An Anthropological Critique of Instagram #NoFilter Hashtags


What do you think of this Instagram image? Do you like it? How might you describe it? It’s filtered, obviously. A bit impressionistic? Dreamy? Hold those thoughts–I’ll return to this image in a moment.

I like Instagram and use it sporadically. Really, it’s like Facebook with less of the political, religious, capitalistic, and ideological redundancies to wade through on a daily basis. Chalk it up to my being a millennial, or my love of anything imagery-related. Pictures of your foodie exploits, your unbelievably adorable children, your cats lounging about in funny places, your color-streaked sunsets, your stereotypical but envy-inducing Eiffel Tower (and other travel) pictures, your teetering stacks of books beside your bed, your mocha foam art: please keep them coming.

But recently I’ve noticed at interesting phenomenon. More and more people seem to be appending the hashtag #nofilter or #NoFilter to their images. I see it under sunsets, nature shots, outdoorsy light flare-ups where the sun casts that surreal glaze that textures the rest of the image. What these hashtags mean—or at least my social scientifically informed  interpretation of them—is that the picture-taker wishes to make it clear that they by no means used a custom filter, provided by the Instagram smart phone application. The photographer took this picture themselves. They captured the image on their own and managed to be in just the right spot at the right time to do so. Sunlight (and lighting in general) is fickle, as both amateur and professional photographers know, and it’s hard to predict just how luminescence will appear on digital film. Regardless of these technical difficulties, no filter was needed. Thus, #nofilter.

One might analyze the #nofilter phenomenon as a legitimizing mechanism or strategy of authentication. The implication is that a #nofiltered image is more real, more accurate, more authentic, more true-to-life. You get the picture. According The Huffington Post, apparently #nofilter constitutes a veritable “social contract.” (But a contract to or for what? one might wonder. The hashtag is an authenticity contract. A purity contract. #nofilter is a purity pledge in the context of folk photographic practices and online social networking. The irony of my interpretation is that some anthropologists have questioned whether Instagram itself, and other socio-digital photographic applications such as Hipstamatic, are themselves authentification tools to make digital-age photographs appear more like those from the 1980s, the golden age of folk photographic practices.)

I’ve got mixed feelings about the hashtag, partly because as a graduate student part of my research has focused on media, technology, images, lived experience, and how people conceptualize the interplay between these domains. My biggest issue with #nofilter as a claim to realness or authenticity is that it ignores the fact that media studies scholars have long argued that a photographic image itself constitutes a theory of the world. Any photograph—any image—is a theory. A photo is a frame. A photograph is a filter. In my opinion, whether a photo uses an Instagram filter or bypasses the option and hashtags #nofilter instead, is irrelevant.

Go ahead, I guess, take credit for your unassisted, filter-free, photographic skill: #nofilter your Instagram images. #nofilter away. But do realize that by taking a photograph of any kind to begin with, you’ve already provided a filtered “reality” for the viewer. A photographed image—not unlike a video recording lens—is a theory. An Instagram image, #nofilter or not, is a filter.

So, that filtered Instagram image of a #barn I opened with. It’s not really realistic (whatever that means). But when I remember that day–the walk, the scent of the wildflowers flowers, my wife next to me, the bees buzzing by, the humidity hanging in the air–the image in my memory is pretty similar to this one, down to the humid haziness and blurred edges of vision. I’m not sure, then. Maybe this photo is pretty (read: subjectively, emotionally, experientially) realistic. One last thought: Does the medium itself (i.e., Instagram and it’s sensuous frames and filters) shape my memory or does the medium simply do a good job representing what I remember about that day?

I’m not sure. But long live photographs. Long live #filters.

Kinfolk Vol. 9: A Review

This is not the kind of item that you want to get in the mail when you’re behind on grading, reading, and research. Unless you’re interested in putting off said obligations even longer. Then you’re in for a treat. Kinfolk Vol. 9, Discovering New Things To Cook, Make, and Do, is difficult to describe. It’s minimalist, artful, and ecstatic, all at the same time. The journal is hard to characterize, so it’s best to look at it’s self-description:

Kinfolk is a quarterly, 144-page, ad-free print magazine that collects ideas from a growing international community of artists, writers, designers, photographers, cooks and others who are interested in creating small gatherings and finding new things to cook, make and do. // Printed in Canada on uncoated paper, each issue is filled with lush photography, lyrical essays, recipes, interviews, profiles, personal stories and practical tips along with a keen attention to design and details.

So there you have it. The articles are concise and witty, yet informative and practical. My favorite essays in this issue are “The Utopian Farmers Market,” which offers tidbits such as

When compared to supermarkets, understanding what you’re putting in your gob is a definite tick in the farmers market box. Not only will the mustachioed fellow handing you a toothpick of home-cured salami be able to tell you what the hog ate for supper, he will encourage you to sneak the loose grapes too.

and “The Idler,” which advocates finding “more time to absolutely do nothing”:

It’s the stuff of gods and infants–the birthplace of great works of art, philosophy and science. The habit of doing nothing at all is super important to our individual and cultural well-being, yet it seems to be dying in our digitized age.

There’s also an essay, “The Law of the Lanes,” which gives advice from everyday cyclists from Portland, Chicago, D.C., Vancouver (Canada), London, and Derry (Ireland). These suggestions are as comical as they are useful. A few of my favorite (albeit conflicting) lines:

Don’t be a douche. No passing on the right. Use lights. Signal your turns. At the very least, slow way down at stop signs and look to see if there are any pedestrians.

1. Hands at 10 and 2. 2. Don’t drink and drive. 3. Don’t bogart the street or sidewalk.

Stop for pedestrians. It’s okay to treat stop signs as yield signs, but actually stop if there’s cross traffic. i like to pull to the left in a bike lane to let right-turning cars make a right on red. For God’s sake, don’t salmon.

Obey all traffic rules.

Other essay well-worth the mention include “The Art of Daytime Drinking,” and “Two’s A Crowd: Tips for Traveling Duos.” One of the most useful articles is a photo essay titled “Weekend Indulgences,” which essentially lists high-quality foods and drinks that make the journal’s contributors “weak in the knees.” I’ll note, too, that more than one of these items will make it onto my grocery list. In still another evocatively written essay, “The After Hours Chef,” a woman reflects on the irony of doing most of the cooking herself while her partner is a chef. Some Mondays, though, he does make her brunch:

He makes an omelet, whisking the eggs with a fork, pouring the eggs into a hot cast-iron pan, making a quick filling of herbs and goat cheese before folding the omelet over itself. it’s just about the simplest thing, but the mark of a chef is the quality of their omelet. he butters me thick pieces of toast and we sit down to eat. When he holds my hand across the table, I can feel calluses in the shape of his favorite knife. We’ll smile and break bread, crunch our toast, for a moment, content in the strange rhythm of a chef’s nights and days.

Cooking is how I keep myself sane in grad school, and Kinfolk will not let you down. This issue features “Pulla” (Finish dessert bread), “Hearty Barley Salad with Broiled Feta and Tomatoes,” “Almond-Jam Tart” (Linzer Torte), and “Weekend Lemon Cake,” among others.

And the images. The images. Given the journal’s minimalist design, they’re vivid pastels. These are crisp, immaculate photos of people, food, and objects, done by expert photographers. The images alone are enough alone to purchase the issue.

Anyhow, if you enjoy material culture, art, food, or photography, you should be reading this journal. I give it an A. The only detraction is its price, at around $18 per issue.