The digital self and body: Photography in the era of Instagram

Isaac Castella McDonald 8 March 2020
Credit: Flickr

According to Statista 3.5 billion people now use a smartphone. A figure that has increased by 1 billion people from 2016.

Even the most basic smartphones have a camera that would have blown the mind of professional photographers as recently as 30 years ago. Both in terms of both portability and quality.

This means, very simply, that these last 4 years have seen the most significant increase in the amount of people able to take photos in human history. Having formerly been an art form accessible only to wealthy enthusiasts, in the not too distant future over half of the world population will be able to be photographers.

We are living in the age of the democratisation of the photographic art form.

Also according to Statista, Instagram reached 1 billion active users in June 2018.

Instagram is a unique social media platform because it places photographic expression center-stage. Unlike Facebook or Twitter, some kind of image is necessary in making a post – Instagram’s rising popularity has surely gone hand in hand with the rising popularity of smartphones and their inbuilt cameras.

So not only are we living in the age of the democratisation of photography, we are also living in the time when the presentation of someone’s photography to their family, friends or fanbase is more widespread than ever before: a user’s account is essentially a visual gallery they curate, a collage with a narrative that is obscure, but undeniably present. 1 billion people are currently ‘active’ in do this, whether they think of it as such or not.

This photographic record is also a personal history – a new kind of visual autobiography. Scrolling to the bottom of my Instagram account produces an uncanny recognition of what I chose to present myself as four years ago. Undeniably it’s a cringe, but a fond cringe nonetheless.

It’s as if, even if we don’t realise it, we are all using photography (with witty and agonised captions as paratext) to curate an exhibit of ourselves.

The fact that when most people make Instagram walls they are not actively thinking about ‘art’ historically makes this even more interesting. It is a social art form undeniably influenced by, but crucially independent from art that has come before it. It is operating in a new space, unconstrained by institutionalised schools of thought or elitist academies. It is popular photography.

I’ve had some tentative ideas about ways to think about this photographic format:

Photography is being used socially, to curate and express a desired ‘digital self’. This ‘digital self’ is created by, but only ever related to, the physical mind and body of the user. Try as you might, there is no way to convey your ‘real’ self existing where you are now through Instagram. Like all art, it is constrained by the method it expresses itself by.

Despite this an Instagram wall does imply a singular origin. Selfies, pictures of your dog, a video of a concert, a nice sunset, are all grouped under a specific name. These abstract narratives of disjointed images are always accessorised to our idea of the person uploading, even if they aren’t visible in the images, because they’ve been there, they’ve seen that, they’ve done that, they’ve met them.

The distance between the ‘digital’ and ‘real’ self is a real anxiety in today’s communal consciousness. Social media has become a lightning rod for age old concerns about appearances and deception, the impossibility of seeing through someone, and the necessity to trust someone else to have meaningful social relationships.

This anxiety is of course valid, but the belief that social media would ever be anything else is somewhat naive. We are done thinking that social media is a straightforward presentation of the real, bodied and breathing self; instead it is always to some extent the continuous creation and adaptation of a ‘digital self’ that is, as we said, created by, but only ever related to, the bodied self. This creation is always an artistic one, there is no way around the need for creative input in this process.

This ‘digital self’ becomes quite a different concept when the user is looking at someone else’s wall.

Here it becomes a concept built up by looking at someone’s wall about what the person uploading them is ‘like’. We infer their character through the way they have presented themselves. We use this to make sense of the disjointed narrative of images and context’s that any Instagram wall presents. It’s what we use to synthesis the images into a cohesive whole. This is the interpretative challenge of the Instagram art form.

This concept is supported by the viewer’s experience of the person (if they have any) in reality. But increasingly we are exposed to people we have never met in reality, people who exist for us only in their digital version.

What’s fascinating to me is the relationship between this digital self and the body. It seems that the digital self, despite being separate to our ‘real’ selves, is still connected to our physical body. The release of dopamine and serotonin corresponding to positive responses to an upload on social media, is now broadly accepted as a key motivation behind engagement in social media, and the prime reason for social media addiction.

One user’s screen scrolling and stopping on one of your images and tapping ‘like’ is a digital touch between digital selves connected to real bodies. It’s as if a piece of your skin is on their screen when they see your photo. How bizarre is that?