The topic of analysis for this essay focuses on the Instagram hashtag #igers_Orlando. I reviewed approximately 50 images and also aggregated all of the text included in the caption for each photo into a word tag generator. Only words with at least five repetitions show in the tag generator and the diagram is limited to a total of 100 words or phrases. I will also explore the Surrealist project Photomaton, the 2001 French film Amélie, the phenomenon of found photography and how the power dynamics of photography, big data and augmented, urban spaces are embedded in the Instagram platform.
Figure 1: The Surrealists and the Photobooth [Photomaton]: Jean Aurenche, Marie Berthe Aurenche and Max Ernst; Gala and Dalì.
None of the Resulting Visions Fully Correspond – Photomaton and the Surrealists
Jill Walker Rettberg’s critique of the Surrealist Photomaton project in “Seeing Ourselves Through Technology” points out that the photobooth was hailed by Surrealists in the early 20th century as a tool for creative, self-exploration. It facilitated an automated, iterative type of self-portraiture that surrealists couldn’t resist experimenting with. Enthusiasts were never satisfied with just one visit to the photobooth. Every photo taken was ultimately an incomplete act of self-representation – the latest in a never-ending photographic game of self-expose. As the Surrealists wrote and Rettberg quotes “none of the resulting visions [from the photobooth fully corresponded] to what [they wanted] to see in [themselves]” (Rettberg 43).
Today, the intrigue with such self-representation lingers on but the dynamics of public and private, person continue to shift. Rettberg elaborates:
When you stepped into a photobooth you would draw a curtain to hide yourself from the world. The curious combination of intimate, hidden space within a public setting (often there would be a line of people right outside the curtain, waiting to use the photo booth after you were done) is an interesting counterpoint to the line between public and private we see in today’s selfies: the moment of photography is intimate. There is nothing there but the person herself and the machine, the camera (44).
The 2001 film Amélie memorably pays homage to this allure of the photobooth and the blurred lines of such photographic intimacy.
Figure 2: Scenes from the 2001 French film Amélie. Nino scavenges for discarded photostrips. Amélie finds Nino’s photo album collection.
Amélie, Found Photographs and the Limitations of Context
The plot of the film Amélie revolves around one of the characters collecting, found photographs from photobooths. Nino – the main character Amélie’s eventual love interest – enjoys salvaging ripped-up photostrips left behind at photobooths located in Metro and train stations across the City of Paris. He re-assembles and archives the found images in a photo album often writing comments about each photograph. When he accidentally loses the album, Amélie discovers it and begins sending Nino anonymous messages through photobooth pictures with clues on how to retrieve his collection.
Predating the SmartPhone revolution by six years and the introduction of Instagram by a decade, the film arguably foreshadows in analog terms the coming emergence of geo-social photography. Nino’s curating of the found photographs, the tension of semi-private images in public spaces, the geographic relationship of the images to specific locations scattered across Paris’ urban landscape, the quantity of different photographs collected across time and space and integrated into one album, Amélie’s discovery and viewing of the images and her back-and-forth visual commentary with Nino at specific, photobooth sites could easily play out via Instagram galleries, hashtags, geotags, comments and direct messages.
At the same time, there is an ethical dilemma raised by Nino’s hobby that may not transfer so well into the world of Instagram. He does not have the consent of the individuals whose self-portraits he has retrieved and collected. Resurrecting the torn images is arguably an act of forced portraiture (Rettberg 2014). Nino usurps control over the image dismissing the original subject’s rejection of this iteration of self-representation. Amélie also does not have consent to view Nino’s photo album. Collecting, analyzing, annotating, exhibiting, etc. found photographs is not inherently antiethical. Mauer (2001) argues that much of this boils down to the intentionality of the curator and/or viewer – which significantly affects the meaning we draw from such images. He outlines four different viewing attitudes in his discussion of how to critically engage the exhibition of found photographs – the voyeur, the detective, the Surrealist and the cultural anthropologist.
As a voyeur, the viewer would be invited to take pleasure in the intimate moments of others, enjoying a distanced view of others through a lens of cultural stereotypes. As a detective, the viewer would be invited to find evidence in the photographs and to make inferences about their meaning, including inferences about the photographers’ intentions, about the lives of the people in the photographs, about the causes of their loss. As a Surrealist, the viewer would be invited to find those photographic details that elude our systems of signification. As a social scientist, the viewer would be invited to test social science hypotheses against the evidence presented in the photographs, including hypotheses about the role of photography in the family and in the museum, and about our sense-making apparatus (Mauer 2001, 12).
Nino and Amélie arguably engage in a voyeuristic interplay, first and foremost. Both draw pleasure from looking at the intimate moments of other people. Both occupy a social distance from the subjects in the photographs and from one another initially. There may also be Surrealist undertones in their exchange due to the slight fragmentation of the images in Nino’s collection, but I’m not so sure that the images were completely de-contextualized. Mauer (2001) states “is it any surprise, given their interests in fragmentation, that the Surrealists became collectors and exhibitors of found objects? The Surrealists understood that context “fixes” meaning. They tried to free meaning by destroying or altering context” (11).
Yet “finding” and “de-contextualizing” such images on Instagram in a similar way would be problematic to replicate digitally – if it was not already suspect in the Amélie film. Nino and Amélie’s appropriation of the found photos relies mostly on chance encounters in the physical world. To recover discarded, phone selfies and lost, photo galleries might require both Nino and Amélie in 2016 to be hackers who actively target Instagram users and remotely steal deleted image data or steal their actual mobile devices to obtain data. That might not make for such a romantic love story. The digital age renders the trouble of consent or lack thereof in Amélie’s plot more transparent and palpable. In contrast, Instagram users are for the most part aware that their images are not exclusively private and actively seek to contextualize their images as other users view, comment, copy and circulate them. To an extent, Instagram users control the initial meaning of their photographs at least in their original form on their profile gallery. They also understand that to an extent their images fall out of their control once published online. According to Mauer (2001), this is a key distinction between finding a lost photograph in the physical world and encountering a private photo album online – the producer of the photo ideally understands the limitations of the photograph’s privacy and they also establish context to help negotiate the image’s loss of privacy in public space. Hashtags, geotags, and comments are some of the rhetorical tools available to Instagram users to provide such context about the images they exhibit on Instagram. Establishing context can be key to how we negotiate private and public representations of ourselves and our day-today lives on a platform like Instagram.
Figure 3: Screenshot of the @IGers_Orlando Instagram account. The account managers select and publish a “photo of the day” pulling images from the #IGers_Orlando hashtag.
The Selfie and [of] the Instacity
This leads to the central question of this essay. How do we collectively self-represent our experiences of cities on Instagram? What could be considered a selfie of the city? The Instagram gallery – whether it be a person’s personal gallery or a hashtag or a geotag – echoes elements of the photostrip from Photomaton and even Nino’s photo album. So would the “resulting visions” exhibited on an Instagram gallery correspond with what the city [or rather its inhabitants] wanted to see in itself [themselves]? How do we establish context in such undertakings?
The tension of incompleteness the Surrealists playfully wrestled with through their Photomaton exercise undoubtedly also applies to such collective visualizations or “selfies” of the city. Like the avant-garde artist negotiating the socio-cultural and technical limitations of self-representation via Photomaton, the city and its networked inhabitants collectively navigate a similar tension as they populate through hashtags and geotags various Instagram galleries representing their subjective gazes on city life. Our aggregated visualizations of the city on Instagram are just as incomplete as the Photomaton self-portraits or Nino’s photo collection or the selfies people take of themselves today on their phones. One of the key differences is one’s ability or willingness to actively participate. The idea of “the selfie of the city” relies on a schema of privilege and resistance in which it is critical to understand the dynamics of power embedded in acts of photography and data-sharing and analysis as well as how users are able to access, navigate and interact with augmented spaces throughout the urban landscape.
Photography is Power
Rettberg reiterates Sontag’s (1973) creed that ‘photography is power (8)…to photograph is to appropriate the thing photographed. It means putting oneself into a certain relation to the world that feels like knowledge – and therefore, like power” (3). So such geo-social photography allows users more control and power over their self-image and simultaneously allows them to define/redefine how the people, objects and environments around them are visually conveyed. The selfie then begins to mean more than just a photograph of oneself but rather the act of photographing and exhibiting one’s worldview instantaneously through social media.
Figure 5: Screenshots of 50 Instagram images tagged to the hashtag #igers_Orlando on April 11, 2016.
Hashtags are Power: #igers_Orlando
The hashtag and geotag further compound this powerplay by allowing individuals and groups to establish discourse communities around specific ideas, people, places, etc.. Only images that meet certain textual and/or geographic constraints populate the galleries linked to these tags. For example, the #igers_Orlando tag is a localized tag in Central Florida for Instagram images allegedly pertaining to people, places, things, ideas, etc. related to Orlando. The hashtag is related to an Instagram account called Instagrammers Orlando. Instagrammers or IGers are a worldwide network of Instagram users organized around smaller, geographic locations – typically cities. There is no formal process for how these Instragram accounts are created or maintained– typically whoever thought to start the account first. The primary function of the account managers is to curate a photo of the day selecting an image from the #igers_Orlando hashtag gallery and reposting it. Local, Instagram users then have an incentive to tag photographs pertaining to Orlando that they would like to be considered for the photo of the day post. The hashtag gallery contains a plethora of often random images not clearly related to Orlando while the Instagram account exhibits only images from the hashtag gallery selected as photo of the day.
Among the 50 images I examined on this hashtag, some key themes emerged. Few images clearly placed the scene in Orlando with the exception of a photo of a “Greetings from Orlando” sign, a landscape of Lake Eola Park and a landscape photo of the Orlando skyline. Six photos were indisputable shots from Orlando theme parks with five from Walt Disney World and one from Harry Potter World at Universal Studios. Selfies were actually not common though portraits were. It is possible that some of the portraits were staged selfies especially the medium shots and close ups. Landscapes and extreme close up were both more common. At least five photos were clearly of landscapes in other cities though it is possible the beach photos were still located in Central Florida. Hashtags, geotags and comments provide context to these photos to help place them within the geographic location of Orlando. The idea of what comprises Orlando on the igers_Orlando hashtag appears to be a contested notion with photos representing Downtown Orlando, Orlando legal city limits, the greater Orlando metro area and Central Florida. The hashtag’s geo-social scope extends beyond the physical boundaries of the actual city of Orlando. Outside of censorship or oversaturating a hashtag with posts, it can be difficult to control the content. In a way it parallels the limitations of the photobooth that Rettberg addresses. She writes that “the analog, physical photobooth both gave and refused to give the subject control over their own image (42).” The hashtag creates some constraints but it also gives and refuses Instagram users control over what images display in the gallery. The hashtag is constantly in flux. It can serve as an incomplete, cumulative “self-representation” or selfie of the city.
Figure 4: Tag cloud of words and phrases with at least five occurrences pulled from the captions of 50 Instagram photos tagged to the hashtag #IGers_Orlando on April 11, 2016.
Data Visualization is Power
“The Exceptional and the Everyday: 144 hours in Kiev” – project from The Software Studies Initiative led by Lev Manovich – also demonstrates some of these observations. The project used computational and data visualization techniques to examine 13,208 Instagram images shared by 6,165 people in the central Kiev during the 2014 Ukranian revolution. Manovich’s research team found that images of the revolution co-existed along images of day-to-day living. While the news media or even hashtag metadata directly connected to the revolution might illustrate one rhetorical idea of life in Kiev, many other images uploaded on Instagram indicated nothing out of the ordinary. The collective nature of Instagram may potentially over or under-emphasize social phenomenon and in some ways is just as much an illusion as a potential reality.
In the example of “The Exceptional and the Everyday,” Instagram images are accessed and analyzed by a broader set of data constraints outside of just hashtags and geo-tags. Not everyone tags their photos so such hashtag galleries represent a limited sample of all the Instagram users is a particular time and space just like Instagram users represent a limited sample of all phone photographers or existing photographs or even the general population. Manovich’s analysis is subjective itself as those interpreting the data interjecting their own formal decisions into the process. He acknowledges these limitations and confirms the incompleteness of visualizing life in Kiev during the revolution.
Our visualizations of human habits rendered through Instagram photographs do not reflect a single directorial point of a view. Even so, they are as subjective as more traditional photography. Just as a photographer decides on framing and perspective, we make formal decisions about how to map the images, organizing them by upload dates, or average color, or brightness, and so on. But by visualizing the same set of images in multiple ways (here is an example which uses a collection of artworks by Mark Rothko, we remind viewers than no single visualization offers an objective interpretation, just as no single, traditional documentary image could ever be considered neutral. Instead, the diversity of the Instagram photographs highlights the variety of complex patterns of life unfolding in cities that can never be fully visually captured in a single visualization, despite our ability use millions of Instagram photographs (Manovich, 2013).
Manovich outright disputes the idea that “big data” can establish any kind of definitive knowledge about human behavior and society or even a city. It is subjective and incomplete confirming van Dijck’s dataism critique or “the ideology that shows characteristics of a widespread belief in the objective quantification and potential tracking of all kinds of human behavior and sociality through online media tehcnologues” (2014). Rettberg stresses this point as well concluding that data is a rhetorical device. Data about us in many ways is not really data at all. The data we produce about ourselves is simultaneously intertwined in our lives but also a foreign object of interrogation. Rettberg writes that “the data gathered about us by our devices becomes an artifact that is separate from us and can be viewed at a distance. At the same time, it represents us, or a part of our lives” – or what could also be termed as a data double (Ruckenstein 2014), a capta (Drucker 2011), or a digital trace (Reigeluth 2014).
Augmented, Urban Space is Power
Just like photography, data visualization is power. And so is the urban landscape itself. In the context of urban, mobile gaming, Wilson et al. (2011) write that geo-social, location aware applications like Instagram “project social networks onto the spaces we occupy” in our day-to-day lives (Wilson et al., 2011, 353-354). This location-specificity is “reconstructing the spaces of everyday life” and actualizing new forms of “mixed-reality urban questing.” Hjorth (2011) also calls attention to how the growing pervasiveness of Global Positioning Systems (GPS) and location aware services is shifting the way we “experience, imagine, and navigate the online” in relation to offline, physical spaces. Hjorth argues that we are now having new types of experiences of “place” – where our sense of space is increasingly one where the electronic, the emotional and the social are more and more intertwined with the geographic and physical like never before. It is important to note here Jurgenson’s criticism of digital dualism. Hjorth (2011) poses a compelling argument around the idea of co-presence or simultaneously interacting with online, virtual spaces and offline, physical spaces. But the idea that Instagram innovatively bridges a divide between the online and the offline in everyday life is problematic. Jurgenson writes that that such a binary has always been false to begin with.
I am proposing an alternative view that states that our reality is both technological and organic, both digital and physical, all at once. We are not crossing in and out of separate digital and physical realities, ala The Matrix, but instead live in one reality, one that is augmented by atoms and bits. And our selves are not separated across these two spheres as some dualistic “first” and “second” self, but is instead an augmented self. A Haraway-like cyborg self comprised of a physical body as well as our digital Profile, acting in constant dialogue. Our Facebook profiles reflect who we know and what we do offline, and our offline lives are impacted by what happens on Facebook (e.g., how we might change our behaviors in order to create a more ideal documentation).
Hjorth’s notion of co-presence in some ways seems to align more with Jurgenson’s augmented reality argument. I don’t read co-presence as prioritizing a first or second self but I do think there is an underlying residue of such digital dualism that Jurgenson’s argument can help keep in check. His digital dualism critique underscores the politics of power and privilege embedded in space, place and location. The city is an augmented, contested space influenced by politics and special interests. Hayden (1995) states that power struggles embedded in the production of space can also be analyzed through the critique of how cities are planned, built and maintained. Social architecture historian Camille Wells once said, “most buildings can be understood in terms of power or authority—as efforts to assume, extend, resist or accommodate it” (30).
Visualizing the Right to the City
To examine the selfie(s) of the city is also to critique the visual rhetoric present on Instagram representing who does think they have a right to the city.
The right to the city is not merely a right of access to what already exists, but a right to change it after our heart’s desire…But the right to remake ourselves by creating a qualitatively different kind of urban sociality is one of the most precious of all human rights…We have been made and re-made without knowing exactly why, how, wherefore and to what end. How then, can we better exercise this right to the city? (Harvey, 2003; 939)
David Harvey’s declaration of “the right to the city” as a matter of our heart’s desire is thought-provoking. Yet it is potentially removed from the stark realities of urban inequalities. Whose heart’s desire do we speak of? The hodgepodge of imagery we see on the hashtag #igers_Orlando? The intersection of phone photography and geo-social media affords opportunities for individuals to stake a claim on how they both see and would like to visually represent their city. However, access to this platform is limited and does not represent all viewpoints of Orlando residents. The selfie of the city then is an on-going, incomplete, visualization project dependent on a network of users with access to the technology who are willing to participate – many who have some sort of agenda. In the context of Instagram, the selfie of the city is ultimately about power, privilege and resistance. It is an exercise of discourse around self-representation, access to urban space and information technology, photographic truth and dataism warranting on-going, critical examination.
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