A sketch comedy group known as The Mystery Hour made a video entitled “Instagram Husband,” which has upwards of 6 million views on YouTube after having gone viral. The video's objective was supposedly to make a commentary about social media usage by showing the plight of men who take photos of their wives, who then post the photos on social media. To this end, the video makes a gendered statement regarding Instagram usage, which is a little bit funny and a lot (heteronormatively) sexist. As an article on Jezebel points out, the video ‘accidentally’ reinscribes the tradition of women’s successes being trivialized and reinforces obnoxious gender stereotypes, such as that women are vain and crazy and men are apathetic.
According to the video’s creator and the corresponding website, though, discussion about gender was never the target. In this way, the video misses its intended mark. But then, considering the popularity of the video, precisely what does this video aim to point out?
In the video, these Instagram Husbands are clearly quite affected by their situation. One man in the video, though, reveals a more telling phrase, referring to himself as a “human selfie stick” (which would have been a superbly less sexist premise for the video). He offers this self-evaluation due to his lack of autonomy in the photo-taking process, where his “Instagram wife” dictates the set-up of the photos, from outfit to angle to pose, and then edits and posts the photos on her own Instagram account, effectively crediting the photos to herself. This renders the Instagram husband/human selfie stick a sort of ghost in the process: physically necessary for the taking of the photo, but effectively absent from the creative and communicative processes.
The human selfie stick reluctantly takes on the role of appropriator and violator.
Selfie sticks, a relatively recent phenomenon, act as somewhat of a replacement for a human photographer in the pursuit of digital self-portraits, which are used to shape identity and generally posted on social media (van Dijck, 2008). The function of selfie sticks bears some resemblance to the combination of a tripod (or equivalent) and self-timer; such features have been available since long before the rise of digital photography.
Selfie sticks also allow for a wider frame and different angles than is achievable with a handheld selfie, thus they provide more aesthetic options for the identity-forming photos. Selfie sticks, however, allow the selfie taker much more control over the images with the mobile phone’s screen displaying the view and the ability to capture unlimited frames without interruption.
In this way, the human selfie sticks are not photographers, they are humans taking on the role of an object, while this object is meant to perform to the creative will of another human. This allows the subject of the photo (the picture-obsessed "Instagram wife") to claim creative ownership of the images, which is done explicitly and symbolically through posting said images on their personal Instagram accounts. The photos then act as social currency and fulfil communicative functions, while also contributing to identity formation (van Dijck, 2008) for the Instagram users, but not the Instagram Husbands (or human selfie sticks).
There is vast research regarding the role of cameras, the dynamics between photographer and photographic subject, and, more contemporarily, photography in social media. However, humans as selfie sticks approaches a new dynamic, which may be the source of the discontent expressed in the video. It comments on a unique and emerging subversion of what we currently understand about photography.
In Susan Sontag’s iconic essays On Photography (1977), the author asserted, “To photograph is to appropriate the thing photographed” (p. 4). She further compared photography to violation, as it is necessarily based on the photographer creating an object of the person photographed and “seeing them as they never see themselves, by having knowledge of them they can never have” (p. 14).
When considering the dynamics of the human selfie stick situation, however, these ideas become convoluted, and the roles of photographer and model are thrown into disarray. In this case, the "model" is essentially acting as photographer in the creative sense and in terms of receiving credit for the photos, but does not physically take the photo. The human selfie stick then reluctantly takes on the role of appropriator and violator, but under the explicit guidance of the one being photographed, appropriated, and violated.
Is this a commendable entrepreneurial strategy or exploitation?
In this way, the human selfie sticks are then missing out on receiving credit for their work, which may represent a lost opportunity to increase their own social currency. However, the men in the video seem to be wholly uninterested in Instagram as an entity, so this may be a moot point. Instead, their discontent may stem from feeling alienated from their work, in a truly Marxian manner, though it bears the question whose labor creates these photographs: the one who physically took the photos, the one who creatively directed the shoot, or some combination of both? From this idea emerges a crossroads of neoliberal labor – is the use of other people to assist in self-identity formation and self-presentation a commendable entrepreneurial strategy or exploitation?
Embodying the role of human selfie stick clearly seems bothersome, and further inquiry is necessary to more thoroughly determine the interplay of this dynamic. At this point, despite the unnecessary and unfortunate gendered aspect, the Instagram Husband video may have at least succeeded in bringing this idea into conversation, with several preliminary effects. First, the wristwatch brand Fossil employed nearly all of the Instagram Husband cast in a follow-up video and advertisement for a watch that has a built-in photo-taking feature, on the premise that these men can now be "Just Husbands." So, perhaps the answer is further advancement of selfie technology, so that the human selfie sticks can go back to whatever it is they would rather be doing (which was not made abundantly clear).
Additionally, TaskRabbit, a website that facilitates the fulfilment of services, offered a limited-time option to “rent” an Instagram Husband during New York Fashion Week. The commodification of this task may have further implications for the norms of Instagram or photographic communication – and with a $45 per hour price tag, this might become strictly a luxury service.
In the meantime, it may behoove these displeased human selfie sticks to acknowledge their complicity in this pursuit by remembering the wise words of Susan Sontag (1977): "[Taking photos] is a way of at least tacitly, often explicitly, encouraging whatever is going on to keep on happening” (p. 12).
Sontag, S. (1977). On Photography. London, England: Penguin Books.
Van Dijck, J. (2008). Digital photography: Communication, identity, memory. Visual Communication, 7(1), 57-76. doi:10.1177/1470357207084865