Almost everyone takes photos on a daily basis. They might be photos of food, of your outfit, of nature or pictures with friends. Photography has been around for a long time and for a lot of people it is a true passion. However, in this digital era, certain aspects of photography inevitably undergo changes. Photography is no longer merely a tool for capturing memories, but because of social media it can be used to express oneself in ways people had never explored before. We are now able to share our pictures with thousands or even millions of people at a time, and this changes the way we take photos. In this article, I will discuss how photography is different now in comparison to before the digital age and look at some examples that illustrate these changes.
Pictures as a culture scape
Firstly, it is important to try to understand why the digital era is changing photography. A picture could be described as a culture scape that is undergoing changes because of globalization and digitalization. That is, because of globalization, transnational so-called "scapes" are created that are spread all over the world in relatively uniform ways (Appadurai, 1996). This is a form of soft globalization, which focuses on the cultural consequences of the process. Scapes are global patterns or scripts of social and cultural behaviour but these patterns might be interpreted differently at a local scale. An example of this could be the TV show The Voice. The concept is the same at a global scale, so the show is recognized as The Voice all over the world. However, the show is not exactly the same in each country because it is slightly adapted to what the people of that country find appealing.
This is also the case when we look at pictures. A relatively new phenomenon on social media is food photography: taking appealing pictures of your food and posting them. Food photography is recognized all over the world as food photography, although it does not have the same characteristics at different local scales. In a certain state of the USA, pictures of aesthetically pleasing hamburgers will probably be more popular than pictures of the Scottish dish haggis, while in a village in Scotland this would most likely be the other way around. We can apply this theory to many different aspects of photography nowadays, which renders pictures a form of a culture scape.
The private becomes public
It is important to look at the big role social media has played in the way we look at photography today. Platforms like Instagram and Snapchat have made it really easy to share content with other people. Before the digital era, one would take pictures with an analogue camera and develop and print them in a rather laborious process. In that way, one only had a single copy of the picture which would most likely be put in a frame or photo album for private purposes. Social media fundamentally changed this as it constantly encourages you to share, and it comprises a new way of mass communication. Castells (2010) describes this as follows:
“The World Wide Web is a communication network used to post and exchange documents. These documents can be texts, audios, videos, software programs; literally anything that can be digitized. As a considerable body of evidence has demonstrated, the Internet, and its diverse range of applications, is the communication fabric of our lives (…).”
In most cases, photography is not intended for private use anymore. Many photos are taken with the intention of being shared with other people. Sharing has become a great part of our daily lives and being social nowadays is mostly about being online and being connected with as many people as possible. An Instagram account is the perfect tool to do that. You can post pictures of things you have done in your personal life and what keeps you busy on a daily basis. Also, there are loads of apps that make it possible to edit your pictures so they are more likeable. Instagram has thus become a kind of modern CV of your life.
In most cases, photography is not intended for private use anymore.
Photography in this era is often used on social media, especially on Instagram, to create a public online identity for oneself. This results in a whole "imagined world" (Appadurai, 1996) online. Imagined worlds, according to Appadurai (1996), are
“(...) the multiple worlds that are constituted by the historically situated imaginations of persons and groups spread around the globe (…). An important fact of the world we live in today is that many persons on the globe live in such imagined worlds (and not just in imagined communities) and thus are able to contest and sometimes even subvert the imagined worlds of the official mind and of the entrepreneurial mentality that surround them.”
Photos are thus not just a tool for capturing moments and remembering them by yourself; they are mainly about showing your identity to a bigger audience. We will now looking deeper into two examples that illustrate this.
In the last couple of years, a new phenomenon has emerged on Instagram, namely that of VSCO girls. But what is a VSCO girl? Urban Dictionary gives the following definition:
“Wears oversized t-shirts or sweatshirt with Nike shorts. Has Vans, Crocs, Birks, and wears a shell necklace. She also wears tube tops and Jean shorts. She always has a hydroflask. She can't leave home without a scrunchie and her favorite car is a jeep.”
In fact, VSCO is a smartphone app which you can use to edit your pictures. When you are done editing, you can save the photo and also upload it to the VSCO platform. In this way, you create a profile that consists entirely of your edited pictures and is visible to everyone. With the app, you can give your photos an edgy or beachy look, and that is probably where the term VSCO girl comes from: having the aesthetic of an edgy and beachy girl. What made the editing app so popular is that it functions as a draft folder for Instagram pictures. As described in an article on Vox, the app makes it easy to make an average photo look extremely good because of the filters and editing tools used. Teenagers are the most frequent users of sharing platforms like Instagram and that is why they care most about making their pictures look good before posting them.
The VSCO filters make pictures look grainy, softer and beachy, as if the sun is shining in them. Observe, for example, the first picture of the girl above, which is without filters, and its difference from the second one, which has been edited with the VSCO app.
To be a VSCO girl, you have to have certain indexes, as Urban Dictionary describes. VSCO girls care about the environment, they wear minimal make-up, and buy the commodities that go with being a VSCO girl. This is nothing new on the internet, because the internet generally is a place where people can form an identity based on commodities. As Blommaert and Varis (2015) state:
“In today’s global supermarket of identities, the internet is full of instructions on how to attain certain accents, and the fracturing of identities is visible in the immense range of items and commodities that are made to seem important in one’s articulation.”
This is very clear in the case of VSCO girls because everything about them revolves around having enough indexes. Not only are there loads of Instagram accounts of actual VSCO girls, but there are also many accounts that are all about the aesthetic of VSCO girls. They repost pictures of other accounts and try to show girls how to become a VSCO girl themselves.
Photos are taken to be made public and to fit into a certain lifestyle.
This lifestyle is all about taking pictures with the right items and posting them on Instagram. VSCO photography is thus a perfect example of how photography has changed in the digital era. Taking pictures is not about having memories for yourself; it is a tool for shaping one’s identity. Pictures are used to build an online portfolio and editing tools make it easy to change the picture to one’s likings. Photos are taken to be made public and to fit into a certain lifestyle.
Another example of the changed perspective of how we look at photography today is our modern view that everything has to look good because a picture might be taken of it. A clear example of this is the pictures people take when they are travelling. Because of globalization, travelling is easier now than it has ever been before. More and more people are able to travel the world and because of social media, pictures of these trips are frequently shared online. Before the digital era, people would also take pictures of their travels but, as mentioned before, they would probably develop these and keep them to themselves. Smartphones have made it extremely easy to post pictures on social media when people feel the need to share moments of their trip on their profiles. Sometimes it almost feels as if a trip didn't happen if you did not post pictures of it on Instagram.
Sometimes it almost feels like a trip did not happen if you did not post pictures of it on Instagram.
In every country, every city even, we can find at least one Instagram hotspot. This can be the inside of a restaurant, a building or a viewpoint, as long as it is “Insta-worthy”. That means that the picture is beautiful enough to be shared it on Instagram. More and more restaurants even shape their interior so it will look good on a picture or dedicate a whole wall to function as a selfie wall. Photography has thus become an important marketing strategy. According to Castells (2010):
“There is a growing interpenetration between traditional mass media and the Internet-based communication networks. Mainstream media are using blogs and interactive networks to distribute their content and interact with their audience, mixing vertical and horizontal communication modes.”
It is thus profitable for businesses like restaurants to make sure their interior, food or location is shareable enough, as this generates attention for them on the Internet.
A great example of this are the umbrella streets that are popping up in more and more cities. Umbrellas in all colours of the rainbow are hung up above a street, preferably above the terrace of a restaurant, and this seems to attract many tourists. The umbrellas make a picture look vibrant and playful in a way that is considered likeable on Instagram. The pictures all look the same but that is not considered an issue.
A lot of tips can be found on the internet that tell you how to capture the best Instagram pictures. Also, when searching for travel photography on Instagram a lot of inspiration can be found in others' posts. In order to make their profile more attractive and get more likes, people want to capture the most popular sights themselves. An example of this is the popular train street in Hanoi, Vietnam: #trainstreet has 28,000 hits on Instagram. Tourists saw this street on pictures on Instagram and on travel blogs and they found it so cool and Insta-worthy that they wanted to photograph it themselves. Inhabitants of the street saw opportunities in this and a lot of restaurants and cafés started to open next to the tracks. By advertising on social media, they attracted even more tourists. Eventually, this has now led to all the restaurants and cafés around the train street being closed because it got so crowded that the government feared that sooner or later someone would get hit by the train. An article on CNN explained:
“The boiling point apparently came on Sunday, October 6, when a train traveling through Hanoi was forced to re-route because there were too many tourists on the tracks, which were built in 1902 by the French.”
Photography has become a marketing tool for companies because of Instagram and mass tourism. It is a viscious circle; tourists share pictures online of Insta-worthy spots and entrepreneurs play into this by opening spots that attract tourists, which leads to even more tourists coming and even more pictures being shared, so even more Insta-worthy spots are popping up.
A different perspective on photography
In conclusion, digital media has changed the perspective from which we look at photography. Pictures are now so much more than just memories of our private moments that we keep to ourselves. Most of the time, pictures are merely made for sharing, as in the case of VSCO girls. Photos are used in that sense to create an identity and to express oneself in a way that was never possible before. Also, taking appealing pictures and sharing them has become an important part of travel nowadays. As a result, photography has become a powerful marketing tool, and entrepeneurs know how to make great use of it.
Appadurai, A. (1996), Modernity at large: Cultural dimensions of globalization. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.
Blommaert, J. & Varis, P. (2015), Enoughness, accent and light communities: Essays on contemporary identities. Tilburg papers in Culture Studies 139.
Castells, M. (2010), The Rise of the Network Society. Second Edition with a new Preface, New Jersey: Wiley Blackwell Publishers.
Urban Dictionary: VSCO girl, last retrieved on 22 November 2019.