Wednesday, 4 November 2015

Instagram lies

You may have read recently about Essena O'Neill, the teenage blogger and Instagram star from Australia who is 'quitting social media' because it is 'fake' and 'staged' – and it therefore isn't making her happy any more.  I don't want to pour scorn on someone else's life choices – if she isn't happy, of course she should make a change, and do what feels right for her.  But I struggle to understand why this is being held up as so laudable, and so (in O'Neill's own words, from her new website) 'game-changing'.

One of many (now deleted) Essena O'Neill Instagram 'selfies'.

I know that a lot of people see social media as some sort of hall of mirrors, distorting the truth of what is really there.  Social media is shallow; it's vacuous; it's illusory; it's fake.  On Essena O'Neill's new 'Let's Be Game Changers' website she says:

I found myself drowning in the illusion. Social media isn't real. It's purely contrived mages and edited clips ranked against each other. It's a system based on social approval, likes and dislikes, validation in views, success in followers... it's perfectly orchestrated judgement. And it consumed me.

It's a view of social media – and the Instagram photo sharing platform in particular – which a lot of people share.  Instagram allows people to showcase carefully curated snippets of their day – cleaned up, edited and polished to perfection – to a potentially vast audience, presenting an unrealistically buffed and manicured image of 'the perfect life', which hides or glosses over any stress or untidiness or other imperfections.

The most popular Instagram accounts present picture after picture of gorgeous home dΓ©cor, delicious healthy food (brunches with avocados and salads, in particular), impeccably-decorated low-fat skinny lattes, travel to exotic places with glorious views and breathtaking sunsets, and beautiful slender people whose smiles radiate the happiness of people who live perfect, hassle-free lives.  In short, they are lies.

A photo posted by Adam Gallagher (@iamgalla) on

Those 'perfect' Instagram users have 'bad hair days' sometimes.  They stuff themselves with greasy comfort food instead of beautifully-presented quinoa salads on pure white plates.  They leave the washing up dirty, and the work-surfaces in their light, spacious, modern kitchens messy.  And their gorgeous 'selfies' took fifty attempts to get right, and were edited in six different apps before being posted.  It's just that you don't see any of that, because they don't choose to show it to you – they only show you the good stuff.

A photo posted by Emilie Ristevski (@helloemilie) on

This is the 'dishonesty' of social media.  Or, to put it another way, this is photography.

My view is that Instagram has always been a photography app first and foremost.  And unless you're making a documentary in a war zone, or something, photography isn't about depicting the absolute truth, warts-and-all.  It's about creating appealing images; beautiful images; striking images; shocking images; images which tell a story.  People look down their noses at an Instagram photo, and sneer 'oh, but it's been edited…'

Yes.  Editing is a part of photography.  Photographers have been processing and altering their shots after the fact since well before Instagram was conceived – before digital photography at all, even.  It's no coincidence that much of the terminology of industry standard photo editing software Adobe Photoshop (all that 'dodging', and 'burning', and so on) comes straight from the era of film photography and the darkroom processing techniques Photoshop's workflow attempts to recreate.  Even something as simple as a basic crop can alter a photo dramatically – removing unwanted objects from the image, and changing the composition of the photo in the process.  The crop has been a staple tool of photographers for decades – but if you've cropped something out of your Instagram shot, people will deride you for it.

“Dodging and burning are steps to take care of mistakes God made in establishing tonal relationships.” – Ansel Adams

Photography is a visual art.  What's wrong with simply wanting something to look aesthetically pleasing?  What's wrong with wanting something to look more aesthetically pleasing than it did in real life?  If you can improve on something, why wouldn't you?  The colours that Vincent Van Gogh saw with his eyes were not as vivid as many of the scenes he painted – but how many people would honestly choose a dreary 'true to life' version to hang on their wall over the striking and colourful Van Gogh interpretation?

A Wheat Field, With Cypresses (1889) – Vincent Van Gogh

Post-processing in photography long predates Instagram, and is an essential part of creating photographic art.  Photography forums are full of people smugly posting pictures that are 'SOOC' ('straight out of camera' – ie. with no editing), who succeed in proving only that they neither understand cameras (especially modern digital cameras) nor art itself.  If you're into photography, and you've just looked through the viewfinder and pressed the shutter release, and then left it at that, you've only done half the job.

A photo posted by Andrea Brown | Vegan (@eatwithandy) on

But someone's Instagram account is documenting their life!  It's not an art gallery.  It's supposed to be a window into someone's world – isn't it rather deceitful if the world you see is totally fake?

Well no, not really.  No one ever lets you see all their flaws.  After all, why should they?  People have the right to choose how they want to be seen by others – to have control over the image of themselves they present to the rest of the world.  We all do it…  With the clothes we choose to wear; how we choose to have our hair; through the way we speak and the food we eat and the cars we drive.

I dress the way that I do, for example, because I want to.  But also because I am happy with what my clothes say about me as a person to a casual observer.  It all ties into me being comfortable with who I am.

Tattoos, facial hair, jewellery, make-up, technology, footwear, interior design, diet, culture, entertainment, leisure…  All these things are choices we make with at least half an eye on how that might affect the way other people will see us.  We all choose to present a certain 'version' of ourselves in public; we all want to have a certain amount of control over how we are perceived by other people.  That's only natural.

Choosing not to share some parts of your life doesn't make you a fraud.  Wanting people to see you in a positive light, and to think well of you, doesn't make you duplicitous or underhand.  It's not 'cheating' to try and present the best version of you that you can, or to have a particular aesthetic which you feel is very 'you'.  We all have a certain side of ourselves, or certain aspects of our lives, which we'd prefer not to share with everybody – that's not shameful, that's perfectly natural.

I respect Essena O'Neill's decision to change the way she uses social media.  I hope she feels better about herself now than she did.  But if other people want to continue posting carefully edited shots to their Instagram accounts – either because they are keen photographers trying to create a piece of art which speaks for itself rather than a stark and unaltered realist photograph simply documenting a moment in time, or because they want to present a particular image of themselves to the world – then we shouldn't be trying to make them feel bad for that choice either.