Instagram, Snapchat, Flickr… vanity or preservation?

In November 2016 I interviewed three (3) professional photographers on the whys of some of the pictures they took and what photography is or isn’t to them. The responses I got from the three of them were: interesting, surprising and at times very philosophical.
In the first interview, I talked to Vikki Scott of Traces exhibition on: loneliness of a photographer; fear and loss; the ephemeral nature of images and the fact that ‘The photograph that is produced of the moment is never going to be the moment…’


There seems to be an overload of digital images on social media, particularly, selfies on platforms that are designed for uploading of digital images. So, the question is – why do people engage in them?

Many of the #funeral photographs we categorized as selfies were associated with hash-tags such as ‘#likeforlike’, ‘#sexy’, ‘#fashion’, or ‘#follow me’ and seemed to be more about the subject’s self-presentation and self-promotion than an acknowledgment of the solemnity and gravitas of funeral rites. In these images and their associated text there did not appear to be any acknowledgment of the importance of the occasion, and comments instead typically focused on the appearance of the user. However, the majority of these photographs were not taken at the actual funeral but were often taken in the bedroom, bathroom, or car. Indeed, this form on self-presentation arguably emerged from the intersection of Instagram with long-standing traditions in Western cultures requiring funeral-goers to ‘dress up’ in formal attire and look good for the ceremony. In contrast, a noteworthy number of selfies were more reflective. Hashtags such as ‘#sadday’, ‘#nothappy’, ‘#notsmiling’, or ‘#sad’ acknowledged the solemnity of the occasion. The text accompanying the Instagram image was also often used to reflect on or engage with the funeral. Particular selfie takers hoped that ‘relatives were talking to God right now’ or said that they were ‘not ready to go to this funeral’, and comments on these selfies often reflected the sombre tone. The discursive field of multiple hashtags, accompanying captions and comments from other people, indicates an expansive practice of communication that exceeded simple self-representation, revealing efforts to also express emotion, solidarity, or connection with others.

While many of the #funeral photographs were dedicated to the funerals of family or friends, our analysis also revealed a range of other uses for the hashtag. These engagements included images highlighting the ‘death’ of inanimate objects, especially digital devices such as mobile phones and laptops. In addition, there were photographs commemorating the death of a pet or other animal, typically featuring burial in the earth, or in the case of pet goldfish, being flushed down the toilet. These #funeral images use the platform to express attachment to these non-humans with a mixture of sentiment, both heartfelt and ironic. They illustrate the way formal, sacred, and institutionalized rituals commingle with individualized profane, subjective, and sometimes improvised events in the platform vernacular. This use of the funeral hashtag highlights the possibilities enabled by the platform mechanics and by users’ own creative engagements.

Browsing through an Instagram page can take you from Nigeria to New Zealand or Lagos to Auckland; not only showing stark differences in cultures, traditions, geographies and interests but at times showing similarities in human: drives, desires, aspirations and hopes. Instagram as a case study, seems to have given the “others” a platform to tell the “others” what “they” think about themselves as individuals.
For instance, the wedding of the daughter of the President of Nigeria, Zahra Buhari, appeared to have been conducted in the world of selfies. From the confirmation of the wedding to the announcement of the wedding date to the eventual and actual conduct of the wedding. Perhaps, socio-cultural anthropologists (PDF) will be able to explain this (selfie) extraordinary phenomenon that is taking place in our time?

Is this phenomenon unique to the millennia generation or has it been around for longer? In a 1951 publication republished in Susan Sontag’s On Photography, a similar question was asked:  

Why do people keep photographs?” “Why? Goodness knows! Why do people keep things – junk – trash, bits and pieces. They do – that’s all there is to it!” “Up to a point I agree with you. Some people keep things. Some people throw everything away as soon as they have done with it. That, yes, it is a matter of temperament. But I speak now especially of photographs. Why do people keep, in particular, photographs?” “As I say, because they just don’t throw things away. Or else because it reminds them –“ Poirot pounced on the words. “Exactly. It reminds them. Now again we ask – why? Why does a woman keep a photograph of herself when young? And I say that the first reason is, essentially, vanity. She has been a pretty girl and she keeps a photograph of herself to remind her of what a pretty girl she was. It encourages her when her mirror tells her unpalatable things. She says, perhaps, to a friend, ‘That was me when I was eighteen …’ and she sighs… You agree? “Yes – yes, I should say that’s true enough.” “Then that is reason NO. 1. Vanity. Now for reason No. 2. Sentiment.” “That’s the same thing?” “No, no, not quite. Because this leads you to preserve, not only your own photograph but that of someone else… A picture of your married daughter – when she was a child sitting on a hearthrug with tulle round her… Very embarrassing to the subject sometimes, but mothers like to do it. And sons and daughters keep pictures of their mothers, especially, say, if their mother died young. “This was my mother as a girl.’ “ “I’m beginning to see what you’re driving at, Poirot.” And there is, possibly, a third category. Not vanity, not sentiment, not love – perhaps hate – what do you say?” “Hate?” “Yes. To keep a desire for revenge alive. Someone who has injured you – you might keep a photograph to remind you, might you not?

                               – from Agatha Christie’s Mrs. McGinty’s Dead (1951)
Two researchers, Cruz of Digital Ethnography Research Centre, Melbourne and Helen of School of Media and Communication, University of Leeds, in Selfies Beyond Self-Representation: The (Theoretical) F(r)ictions Of A Practice (2015) are of the opinion ‘…that selfies should be understood as a wider social, cultural, and media phenomenon that understands the selfie as far more than a representational image.’
The University College London (UCL) embarked on a global anthropological research project ‘Why We Post’ on the uses and consequences of social media. The research team was made of 9 anthropologists and they spent 15 months living in 9 communities around the world, across continents in 9 different countries: China, Brazil, Turkey, Chile, India, England, Italy and Trinidad. They researched the role of social media in people’s everyday lives. The UCL now offers a free five-week online course titled ‘Why We Post: the Anthropology of Social Media’ based on the research outcomes on Future Learn, and ‘11 free open access volumes (books) of ethnographic research based on the project.’

So, why do people engage in these habits? Maybe, the UCL’s free 5-week online course could be a good starting point in understanding why some people engage in some of these habits?

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