Is Instagram 'authentic'?

21:58, Nov 26 2012

This isn't about which takes better photos, not by a long shot. There is no competition: a camera with a decent sensor (or decent film) will always make a better shot in the hands of someone with the skill to use it. Authenticity is the loaded term here, and I think both sides have points.

Instagram certainly has a whole lot hurting any claim to "authenticity". The filters immediately spring to mind - manufactured nostalgia for a moment that occurred seconds ago. Though the Instagram filters are a little heavy-handed, it isn't as though the flat picture your cellphone takes looks all that much like real life either. Photographers have always post-processed, long before Photoshop, it just keeps getting easier and easier. The human eye is much more complex than the best camera in the world, let alone one with a plastic lens.

Away from the filters, Instagram is instantly public. You can make your photos private, yes, but nobody is taking photos for themselves on Instagram. They are by nature intended for consumption by many people, and thus you pass them through various social filters as well: how does this photo reflect on me, what does it project about my lifestyle, am I spamming people - the normal social media stuff. This certainly appears to hinder "authenticity", but most non-pornographic photos taken these days end up on the internet in some form. The thing is, you get more time to consider how you present them.

The trick to Instagram is in its name, INSTAgram. Instagram is for what is happening right now, much like Twitter. Whatever emotion I decide to project through an Instagram photo - the way I frame it, whether I upload it at all, the caption I write, the filter I use (or don't) - is completely based on how I'm feeling at the time. In other words, I will drunk-Instagram. I'm also reasonably fine with just pointing my phone toward whatever the photo is of and not worrying too much about anything other than the basics of composition. This kind of careless shooting (and uploading) certainly imitates the human experience much more than my usual photo-taking process, in which a photo is decontextualised completely, processed later and then uploaded only if it meets certain criteria. These photos are invariably much better, but not necessarily more authentic - the control I have over them is much more extreme, they pass through a wide variety of social filters.

Photography is going through much more rapid change than most industries, even journalism. It's fascinating. I'm going to continue to use Instagram as an easy place to dump snatches of life, but still carry my real camera on me as much as possible - "authenticity" is impossible and overrated anyway; I would rather have pretty photos.

Email Henry or follow him on Twitter.