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Life Through a Lens

At the end of 2014, Instagram claimed that 300 Million users were ‘Sharing Real Moments’ of the New Year. The amount of photographs that are posted on the Internet – on Instagram alone – is incomprehensible. The average smart phone now has a good quality digital camera and this is as vital to its function as sending a text or making a call. Today photography is more than a hobby: it is a social act.

Life Through a Lens

It is clear that photography currently carries a vast amount of social and cultural significance. Many are taking pictures throughout the day to record their daily lives. Children, teenagers, adults and the elderly are all within the demographic of daily photodiarists. Within split seconds, we can take a high definition snap of our evening meal, edit it to look vibrant or nostalgic (depending on what effect you’re going for), add a caption, hashtag it and post it on Instagram. Not just for your intimate group of followers to see, but for a wide audience should they be interested or connected to you.

Life Through a Lens

Instagram allows people to narrate their lives through visuals, plus you get to see other’s optical narratives too. Instagram acts as visual community, based on photographic evidence and visual codes of the neo-photographic genre. Bell et al. contends that “individuals inhabit (and generate) a visually saturated culture where visual communication based on showing, or mimesis, has come to occupy a parallel status to verbal communication, based on telling, or diegesis.” Instagram and Snapchat are among those which are based on visual communication alone, authentic or augmented, live storytelling being the aim. In other words: visual ‘diegesis’.

This means that in some ways the function of photography in culture has been altered. Today, photography is no longer about the “special or rarefied moments but rather ‘the fleeting display of…the small and mundane.” Elliot Erwitt, a professional documentary photographer, says that we: “[take] pictures…so that you don’t have to explain things with words.” This is a fitting description of contemporary photography.

The renowned photographer, Alfred Stieglitz famously said “in photography there is a reality so subtle that it becomes more real than reality.” It has become clear that some online users feel that posting photographs on social networking sites validate their lives. Arguably, sites such as Facebook encourage us to communicate every detail of our lives, creating a saturation of photographic imagery. Social networking asks us to evaluate one another through status updates, well-crafted (or not) captions and increasingly manipulated images.

Is it possible that when we start to see life purely in snapshots of moments that we only see the moments we published online as the ones that are ‘more real’, because they are recognised and validated by others? Instagram may well have us believe so. But this, no doubt, begins to blur the line between authentic, real life moments and augmented Instagram moments.

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Chris Rojek talks about how photographs “[enable] the spectator to apprehend the habits, ideas, character and very essence of [the] subject.” Users on Instagram employ photos to display their own perceived essence and character making subjective decisions of what to display. What follows are some of the main features that encompass our life through a lens:


The term Selfie, now in the OED, refers mainly to taking images of ourselves. The selfie has become an important part of contemporary culture for many and acts as a portal through which we reveal ourselves and our life experiences. It almost acts as evidence of our contact with a place or thing, authenticating our online story. The selfie acts as a record of the personal experience, hence the name, which allows you to pursue a “democratized aesthetic of the self.”


…[t]he everyday use of portable digital cameras… [has] reconstructed not only people’s photographic practices, but also ways of experiencing place”. The Selfie allows us to establish place but only in relation to the self and the personal experience. However, Waite contends that “a landscape image cuts across all political and national boundaries, it transcends the constraints of language and culture.” Within Instagram’s community, landscape images allow us to communicate across global boundaries, where language may be limiting, an image has a universal quality.


This leads us onto the collective experience, which has many links with what I have categorised as ‘#i’mhere’. Within the realm of ‘collective experience’ lies public and group events. Many who attends a sporting event or concert can now document it through photographs. However, when individuals post their photographs online and hash-tag them, they become part of a collective experience. This also includes users who post pictures to add to niche communities within Instagram itself, such as fandoms.


What I have named ‘objectifying objects’ includes the ‘food porn’ craze and the numerous mundane images of our daily lives. These photographs are taken at the rate we live our lives. They display our eating habits, show the world what book were are reading or offer an exclusive screening of what colour our nails are that week. In this way these photographs construct what Murray refers to as “narratives about ourselves and the world around us.” Instagram and other social networking sites, allow and encourage us to interact “through electronic media in real time.” Hansen discusses the nature of digital media, claiming it allows ‘the lived…temporality of human experience” to be processed by machines in an attempt to elongate time through documentation and exhibition.

Ultimately, we photograph a picture of an object and then put it through Instagram filters in order to make it more authentic by using nostalgic toned filters. Ironically this homogenises such images within a collective aesthetic and creativity and uniqueness is diminished.


On Instagram we thematize an image by adding a hashtag. Hashtags have become a part of semiotic communication in the same way that the @ symbol and emoticons have entered our digital vernacular. The hashtag can be used simply to label an image, or be used ironically, creatively or as part of a growing trend topic.

Howells et al. asserts that “the ontology of the photographic image has not been affected’ by new media.” However I believe that this is debateable and not entirely accurate. The reasons why we take images and how we take them have changed dramatically with the emergence of new technology. We now take photographs mainly for social interaction and to construct an online identity. Ultimately, the complexity of photography and its relationship with reality is far more relevant than ever, due to the ways in which it has become intertwined within our everyday life.

Instagram, it seems, wants to keep photography as real and authentic as possible, ironically through the use of augmenting filters which seek to add depth to fundamentally mundane events. A contradiction which puts photography in a complex position in our culture. What is certain however, is that storytelling, or as Bell calls “diegesis”, is at the heart of photography in today’s culture, where we are documentarians and portraitists in our’s and other’s digital narratives.