A picture is Worth a Thousand Words: Storytelling with Instagram




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A Spotlight on the Insignificant: The Content of Instagram

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Figure 8: “Milk Tea and Waffles” by “Sarah”
n the case of Instagram we talk about snapshot culture and the domestic context within which it was taken. It has been previously asserted that snapshot culture is strongly connected with the representation of the modern family, where leisure time and events are significant; the family in moments of “extraordinary ordinariness” (Slater, 1995, p. 130). Bourdieu calls them “good moments”. Photography of family festivities, social gatherings and summer holidays can be seen as “recordings and compilations of “souvenirs” of objects, people and events socially designed as important” (Bourdieu, 1990, p. 7). This means that, due to a judgement of things being either ordinary or extraordinary ordinary, only the latter is represented, resulting in the ordinary being undocumented. According to Bourdieu it is because something is “taken for granted” as a part of the everyday environment that it is not photographed (Bourdieu, 1990). The very opposite was observed on Instagram; the supposedly mundane, ordinary and insignificant are there granted an unusually strong position within its snapshot culture. The fact that the camera is now present throughout all aspects of life, cheaply and easily, encourages this. Instagram shines a spotlight on the insignificant, granting it the same status as the significant in identity forming.
This does not exclude extraordinary scenery, landmark events or special rituals though. They all serve the creation of identity and the construction of memory. “Snapshots are idealisations in the broader sense of imposing a filter on sentimentality.” (Slater, 1995, p. 130) Capturing and sharing capturing happy moments and positive emotions was a dominant theme of the interviews carried out over the course of this research. Instagram was a witness to situations where the participants felt happy. In sad moments, participants had no interest to use the camera at all. Seeing a moment, expected or unexpected, or a lucky combination, and the possibility to share it on social networks and make it traceable with hashtags allows Instagram users to develop visual narratives. The “what” and the “when” of these narratives and pictures will be discussed in the following chapter.


  1. The Stories Behind Instagram Images

Although participants did not share any particular lifestyle, occupation, or significant characteristics, similar themes emerged in all interviews. “A picture is worth a thousand words” was a recurring motivation. Pictures could represent an object or event in the most concise way. “Images are inextricably interwoven with our personal identities, narratives, lifestyles, cultures and societies, as well intertwined with visual images and metaphors.” (Pink, 2001, p. 17) Pictures could also get attention, affirming that the picture is good and that the topic is also interesting to others. This is important to mention because the “sharing” option seems to be an important feature for Instagram users.


A central feature of social media is their reliance on “user-generated content”. However, to overly focus on sharing would give the wrong impression. These Instagramers were mainly capturing subjects that were important to them personally. Yet the motivation to capture an image has two sides: the self-oriented or “centred” and public-oriented or “decentred”. A personally remarkable, relevant moment or event is selected, filtered through emotions, which give them a dimension of importance. Through sharing with an audience, pictures become visual narratives and the sharer becomes a storyteller.
Five common themes of Instagram use were identified over the course of the interviews. They can be summarised as follows:


  • Memory: the aim is to capture an event in time and space

  • Identity: the aim is to create a self-representation

  • Triumph: the aim is to announce an achievement

  • Promotion: the aim is to generate more web traffic

  • Diversion: the aim is to escape from boredom or monotony

Similar statements, repeated phrases and shared ideas across the interviews gave rise to these groupings. When a phrases or idea recurred, they were tagged and tracked across different responses. The five themes discussed here are not exhaustive, but they were the most common across the nineteen participants. Additionally, there are no strict boundaries between them and they often overlap. Directions (personal or public) also make a difference, as well as context.



    1. Memory

Users came across situations which caught their attention and it felt important to capture this moment, to preserve the memory from fading. Here we mainly refer to unexpected events where the photographers reflect internally (the concept of “centred”) and determined to freeze the moment, to keep it “alive” forever. The audience plays a secondary role as only the photographer themselves know how they feel about the events they captured. Attempting defence against the passage of time has been a preoccupation of mankind for generations; through embalming the dead; trying to keep up appearances despite the prospect of death by preserving flesh and bone. “At the beginning of painting and sculpture lies a mummy complex.” (Bazin & Hugh, 1960, p. 4) The Egyptians even placed a statue next to the dead person’s sarcophagus; the preservation of life through a representation of life.


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Figure 9: “Backstage” by “Annet”
tudio JIM TV… Famous person and settings. It was really special. It is not so common to get there. It was a very special experience to be there, to get interviewed by TV people. It was my moment of glory… I’m here.

“Annet”
This above descriptions perfectly sums up the notion of photography as a reflection of truth and reality (the early historical perspective). Instagram provides a glimpse of actions and events that have passed and which are (usually) finished; frozen, available for later viewing, perhaps for infinity. “What photographs do is to bring the past into the present, confronting us with passage of time and the stillness of that which has gone.” (Dant & Gilloch, 2002, p. 3) The photograph is able to present us with the social and material world through its power to convince that, whatever else the image evokes, there is a simple correspondence to a reality in the past, “an awareness of its having-been-there” (Barthes, 1977, p. 44) and “to show something out there” (Sontag, 1977, p. 175).

In this case, photography is strongly related to an event. The photograph was taken because of an event, something worth seeing and therefore worth photographing. “A touch of the finger is now sufficient to fix an event for an unlimited period of time. The camera gave the moment a posthumous shock, as it were.” (Benjamin, 1992 [1939, p. 171). However, a photograph is not only the result of an encounter between an event and a photographer. Picture-taking is an event in itself, and one with ever more peremptory rights: to interfere with, to invade, or to ignore whatever is going on. Photography makes events everlasting. After the event has ended the picture will still exist, conferring on the event a kind of immortality (and importance) it would never otherwise have enjoyed.
Events evoke emotions and these pictures seek to “own” emotions. Personal and sometimes not transferable, often it doesn’t matter what they even look like. The way one felt at this particular moment is captured and that is what matters. With these images we should see beyond the literal.
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Figure 10 “In Memoriam” by “Frauke”
here is a difference… This is really personal and it does not matter how it looks like. When I take other pictures I want them to look nice, but here it does not really matter. This was for me.

“Frauke”, commenting on an image of her dead grandfather

The image may distort, but there is always a presumption that something exists, or used to exist, something like what’s shown. They are evidence of historical occurrences; in other words, a “depiction of time past for the purpose of evidence” (Mirzoeff, 1999, p. 78).

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