A picture is Worth a Thousand Words: Storytelling with Instagram

Дата канвертавання22.04.2016
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Universiteit Antwerpen
Faculteit Politieke en Sociale Wetenschappen

Academiejaar 2012 - 2013


A Picture is Worth a Thousand Words:

Storytelling with Instagram

Zane Verdina

Master in de Communicatiewetenschappen

Strategische communicatie

Promotor: Prof. Dr. Paolo Favero

Medebeoordelaar: Sam Roggen


Since its launch at the end of 2010, Instagram – an online photo-sharing service – has exploded in popularity. Images shot on smartphones are given saturated colours, Polaroid trademark borders and dark vignettes, reminiscent of the pre-digital era. The sheer quantity of pictures shared on various social networks indicates that people like to express themselves through one single hand-held device, accessible to cyberspace any time, anywhere. The symbiosis of photography and web 2.0 meets a need for environmental documentation, self-representation and amusement.

Instagram, a product of modern technology, is analysed from two perspectives: the historical development and meanings assigned to photography, and digital culture; its influence on photography, photo-sharing and practise. Both are shown to be integral to Instagram and the dissolving boundaries between users and producers. Whilst seeking out the characteristics and ideology of both through writings of various authoritative scholars, an ethnographic study of Instagram was conducted and complimented with interviews of active Instagram users. Knowledge obtained from the literature and empirical sources contextualise and attempt to find meaning in Instagram use. It is hoped to offer a broad, though not exhaustive, insight into this relatively new phenomenon, not yet widely studied.
Keywords: Instagram; photography; photo-sharing, social networking; user-generated content; web 2.0; storytelling.


Thanks to my many contacts on Facebook, especially those who posted links to Instagram and made me curious about it in the first place. Thank you to my promoter Paolo Favero, who was enthusiastic about the topic, always ready to contribute ideas, share knowledge and suggest literature. And special gratitude to Jessica Kelly, my proof reader.

This work would not have been possible without those who agreed to be interviewed. They helped me to dive into the subject and understand this phenomenon. Their real names shall remain anonymous here, but they are represented by their respective images below.

Figure 1: Assorted Pictures by Interviewees

Table of Contents

Abstract 2

Acknowledgements 3

Table of Contents 4

1.Introduction 5

2.Theoretical Context 8

3.Methodology 17

4.Inside Instagram; The Practise and Community 22

5.The Stories Behind Instagram Images 27

6.Conclusion 38

Bibliography 41

Appendix A 46

List of Figures 48

  1. Introduction

Some time in 2011 I started to notice a particular type of image appearing on my Facebook newsfeed. My friends were posting pictures that looked different compared to the usual ones I had previously seen on social networking sites. They were new photographs but at the same time there was something old about them; often the colours and tones were faded as if by time, and many had the hallmark vignette effect of Polaroid snaps.

Figure 2: “Passing by Rainis” by “Ansis”
These "new old" images were being posted more often and by more people, even those who had never been interested in photography before. They always seemed to contain something very tangible and simple, but at the same time the images created were somehow abstract. People were eager to upload self-produced content, to express themselves. Images were selected to represent who they were and what they believed in. In other words, people were telling their own stories.
Here were glimpses of daily routines; previously not seen, nor expected to be seen. Perhaps images like these were already created before the era of social media, but back then they were stored somewhere deep in a drawer, with no likelihood of ever reaching a wider audience. Yet now here they were, not on the living room wall but the Facebook wall. Witnessing these photo moments gives a sense of familiarity with those who create and share them. They communicate feelings, not only what people see and do. Pictures are always a compelling way to capture attention and tell a story. This was my initial impression of Instagram and my attention had certainly been captured.
Whilst technology offers increasingly better quality images, in which everything becomes clearer and more precise, the prospect of "the naked truth" can be rather confrontational, and doesn't always promise pretty pictures. The wholehearted adaption of Instagram could be seen as an attempt by normal people to take a step back from the cold light of reality and digital perfection, to present their worlds in another way; playful yet also overwhelmingly banal. The seemingly mundane is highlighted.


Figure 3: “Back to the USSR or Pесторан cup” by “Ivo”
obile phones have already been a pervasive presence for many years. Since the late 1990’s, they have been upgraded with built-in cameras. The phone then became a useful tool to spontaneously document the world. This allowed mundane imagery to enter photography. One could document almost anything one encountered and deem it worthy of the attention of others. Camera phone photography is often about capturing the moment, rather than getting a good quality shot. The resulting images are stored on the phone’s memory card and do not reach a further audience, just like the traditional photographs tucked away in drawers.

All of a sudden, photographs were set free from the drawers and memory cards and appeared on social media sites. Instagram, one of many photo sharing websites, was appealing as it offered options for adding photographic effects and filters, to create an expressive impression of the subject. Amateurs and professionals alike could interact on the same platform and receive similar appreciation if their images prove popular. Judgement criteria have been simplified; one simply clicks “like” beside the uploaded image.

This is an almost no cost practice; shoot and share, or shoot and delete. There is little to no creative risk involved; one is simply using accepted aesthetics borrowed from Polaroid and Lomography film. There is a guaranteed result but it doesn’t necessarily look effortless. The ability to turn everyday imagery into something that looks more "artistic" at the click of a button is the very embodiment of digital photography's convenience: no long learning curves, or trial and error with expensive film rolls. But is it really creative at all? Choosing from pre-selected aesthetic options, everyone can become an Instagram artist; a herald of the small and mundane. Everyone can try to stand out. The result however, is pictures that all look the same; the inherent contradiction of Instagram.

This brings us to the main theme of this paper: Instagram as a platform for constructing narrative through image. Theoretically, we will try to position Instagram in relation to the existing concepts of photography and nascent digital culture. An ethnography of Instagram will attempt to obtain knowledge and attribute meaning to Instagram usage.

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