It's about the sharing: Instagram's recursive aura

Vernacular photography in the age of Google Image Search

Contributed by Timothy Welsh Assistant Professor, English at Loyola University New Orleans
September 30, 2013
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Part of the Cluster:

Tokens and talismans in digital spaces

Two summers ago my dad and I drove from Seattle to New Orleans. The longest car trip either of us had ever taken, our route took us through some of the most scenic parts of the country. The drive was majestic, American, and overwhelming in ways you never expect until you're actually doing it. During the five-day trip, we barely ever played the radio. We chatted, gazed out the window at the passing countryside, and I posted pictures to Instagram.

Instagram is photo-sharing social network that had just started to generate some buzz for pushing the retro trend in mobile photography. Using the Instagram application, users crop their images to a Polaroid square and apply digital filters that make any image look as if it were taken with a vintage camera. Launched the previous fall, the free service announced it had amassed five million users just before our trip.

With a mix of curiosity and purpose, I set up my Instagram account over lunch in the parking lot of an Arby's near Bozeman, Montana. I've never been much of a picture-taker; but for a once-in-a-life-time, cross-country, father-son road trip, visual documentation seemed compulsory. The only camera I owned was in my iPhone 3GS, which, needless to say, offered more convenience than image quality. Instagram's retro-filters seemed like they might improve the look of mobile phone pictures taken out the window of a moving car.

The filters did help, in a way. The auto-zoom blurriness, inconsistent depth-of-field, and poor lighting in my images, when altered with a Walden, Lo-fi, or Sutro algorithm, looked almost intentional. The images took on an ambiguous poignancy; yet, for all my fiddling, the pictures remained disappointing records of what we'd seen. In an instant, the application of a filter would bestow on an image the weight of memory it hadn't earned. The resulting photos had a sameness to them, and if I didn't mark them with captions immediately, I soon forgot where I took them and why. As my father followed the slow curves through the gorgeous mountain ranges of Colorado, I cropped and recropped, compared one filter to the next, and tried to come up with a witty slogan for the fifth nearly identical, washed out image of a mountain.

I was aiming out the car window to take a shot of the western edge of Yellowstone National Park when I was overcome by the shear innanity of what I was doing. The beauty of Yellowstone has inspired incalculable photographs over the past century. My partner's father, a semi-professional photographer, has numerous undeveloped contact sheets from his visits to the park alone. A simple Google image search would return millions of better photos than I was capable of taking at that moment. Even so, I felt the need to upload yet another throw-away image with the very device I could use to look up thousands of much better pictures taken more intentionally, by more well-equipped photographers. What, I began to wonder, is the point of taking more photos in the age of Google Image Search?

Retro altering my mediocre snapshots felt vain-glorious and self-important, less like making mementos of our journey than polishing a Participant trophy. Should some denizen of social networks demand pics or it didn't happen, I could link them to the uploaded image, its geotag signature confirming I had been to Yellowstone and taken a picture. My Instagrammed images had little documentary value, too distorted to offer any meaningful representation of their indexical referent. Instead, their main purpose, it seemed to me, was this reflexive aura.

For Walter Benjamin, mechanically reproducing an image destroys its binding to a specific time and place.[1] Contemporary critics like WJT Mitchell have exclaimed that digital editing with programs like Photoshop or Instagram have broken the photo's link to its referent as well, even though tinkering images is as old as photography itself.[2] My Instagrammed snapshots, however, seem wholly unconcerned with their index. Cropped, filtered, captioned, and uploaded, they have little to say about how the outer edge of Yellowstone looked on the day of my trip. Instead, their appearence on my Instagram stream serves to attest to my having photographed Yellowstone.

Such is the paradox of the Instagram photo. It is a photographic practice that waives its the truth value as a first principle. A vernacular photography for the age of online social networks, "these objects are less about conveying truthful information about their subjects than they are about enacting certain social and cultural rituals through morphological design and object-audience interaction."[3] These are photos taken to be altered, submitted to be recontextualized through comments and favoriting, and, yet, still serve as a documentation of events. Instagram speaks to a visual culture at peace with the artificial, that has come to terms with the expansive mediation of everyday life, for which there is no separation between the event and its documentation. Documentation is the event.

This development in visual culture eludes Jack and Murray in the famous scene of Don Delillo's White Noise in which they visit "THE MOST PHOTOGRAPHED BARN IN AMERICA." There's an ambivalent irony in Murray commenting that "no one sees the barn," as if the horde of sight-seers lining up their shots had any interest in the barn as such when they drove out to take their amature photographs.[4] Murray observes that the signs, souvenir booths, and other photographers deprive visitors from picturing what the barn was like "before it was photographed," and are now content to "[take] pictures of taking pictures." [5]

This scene is a staple of 20C literature courses. It encapsulates quintessentially postmodern concerns about our hypermediated condition, detached from reality, floating in simulacra. Such questions may be even more relevant today, as more than half of Americans now carry Internet-enabled smartphones in their pockets. And yet neither Murray nor Jack ask why these people with cameras would want to take these simulacra photographs in the first place.

As my father and I continued on through Wyoming, I couldn't imagine Instagram users being particularly affected by Murray's observation. Taking pictures of pictures is Instagram's primary function. The digital filters mimic analog photography processes, even drawing in blemishes and mistakes to add 'authenticity.' They reference the previous generation of photography (one filter is even called 1977), to conjure nostalgia for the very recent past with blunted signifaction: these are memories.

The appeal of Instagram's photo-filters is the simulation of realism as digital effect. As a result, it is nearly impossible to take an Instagrammed image seriously. Yet, there is an honesty to their aesthetic of artificiality. Each announces itself as unequivocally constructed, in the way all photography is. Instagram stands as a critique of the indexical function of photography. Its users not only accept mediation, they add to it, layer on layer, with each crop, edit, and upload. Why then would an Instagrammer bother visiting the most photographed barn in America?

In "Instagram i love you," Youtuber Casey Neistat offers viewers his "guide to not sucking so bad at Instagram." The golden rule from his tutorial asserts, "it's not about pictures, it's about sharing." Instagram, he explains, is like a family photo album, which is precious not because of its photography but because its a documentation of life. In other words, no one comes to Instagram to see the barn, they come to see that I took a photo of the barn.

Murray's concern that no one can document the barn as such overlooks the value these corrupted photographs have as documentation of the visitors. There are certainly Instagrammers who are interested in artful photograph and stretching the expressive qualities of the medium. But, for the most part, an Instagram account functions in the way Neistat identifies, as an album of stilled moments snatched from everyday life.

By and large, Instagram is populated with "ordinary photographs, the ones made or bought (or sometimes bought and then made over) by everyday folk from 1839 until now, the photographs that preoccupy the home and the heart but rarely the museum or the academy."[6] As such, they share many characteristics with other vernacular forms addressed in Geoffery Batchen's morphology: anonymous portraits from the late 19th century touched up with a layer of paint removing any idiosyncratic details, the photo album page patched together images from different times and places, the baby shrine and fotoescultura constructed as altars to commemorate well-being and prosperity, to stave off the "catastrophy of time's passing," and "to posit the possibility of perpetual stasis.".[7] Common to all these forms, Batchen finds a "demystified photography" less concerned with fidelity than with fulfilling a social function. Or as Neistat might say, "its not about the photography, its about the sharing."

At the same time, Batchen recognizes in vernacular photography a "paramount concern" for conforming to genre conventions as "making, commissioning, and/or witnessing these objects are all, at least in part, acts of social placement and integration."[8] The vernacular's foregrounded social role, thus, carries with it disciplinarity, a feature that Instagram, as an online social network, has baked in. What sets Instagram apart from the common photo album, Neistat explains, is that it allows users to surveil the lives of other people. As Neistat's video attests, an Instagram user can be doing it wrong and require a guide to not suck so much, which asserts the primacy of sharing one's life with the Internet one altered image at a time.

Indeed, while vernacular photography has always been defined by its social function, that function is modified in a wired culture. Unlike the family photo album, which might sit passively on a shelf at a parent's house until visitors come over, one's Instagram album is uploaded to the Internet. One's album builds a profile of likes and locations, interests and interactions. Taken in toto, they constitue a life. But, because they reside in an online database, these album profiles are susceptible to fragmentation, assessment, and reorganization. Marked with tags, geo-location coordinates, and other metadata, they reside on a server somewhere to be called up by anyone with access to "favorite," comment, collect, or repost. Simple search terms draw individual images and their associated profiles into widely varying contexts and for unexpected purposes.

As profiles grow, so does Instagram's database of images. The collective mass of all user photo albums reaches toward a blanket catalogue of any and every everyday thing. In December 2012, Instagram changed their terms of service to claim perpetual right to use and sell images posted to their site without payment or notification. Had it gone through, Instagram would have effectively become "the world's largest stock-photo agency," and maybe even turned a profit. But, the move outraged their user community, who proclaimed loudly on the Internet their ownership of and copyright on the pictures they made, stored, and shared using free software, free cloud storage, and free webhosting. Instagram walked back the changes soon after, and lost a few users—myself included—in the process.

The episode revealed what Instagramer's probably knew already: it was never about the pictures, it was about sharing them with third parties for money. The vernacular Instagram photo lacks the private protections of the plastic album sleeve. Uploading these ordinary photographs enters them into the circulations of a, so called, post-industrial capital. Sitting on Instagram's servers, they are easily stripped of their sole remaining referent, already residing in an undiffereniated stock of redundant, generic imagery.

By Oklahoma I had grown tired of Instagramming our roadtrip. I found I spent more time fiddling with options than enjoying the scenery I was trying to remember. As a record of what the trip looked like, I posted one filtered landscape as we passed the five-hundred miles travelled each day, like some kind of low-density Google Maps Van. Google Street View had of course already canvased our entire route; I can re-view our trip whenever I please, even without my lackadaisical Instagramming. To prove the extensiveness of Street View's coverage, four Maps users submitted a video to Google Demo Slam the previous fall in which they took a road trip down Route 66, one click at a time. Fittingly, the video ends with the crew taking the requisite roadtrip group photo, the Street View of their destination projected on the wall behind them. Talk about taking pictures of pictures.


  • [1] Walter Benjamin, "The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction," Illuminations:: Essays and Reflections (New York: Shocken Books, 1968), 217-252.
  • [2] WJT Mitchell, The Reconfigured Eye: Visual Truth in the Post-Photographic Era (Cambridge: MIT Press, 1992).
  • [3] Geoffery Batchen, Each Wild Idea: Writing, Photography, History (Cambridge: MIT Press, 2002), 77.
  • [4] Don DeLillo, White Noise, Anv Dlx edition (New York: Penguin, 2009), 12.
  • [5] Ibid, 113.
  • [6] Batchen, 57.
  • [7] Ibid, 76.
  • [8] Ibid, 77.