Shona Ghosh


Hands up if you hate Instagram
August 29, 2011, 9:29 pm
Filed under: Media, Technology

I was happy to read this restrained rant against photo filters by one of CNET’s tech writers, Stephan Shankland. Led by Instagram with 7m users, photo filter apps have become increasingly popular as iPhone photographers recast ofen banal subject matter into bright, poppy, retro images. That is, 7m users reliving a design aesthetic that they probably weren’t alive for. Previously these kind of effects were painstakingly achieved through box cameras and the like, but as Facebook has decided to piggyback on Instagram’s success and add filters to its photo editing tools, what was previously an indie hobby is becoming increasingly mainstream. Incidentally, Facebook thinks it has about 60bn photos on its database. SIXTY BILLION lomo-fied photos, all over your news feed.

I genuinely dislike these photo filter apps – the most popular being Instagram and Hipstamatic (even the names are intolerable) – and find it surprising that a generation of super-connected people choose to filter their lives through an artificial aesthetic which belongs to the 1970s. Pop culture’s nostalgia for history, to recast the present against the golden haziness of the past is hardly anything new, as testified by the ongoing popularity of retro dramas like Mad Men, or (in the UK) The Hour. But the tendency seeps across the media more widely, to interesting, if not always commendable, effect. Take Foreign Policy, which chose to host a photo essay on the war in Afghanistan dubbed “The War in Hipstamatic“. The essay consists of a series of highly coloured photographs of the war in Afghanistan which recall, to borrow Hipstamatic’s own chirpy tagline, “the look and feel of plastic toy cameras from the past”.

A filtered photo (complete with faux Polaroid edging) of a soldier in Afghanistan, from the Basetrack media project and presented in Foreign Policy's "The War in Hipstamatic"

The NYT’s Damon Winter has won plaudits earlier this year for a similar project – so clearly not everyone feels quite as offended as I do by this. Indeed, Winter writes an articulate defence of his choice, saying that using Hipstamatic has no effect on the actual content of his war photography. It is worth reading in full.

What has gotten people so worked up, I believe, falls under the heading of aesthetics. Some consider the use of the phone camera as a gimmick or as a way to aestheticize news photos. Those are fair arguments, but they have nothing to do with the content of the photos.

I disagree. Recasting Afghanistan in grainy colours feels, at gut level, like an insult both to journalism and the soldiers who face a much greyer reality on a daily basis, and the aesthetics actually distract from the content.

Of course, you could ask how far this snobbery should trickle down, and to what extent using any filters in photography is trickery. The simple answer is that I don’t know; I’m not inherently against people experimenting with Diana cameras or or Polaroids. But with more and more people taking retro photos as the norm, rather than the novelty, this insistence on recasting the present is going to get tiresome at best.

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5 Comments so far
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You might want to re-think your header image for your blog – it looks as if you’ve applied some retro-filter to it :)

Comment by Jonathan Machen

A few years ago I used to call myself a hardcore gamer. Now, with a family and a busy career, I have resigned to the fact that I will now be a ‘mainstream’ gamer. From being the first one to try out a mad, I now follow gaming mags, blogs and speedruns/video walkthroughs. The spectator mode is my new form of online gaming. Why do I make this comment here? Because that represents the fate of many consumers, who wish they could produce excellent photos, but can’t. There are many reasons for that : Lack of time, lack of resources, an inability to use software, let alone high end photo editing programmes. Does that mean we should stop wanting to create ‘beautiful’ photos??

I have a flickr pro account, and own a few cameras including a canon 5d mark ii. But when my child was born following an emergency procedure, and again at 3 am when I was feeding the infant and noticed an interesting shot, I only had my smart phone with me. In the ITU, should I not have used a filter to take a slightly blurred dream like photo which to me resembled my hopes for this child, even when we were counting hours and days? Or should I have shot the photo in ‘normal mode’ and then come home and edited it while I was hardly getting 4 hours of sleep running to and from the hospital?

I think you make a point of not allowing twitter [in some other blog post] and instagram take over the role of mainstream / hardcore professionalism. But at the same time, do think about why these quick fixes mean so much to people. At one time photo shop was frowned upon for exactly the same reasons people do not like instagram. However, unless there were consumers for any form of art/ creativity / productivity tools, people would not be investing money into researching better cameras or for that matter almost any form of technological advancement. It would not be helpful to not respect this aspect .

I do however respect your opinions as being your own. I am sure people will share your views. I felt compelled to write only because I feel that in recent years I have crossed over to the other side :)

Comment by anohershonaghosh dad

I realise from its growing user numbers and general popularity that I am fighting a losing battle with Instagram ;)

As your (lovely) story indicates, these things are so personal. No one ever takes a photo thinking, ‘Hey, am I falling in line with the per-conceived notion of what a good photo should be?’.

I think my main annoyance – and is this is a personal thing too – stems from seeing a lot of ‘hipster’, trendy friends taking arty shots of their weekend activities and posting them on Facebook as a kind of glossy magazine version of their lives. I know that’s the human tendency and we all fall prey to it – but it still irritates me at a personal level. When I see that same glossy magazine, rose-tinted-glasses technique used on something like, say, war photography, it seems a strange way to present reality.

But I can see the vast majority of users on Instagram et al are just using the service for their own, personal enjoyment which of course they’re allowed to do!

Comment by shonaghosh

I couldn’t agree more. I have no issue with people who genuinely find retro filters to be appealing, or the curious who wish to try out a filter or two for fun. What is perplexing is why an entire generation would forgo the precision of modern mobile technology in favour of lacklustre photos of yesteryears, on each and every single photo.

Comment by Guest DX

At the very least if 7m users are going to be on instagram does that mean we have to see 7m pics of food??? This is how I feel about that http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xvvnyRAB1A4#t=04m09s

Comment by Kevin Cornista




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