“Take a Photo; It’ll Last Longer”

In the six weeks that I had an Instagram account, I took and uploaded a single photo:

I took it the night we put up our Xmas decorations. It wasn’t posed — it just was, so I snapped it, applied a filter, and uploaded it.

Looking at it now, I realise that this photo is not real. It’s disconnected and somehow false to claim the photo as mine. This is not an artefact, or a record, or a representation of a real moment — it’s too massaged, too false to be any of these. It’s a thing that looks a little like something I once saw, but nothing more.

Applying Instagram’s filters is just a clever-clever, bullshit attempt at imbuing largely sterile and pedestrian photos with a sense of human warmth and a “uniqueness”. (There are only so many ways you can to take a photo of the fucking sushi you and 10,000 other people had for lunch.) The filters are a lazy visual shorthand for authenticity — algorithmically applying strange flaws that are common in photos of our parents when they we young. We use technology to try and impart that distant warmth in our day-to-day lives.

By doing so, we’re missing the point: the flaws we so deliberately recreate were never intentional and never wanted. The fuzzy glow and odd colour-shifts were to due limitations of the film and processing techniques used; they’re accidents, not a part of the photo. Previous generations would have given their eye-teeth for the clarity we so casually disregard.

In our attempts to imbue that nostalgic warmth, we miss the real reason we treasure our old photos: they’re artefacts, hard-copy memories of our lives. Their true value is in the way they make us feel — a good photo can take us back to the place it was taken, and invoke in us the feeling we had at the time. That’s something no filter, no matter how brilliantly implemented, can ever recreate for us.

Tied into this is the general devaluation of photographs over the last decade. Previously, you might take three or four rolls of photos while you were on your holiday; now, you can take three or four rolls’ worth every single day of you holiday and still spend less that you would have spent on a single roll of film. The result is hundreds or even thousands of photos, and the chance of finding the one photo that evokes the feeling you had on that holiday drops dramatically — that one photo gets lost in the flood.

We end up drowning in photos, and the burden of cataloguing and sorting them increases exponentially. Our ability to filter the good from the bad almost disappears — compare your iPhoto library to the albums your parents kept of you growing up. One is curated carefully and very deliberately; the other is a mass of events, with little-to-no critical selection. Your iPhoto library is perhaps more honest, less groomed, but that was never the point of personal photos: they’re a family mythology, somewhat idealised, rather than a strictly factual record. Applying Instagram’s filters becomes a way for us to try and make some of these photos stand out — filtering in situ rather than ex post facto.

Our motivation for “sharing” them is same as it’s always been — we want to show people our lives, share with them the moments that were important to us. Fundamentally, it’s the expression of our social nature. The ease with which we can broadcast our uncurated photos has two outcomes. People are less interested in them due to sheer volume of photos from acquaintances and people we went to school with or once worked alongside. But, even knowing this on some level, we still feel the pressure to “contribute” constantly, to avoid being lost in the deluge. And so, to counteract this, we end up taking hundreds of photos and sharing them on Instagram to fill the void and feel, just for a moment, that we’ve made an impression.