all of our lives. I woke up this morning to a notification that a friend had joined the service, with their only post to date having a comment of “So you can take a photo of literally whatever happens to be in front of you at the time and instantly it’s ‘art’. Got it.”.

But how much harm are services like this doing us really, and should we really be treating these kind of photos with so much derision?

“Started out as a lemon tart, then my phone went and made it art.”

I’m guilty of being one of those cliched ANIMALS! FOOD! MORE ANIMALS! MORE FOOD! people, which a quick look back through my Instagram online profile confirms. I’m not quite as bad as the folks in the Collegehumor take on the situation, but I have unfortunately ticked a lot of those boxes in my time.

So why do we take photos anyway, outside of the apparent requirement to show off our fabulous lives as claimed in the ‘life ruining’ article? To preserve a memory? Capture something beautiful? Document details otherwise due to be lost in time? Deliberately produce an end-result for a reason? Or simply because you enjoy the process? Very often the reasons for picking up a camera (/app) aren’t mutually exclusive. What the author of the article above apparently fails to realise is that social posturing has been going on for a long time before the Lo-fi filter and square viewports made an appearance. Have we forgotten the mandatory holiday snap viewings of yore, or the family albums meticulously curated and rolled out at events, or even the annual Christmas letter regarding the antics of ‘perfect’ little Timmy (“off to Oxford!” / does a lot of coke) and Lucy (“just back from holidaying in the Maldives where she got engaged to her lawyer boyfriend!” / horrendous self-esteem, unemployed) accompanied with a forced group photo? Images, alongside words, have long been used as a way of capturing a particular positive slant on our lives, and this is nothing to do with the magic of pixels. It’s also not just down to the medium itself, although as they say, a picture is worth a thousand words. Peruse any social feed, and you’ll likely find a highly polished version of reality.

But is it life-ruining?

Photography shouldn’t be elitist. That’s not to say that it shouldn’t have an elite, and shouldn’t be considered an expert pursuit, but it also shouldn’t mean that unless your photos are gallery-worthy they shouldn’t exist. I take a lot of ‘pointless’ photos where no skill is involved. These are things like hotel room numbers on doors, blurry photos in low-light, and yes… meals I’ve cooked. They all mean something to me for various reasons. That’s not to say that I can’t enjoy those moments without snapping them, but for me the resulting photos add something to be gained at at later times. But why do I sometimes choose to share those moments rather than keeping them just to myself? Why not? I’m not one for putting much highly personal information out there. I deliberately limit certain information in some situations, however Instagram for me represents an opportunity for me to share snapshots of my life in the same way that this blog does. It’s an opportunity to put something out there that may or may not be interesting to others, and to have conversations. I enjoy seeing what my friends are up to, even through an edited, curated medium like Instagram, and enjoy seeing the world through their eyes. I imagine that others see my banal sharing in the same way. It’s nothing about validation, and I can’t say I’ve ever had feelings of sadness from comparing my life to others in my stream. The root discussion is surely about content production, and whether information should be shared  in itself, which is a wider debate about our online interactions and personas, rather than a criticism of the visual media of photography and Instagram as a facilitator.

But is it art?

One of the biggest criticisms aimed at services like Instagram is that just because you’re taking a photo, it doesn’t make it photography. As my recently-joined friend wryly alluded to with her sole photo, applying a filter doesn’t magically transform every snap. Filters do not make the image, and usually, are quite unnecessary. I apply a filter to the majority of my images, mainly just to even up the tone, but sometimes just because it’s the quickest way of framing them within a border. Filters don’t teach you photographic technique, however that brings me nicely onto my next point…

Things which get people thinking about taking photos, whatever their reasons, are good. If their reasons are to make their life look great to the outside world, and a crappy filter helps them achieve that, then great. Maybe after the first 100 terrible photos they’ll start putting thought into the composition, or the lighting. Maybe they’ll be inspired to get a compact camera, and an SLR, or maybe learn some theory. The criticism that the world is being flooded with mediocre photos might be a temporary problem (or, you know, follow better people), but it could spawn an entire new batch of camera loving hobbyists, or even professionals.

Another reason that I think Instagram is a good platform for this is that it has limits. I thoroughly enjoyed a talk by Phil Hansen at Adobe MAX earlier this year, which was on the subject of limitation helping to drive creativity, and I feel that the same applies here. Users of the apps are constrained to a square photo format. Filters are absolute and cannot be tweaked. There are a limited number of controls over contrast, or blurs. There is only so far you can deviate from the original. Users aren’t going to be taking a photo and sitting and tweaking elements for hours, performing retouches, red-eye reduction, or stripping out that unsightly background element. They’re forced to consider whether their subject matter will translate from their default rectangular viewport into different dimensions. All of these help users to make decisions, whether conscious or unconscious, and the limitations ensure that the focus is always on taking a great original image. In short, even in a small way, I think it helps make people better photographers.

So is Instagram about to ruin my life? I highly doubt it. Whilst I disagree with the sentiment and most of the content in the original article, there is one thing I wholeheartedly agree with. Stop living your life solely through a lens. As the author puts it, “The best filters are your eyes, so stop looking down and see the world.”. This means you, people holding up phones (or worse, tablets) at gigs. Use your camera sparingly, when you know that the images will be worthwhile, and make sure you spend some time without it so that your memories aren’t just a collection of square boxes on a profile page.