I’m reading an interesting just-published paper by Meryl Alper, “War on Instagram”, about how (read it at New Media & Society or without the paywall at Academia.edu) The paper discusses how photojournalists are using smartphones and in particular Instagram and Hipstamatic to produce documentary images that are heavily filtered, like Damon Winter’s “A Grunt’s Life” series for the New York Times.

Photos taken with Hipstamatic iPhone app as an embedded photojournalist for the NY Times.
Photos taken by Damon Winter with Hipstamatic iPhone app as an embedded photojournalist for the NY Times. (http://www.poyi.org/68/17/third_04.php)

Another example is Lowy’s Hipstamatic photo of Hurricane Sandy, which made it to the front page of Time Magazine:


Yesterday, Talan posted a link to Filter Fakers, a website that provides us with the useful community service of alerting us to Instagram photos that are incorrectly tagged #nofilter. As Talan wrote, “who cares?”


Photojournalists care, it seems.

Lowy’s concession to his critics – “toning down” the illustrative style of the very Hipstamatic photo filters that won him acclaim – touches upon an endless discussion about understanding all photography as a manipulated interaction between style and substance, and a timeless debate over the ethics of combining photojournal- ism with aesthetics. (Alper 2013: 4)

[S]cholars such as Luc Boltanski (1999) have argued that the aestheticization of what we see in the media emotionally and morally insulates viewers from the suffering of others. (5)

That’s a point made by Susan Sontag, too, as Alper notes on page 7: a worry is that “aestheticizing war leads to anesthetizing war”.

Part of the concern is, it seems, the eternal “but who is the author?” question. Alper quotes news photographer Nick Stern, who wrote that

It’s not the photographer who has communicated the emotion into the images. It’s not the pain, the suffering or the horror that is showing through. It’s the work of an app designer in Palo Alto who decided that a nice shallow focus and dark faded border would bring out the best in the image.

Does that matter, though? And aren’t our images always mediated through the work of others? If not through the code written by app designers in Palo Alto, then by the mechanics of a camera designed and redesigned by a series of people? No photographer is in control of the whole process. The best one can do is choose between different apps, cameras, processes, chemicals, software, papers all made by other people. It’s interesting how the idea of the lone genius still remains.

The place of these images in a stream – or alternatively, on the front page of Time Magazine – is also worth considering. Alper argues that the meaning of an iconic and disturbing war photo such as the famous photo of the naked Vietnamese girl running from napalm would have had a very different effect in a news feed between “photos of cocktails and kittens on an Instagram feed” (7).

I’m not convinced that this is particularly different from the ways we encountered photographs a few decades again. On television, in a news broadcast sandwiched between commercials and soap operas, or in a newspaper with ads and trivia on the next page. The very reproducibility of the photograph means that it will be encountered in many different settings, and not always in serious, museum or documentary style contexts.

The roughness of the smartphone image also claims a kind of authenticity, and Alper quotes two different  embedded war photojournalists who chose to use smartphones to mimic the soldiers’ own photographs. Alper discusses some definitely problems with this too simple idea:

Winter and Guttenfelder’s rationale falls into an anthropological trap, justifying the use of the iPhone and Hipstamatic as “naturalistic” because they empathize with how soldiers produce their own images of the war. The professional embedded photojournal- ist using Hipstamatic performs a sort of imagined autoethnography of soldiers’ own media-making practices. This performance is based on individual photographers’ highly time-bound conception of the kind of photos these soldiers would take if imbued with professional skills and competencies, as if that were the only distinction between the lived experiences of soldiers and embedded photojournalists. Embedded photojournalists are not observers, but rather, participant observers: their presence invariably alters the setting of their shots, regardless of the type of camera and the degree to which the device becomes silent and unnoticed.

The “imperfect” Hipstamatic photographs taken by embedded photojournalists are potentially misleading because they feel as though they might come from the “subjec- tive” perspective of troops rather than the objective perspective of the embedded photo- journalist. Adopting the perspective of soldiers might be appealing for photojournalists because soldier participation and visibility in the representation of war can often appear to be a “bottom up” alternative to “top down” political and military positioning (e.g., Andén-Papadopoulos, 2009; Smith and McDonald, 2011). This appeal to the vernacular in professional war media production is a reflection of what Turner (2010) calls the “demotic turn” in popular culture, or the increased visibility of “ordinary people” in media production without a necessarily more democratic public sphere.


These photos, constructed around an image of the hypothetical soldier, do not account for the polyvocality of multiple soldier perspectives and voices, speaking for troops by speaking through their imagined mode of photography. (11-12)

Alper doesn’t really discuss the soldiers’ own photographs, other than as a contrast to the professional photojournalists’ photographs, but in her conclusion she raises the #nofilter question that I started this post with. Obviously, there is no real way in which a photograph can be “unfiltered”:

Whether or not a photo has been processed with the sepia tinge of the Sutro filter, or the washed-out Walden, all photos taken though a mobile photo app such as Instagram or Hipstamatic are in some way “filtered.” Technically, even basic Instagram photos take the shape of a square, versus the automatic rectangular dimensions of an iPhone’s built- in camera. Ideologically, “#nofilter” serves a social and cultural purpose for those who employ it. The claim to clearly demarcate the real from the artificial says more perhaps about the person taking the photo than about the photo itself.

I’m reading as much as I can find right now about ways in which technology filters and mediates self-representations, like through selfies or with a Fitbit or on Tumblr or Instagram – so if you know of any work I should be reading, please let me know!

3 thoughts on “Filtering reality

  1. Stine V

    Tak for en virkelig interessant blog, som får mig til at ønske, jeg var fortsat på universitetet efter min master… det er inspirerende stof!

    Jeg har ingen anbefalinger til litteratur om medieret selvrepræsentation (leder også), men indlægget her fik mig til at tænke på bogen “Fotografiets grå mytologi” af den danske kunsthistoriker Lars Kiel Bertelsen. Den er udgivet sidst i 1990’erne og handler om fotografiets ontologi med udgangspunkt i, hvad digitaliseringen betyder for fotografiets status som tegn på virkelighed. Nogle af de debatter, som fødtes med digitaliseringen, synes at opstå igen nu, og det er en af LKB’s pointer, at fotografiet altid har været “digitalt” – manipulerbart… og manipulerende.

  2. Jill

    Takk for tipset, Stine! Nå er jeg på forskningsopphold i Chicago dette semesteret, så det er litt vanskeligere å få tak i skandinaviske bøker, men jeg skal gjøre et forsøk – fotografiets ontologi er definitivt et viktig område å tenke på når vi tenker på dette.

  3. Francois Lachance


    You and your readers might be interested in a book by
    Rita Leistner, Looking for Marshall McLuhan in Afghanistan.

    It marries description of iPhone photographs taken during a military embed in Afghanistan with musings about McLuhan’s media theory.


    I have a brief comment/engagement on the book at a blog post on Berneval.


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