The Age of Instagram: What Social Media has Meant for my Photography
For spring break in the seventh grade, my family packed up our things and took a trip down to Heflin, Alabama to visit my grandparents. Now if you haven't heard of Heflin I can't exactly blame you--I've heard it described more lovingly as a speed trap on Route 20, a place where the cows outnumber the people, and the all-around ultimate small southern town. If "ultimate small southern town" means rolling fields spotted with hay barrels and enough stoplights to count on two hands, then I guess you've got all you need right here.
At thirteen, this was the last way I wanted to spend my one week of freedom--watching the Hallmark channel and avoiding the cow patties in the pasture beside my grandparents house. I knew it was selfish to wish otherwise, but my mind was constantly plagued with jealousy over the extravagant, luxurious spring breaks it seemed all my friends were having. Having just received a Facebook as a thirteenth birthday present, I spent much of my Heflin-based spring break scrolling through photos of sun-kissed tropical vacations and exciting adventures abroad, all the while sitting at the dial-up computer in my grandparents office and wondering why my life didn't look nearly as appealing.
My mom, with her magic ability to decipher my constantly changing moods soon picked up on how I was feeling, and always anxious to find an alternate solution to my teenage woes suggested we make the best of our Heflin trip by trying to do something fun every day. Even if that fun was simply going to the strip mall in Oxford to go shoe shopping or trying out a new recipe with my Gram, my mother was desperate to drag me away from that computer screen and remind me that social media did not have to determine what constituted a fun or exciting spring break. She even jokingly took a photo of my sister and me posing at a fro-yo place next door to the strip mall shoe store and posted it on Facebook, tagging our location as "Aruba".
The first morning back from spring break, conversation seemed to begin by revolving around spring break adventures, though topics seemed to come and go quickly. "How was your break?" someone would ask, the other person responding with a smile and a "Great! I visited ~insert tropical location here~". "Oh I saw that!" the first person would respond, and the conversation would quickly proceed in a different direction. After all, there wasn't much left to share that hadn't already been done so. One person asked me about my trip to Aruba, much to my surprise. I thought everyone was somehow magically aware I'd spent my spring break drinking Dr. Pepper and Seventh Heaven with my Gramps.
It's been years since my infamous trip to "Aruba", and while Facebook may be primarily for "old people" now there's no mistaking the fact that social media has grown tremendously in the past few years. I have an Snapchat, a Facebook, a Twitter and an Instagram and countless other forms of social media that have come and gone as fast as I see new ones popping up. Every day I pass at least one person scrolling through Instagram while surrounded by their friends, every day I hear at least one conversation along the lines of "Well we snapchat each other every day, but I don't actually know what we are", and every day it seems I catch myself still noticing and envying the lives of those I follow on social media. I still haven't been to Aruba, but now it seems there's even more to resent on social media every time I open my phone--someone's body, someone's relationship, someone's perfectly-arranged-all-organic-smoothie-bowl.
Around the beginning of high school, I began to become more and more interested in photography as both an art form and a form of documentation--I loved taking photos of my my day-to-day life in order to capture as much of the beauty of the everyday as I could. As I grew more aware of my eye, and more skilled with the growing equipment I had available to me, I began to post more and more on social media, primarily Instagram. After a little while I had established almost a "theme" for myself, an "aesthetic" as many of my peers would call it when they complimented my "incredible insta-game". According to Instagram I drank artful lattes almost as much as I breathed, I frolicked through sunflowers and explored abandoned buildings and danced on train tracks. I was a manic pixie dream girl of sorts who "casually laughed" at the world around me and took far too many photos of her feet clad in unusual shoes, and even during some of my darkest moments in high school and beyond, my Instagram remained chipper, excited, and undeniably quirky.
I was by no means "Instagram famous"; I had no sponsors, made no money off my posts, and I have yet to break 1,000 followers on the platform. I was, in many ways, just the same as every other nineteen-year-old girl posting on social media--I was posting because it was what people did, I was posting for documentation and memory, and I was posting because I wanted to make my life look good.
The strangest thing was, I was doing that without even realizing it.
I began to notice my mindset changing when I took photos. So often, even if it was somewhere deep, deep within my subconscious, I was thinking about how my photos would appear on Instagram--how they would fit with the rest of my images, what I would caption them and when I would post them and whether or not they would make sense in the small-format of an Instagram post. Sometimes I did things specifically with an Instagram shot in mind--the caption already picked out, the only thing missing being the photo itself. My photos were changing, and maybe not always in the best way. They were no longer for art's sake, for a girl who admired all the beauty around her and just wanted to capture it. They were so people stalking me on Instagram would stop and think, "Wow, I wish I could be like her."
My Instagram was in no means a blatant lie as to who I truly was, but rather only a mere fraction of the truth. Though it is easy to falsify your life via social media (I reiterate: I have never been to Aruba) I never made anything up for the sake of a post, never staged an adventure or photoshopped my appearance. I am an adventurous, quirky-shoe loving gal, but I am also a gal who has suffered from depression, a gal who spends most nights in, and a gal who watches plenty of Seventh Heaven on every trip to Heflin. Would you see any of that on my social media? Of course not.
This summer, I am taking no tropical vacations, traveling through no foreign countries, and due to my college-student budget, drinking far less artfully designed lattes than I might desire. Instead I am working as a nanny for the sweetest little boy, bussing people's pizza crusts off tables at Mellow Mushroom, and spending as much time as possible writing and photographing in my beautiful Asheville.
In a "perfect world" I'd be lounging on a beach in Aruba right about now, drink in hand and not a care in the world. However, my summer alternative isn't actually half bad, quite honestly it's an exciting, intriguing, and interesting adventure all on its own. In fact, it is so much more important in shaping who I am and who I will become than any trip to Aruba ever could.
So for now, my Instagram has been left untouched for more then a month. I haven't posted and I've hardly looked at it, because my summer should not be about worrying what other people are doing or worrying about how I might compare. Right now my mind is occupied with Asheville mountains, walks to the playground, "big trucks" and newborn baby peach fuzz and silverware--oh so much silverware. I am happy with where I am and what I'm doing, and that is what I would like to focus on.
More than anything, I want my photography to be for me, for grace, and for artistry. I want to capture real, raw beauty instead of a cultivated, social media focused "aesthetic", and when (and if) I decide to go back on social media for a bit, I want my posts to reflect that. I'm excited for this new stage of my work, and for the summer ahead. You could say it's been great so far.