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An instagambit

Blake J. Graham | Thursday, November 8, 2012

If your Instagram feed is filled with pictures of your face, you’re doing it wrong.

Or rather, perhaps more delicately, you’re treating Instagram wrong. You’re taking the practices of online social behavior you learned from first MySpace, then Facebook and applying them to a completely different world. Instagram is a social network of sorts, but unlike its massive compadres, it’s not about you. It’s about what you see.

On Instagram, everybody plays by the same simple rules. You all have the same square to take or place a photo in, you have the same set of filters and adjustments to apply, you can offer the same minimal comments underneath it and you have the same way of viewing the images and responding to them.

Maybe this seems trivial to note, but the underlying importance and consequence is not: The only way to differentiate your images from someone else’s is found in the art of photography.

As soon as you open Instagram, you are participating in the largest citizen artist endeavor in existence. The filters will help you, but ultimately it’s up to you to add to that art. But a pre-history of image saturation has turned most of us into image-junkies.

Image-junkies thrive in the narcissistic slop of Facebook’s unrelenting waves of pseudo-social-emancipation, i.e. the more you attempt to be an individual on Facebook, the only way to confirm it is through the affirmation of “friends” via likes and whatnot. It’s really more about you than it is your friends. Facebook pushes images to the front of every screen, and each image is more or less the same: They contain people, and the people are posing. The images aren’t artful. They’re just folks with stage directions (“stand here,” “smile,” “move to the left so it looks like you’re holding the Eiffel Tower,” “sorority squat!”). Image-junkies love their own faces, their friends and participating in the drama of life. But you can’t really see anything when you’re attempting to alter reality for a frame.

Instagram works in reverse. Reality exists around you, you try to capture it, but when the photo looks twisted and the mood seems wrong, you can apply a filter to make your piece of recorded history match the event as it was. It’s a chance to see cleverness in the world around you and share it. Most importantly, it forces you to see. One can’t properly record the world and convey its moods if he or she is constantly intervening, adjusting and commanding. Instagram, at its roots, possesses that kind of integrity.

Not but several months ago, Instagram was a scrappy application for only the iPhone. It had a couple of filters and a feed. You could follow other people and like their photos. That’s about all there was to it. Your own profile was buried underneath layers of menus. It was easier to find the images you had liked than it was to find the photos you had taken. It was impossible (and still is) to magnify your profile image or anyone else’s. These things seem small, but they point to an Instagram mentality that is slowly slipping away.

It’s not about you. It’s not about you. It’s about what you see.

Photography is the closest means we have of trapping reality. And while you can’t collect samples of reality or even of the present, you can collect images and samples of the past. The image-junkies are caught up in a transactional aesthetic where the image validates reality, i.e. “If there’s a photo of me at a party looking really happy then I must have been really happy despite what I may or may not acutely remember from the evening.”

It’s hard that we can’t see ourselves. To physically understand where we fit in, we have to turn to mirrors, reflections, shiny surfaces or cameras. There is nothing wrong with a desire to orient oneself that way. Facebook was built with that principle in mind. But sometimes it’s okay to see the world without seeing yourself.

When Hurricane Sandy plowed into the east coast, users on Instagram responded with over 1.3 million photos. Each image added to the narrative and understanding of what was happening to the people, the buildings and the geography effected by the storm. It was Instagram’s biggest moment, but also the biggest moment of collective photography. The images showed us the scale of the storm, they provided perspective between the damaged areas and they also surfaced key information that was integral to saving human lives and protecting the damaged cities. The people on Instagram didn’t show us who they are; they showed us what they saw.

Blake J. Graham is a sophomore. He can be reached at bgraham2@nd.edu

The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.