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.