December 20th, 2016
The Irony of Instagram
Do you remember the mechanical click of the button and the faint jolt as the shutter flashed open? Do you remember pulling the lever to bring the next piece of film in to place, and the miniature crank handle that folded out to let you rewind the film?
How about the joy of getting a reel of film developed and opening that envelope full of perfectly preserved memories? Or maybe there was the disappointment of realising a reel had been overdeveloped or just badly framed.
All these things seem rather romantic when you remember them, especially when you pick out the small details, yet at the time they were as simple and automatic as touching a button on your phone is today.
Those days of film are now mostly passed, and the old mechanical cameras have been replaced by the far more straightforward processes offered by digital photography. Modern cameras can capture vibrantly coloured images in a sharper focus than any film camera could have hoped to produce – and better yet, if you take a bad picture you can just delete it an try again. The result has been an explosion in the amount of pictures being taken, an explosion which has been so profound that it has dictated the development of the internet itself as people look to store and share images online.
And yet there has been a popular trend, particularly among younger people, to produce images that look strikingly similar to the images that we used to take on those old cameras.
Apps and services like Instagram have given people the ability to add all sorts of filters and features to their photographs while websites like Tumblr, Facebook and Flickr have enabled people to share the images they capture, and the flexible nature of digital cameras means that people capture images of everything. We even share photos of what we had for breakfast.
In contrast, if you dig out an old family photo album and take a look at any of the pictures, everyone in the picture is posing for it. Unless it’s a picture of a baby, of course.
And therein lies the irony – they used to be so careful about the photos they took because there was only one chance to get the shot right.
Many of the images that are so often shared today are the ones that our grandparents would probably have thrown away. They would have been disappointed to find a photograph that had come out grainy or slightly overexposed and yet here we are in the 21st century adding graininess and exposure to our perfect 21st century images! And can you imagine stumbling across an old black and white photo of what your granddad had for breakfast forty years ago?
But although I think there’s an irony to this, I don’t think it’s a bad thing that we use our cameras so readily. All you can tell about a person from those old posed photos is what they looked like at the time it was take, so you start to look behind the smile. You examine the image to take in other details: what they were wearing, what their houses or streets looked like, what pictures they had on their walls.
When you can take pictures of anything and everything, value is placed on capturing those unusual moments when a single picture can tell an entire story. We live in a world where we carry our cameras around with us all the time and so, instead of posing for pictures, we use those cameras to document our lives.
Sure, in forty years time our grand kids might not care too much about that photo of what we ate for breakfast yesterday but maybe it’ll help them get to know us a little better, even when we’re gone.