Consumerism and Social Media

In my project, I am investigating the representation of the self on social media, most specifically Instagram. On the surface, it seems that Instagram is just a novel method for users to share moments of their lives through images, it is also being used by companies to sell products.

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Whilst some companies make their own specific Instagram accounts, which other Instagram users can clearly identify as brand name, some companies choose to pay other Instagram users to model clothing. This process however is not clearly advertised in these images, other than the model perhaps tagging a particular clothing brand in the caption. In 2015 Instagram model Essena O’Neill decided to put the record straight and tell her million Instagram followers, that her social media activity was just selling herself as a model and advertising different products.

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O’Neill talks about a concept in Instagram that is yet to be addressed properly, brands selling clothing without informing the audience that the material is actually advertising. In TV programs any obvious brand names are required to be censored out or there has to be a notice about product placement, in radio, presenters avoid using specific brand names to prevent any idea that they are promoting a particular company. However these sorts of restrictions are not applied to social media, users and companies are not required to censor out branding and logos or state that there is product placement in their images. Therefore an image which appears to be of a woman in a dress about to go to a special occasion could actually just be a staged photoshoot aimed to promote a piece of clothing. This apparent deception could pose a problem to the idea behind my project, which is using Instagram to represent the self in an authentic way. If images like the one above featuring Essena O’Neill promoting a dress are the norm on Instagram, it appears that we can’t take any image at face value. Consumerism has a place in social media, however whereas it used to be easily detected in the form of logos, marketing and advertising, now it appears to be hidden.

Aside from the influence of hidden advertising, consumerism can be found in another way in the images of Instagram.

As users, we see images that have been promoted by companies and we copy the same aesthetic because we want our images to appeal to other users, we use marketing techniques to market ourselves to the audience of social media. Below is an image from the Jack Wills Instagram, the idea of using hardwood flooring as a background is an aesthetic that has been utilised by companies to sell their products. Now however we as users are copying the same aesthetic, perhaps in the attempt to try and look professional, or are we just unconsciously copying what social media is informing us is the ‘right’ way?

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In addition to this, users may unconsciously decide to promote different products in their images, just because the process of sharing everything is now so embedded in our society. The concept of the ‘prosumer’ has become ever more relevant in the age of social media; formerly meaning ‘professional consumer’ the term now refers to a producer and consumer, where users of social media act as brand advocates by sharing and endorsing products. Product placement occurs everywhere across social media, as people tag and share images of them using particular items.

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In this image, at least three recognisable products are being advertised from different companies: the Starbucks drink, the Apple Macbook and the Apple iPhone. The clock and the wallet are being advertised too, but I am unfamiliar with the particular branding of these and therefore can’t assume which companies would benefit, however someone else viewing this image might know exactly where these come from. Again as well, we see the same background featured from the earlier images, although the composition is not quite the same the user is mimicking the aesthetic by using the wooden background, whether they meant to or not. When analysing my own images on Instagram I can see how I have become the prosumer too, I have been promoting products while consuming them and all of this activity is taking place on social media, where the images are viewed by a global audience.

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I need to be aware of these influences in my images when analysing them, it appears that I am not free from all the pressures of consumerism, because it is so embedded in my lifestyle. I can’t simply ignore the fact that my images have demonstrated that I am a prosumer, so I must address this in my project. I want to choose some of the images that show the most evidence of this prosumer activity, to try and see whether other users can find a familiarity with them and in turn evaluate their own images. Do we even realise we are attempting to reproduce the same aesthetic or promoting all of these products, or are we just following a pattern that society promotes as the right activity?

Coursework – Sequencing and Presentation

With the final ten images selected, the mode of presentation and the sequencing was to follow. The coursework brief doesn’t state that a physical object is needed, so a digital set of images would have been accepted, however when it comes to building a project, I think it’s important to follow the nature of the project and let it develop in the way that is right. Although I can’t perhaps complete a project to the best of it’s abilities due to the time period and my own personal budget, if it would work best as a physical object, that’s where I will want to take it. I started thinking of ideas of how this project would work best to be presented, immediately I started thinking that a project related to a digital process would most likely work when presented digitally. However I then started thinking about the process of Instagram itself, when all the images are structured together on the social media site, they are much easier to understand. What would happen if you took the images out of the structure and presented them as a collection with no fixed sequence, no fixed order or way to view the images? Would they still be read in the same way? Is it the images that show who we are on social media, or does the structure of Instagram, seeing a collective mass of images on a profile, attribute to the process of self representation online. This idea of taking away the structure is something I wanted to take forward through the mode of presentation.

In addition to the images I have been considering the relationship with text and how important this relationship is on social media. Although Instagram is an image-based social media, the role of the supporting captions and hashtags are very important in how the image is received and in controlling who can see it. A user can encourage more views by adding in hashtags to make the image searchable, or they could choose to just post a caption and leave the image to be found by users who follow them directly. As a result of this I have chosen to use captions alongside my images, these will be existing as prints separate from the images themselves, but they aren’t included in the count of final images as these are effectively the captions that might be displayed below a set of images in an exhibition. I now needed a method to display these images and captions effectively, one that was without a set structure and layout. For this, I decided to literally present a series of loose prints, with which the viewer would have to examine them and then place them in a way that they feel the images are meant to be. The way in which each viewer chooses to engage with the project would be interesting in itself as it will greatly affect the overall meaning. I would envisage people getting the prints and laying them out on the table, matching the captions with the different images. This would mean they have an active role in viewing the images and therefore they are more likely to try and grasp a meaning from the series of images, trying to build up a picture of what this series describes and who the person is.

As the images are not going to be in a fixed order, they don’t need sequencing as this will be the role assumed by the viewer. The way in each they are given to the viewer however needs to be a little bit more than just some loose prints. I wanted to present them in a box so that not only would be the prints be kept safer, but the viewer has more of an experience, opening the box and seeing the mystery inside. This method of presentation has also shaped the size of the prints, as the images are meant to be a representation of the self, I believe this to be quite an intimate concept. An intimate way to present images is to print them quite small, so the viewer has this precious object in their hands. This also means that I can present them in quite a small box, which means the project has this essence of portability; reflecting the portability of social media, giving the user the convenience of posting anywhere. The box also plays into the metaphor of social media, the concept of self representation is so intimate, but social media opens the box and suddenly this intimate concept can become available to and seen by the whole world.

The final presentation can be seen below:

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Coursework – Image and Text

As I have mentioned in some of my other blog posts, the relationship between image and text has a big impact on how the image is received. This is particular evident on the social media platform Instagram because each image has the opportunity to be accompanied with a caption. Unlike Twitter the capacity for these captions are limitless in terms of character length, so an Instagram user can choose to write anything from an essay to leaving it blank.

There are photographic artists that have considered the relationship between text and images, with a focus on how meaning can be formed as a result. Martha Rosler produced a project named ‘The Bowery’ which consisted of a series of images accompanied with lists of words. The images depicted areas in which it was known that alcoholics frequented, the words that were shown alongside the images were words commonly associated with alcoholics.

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Rosler avoids the obvious representation of an alcoholic, choosing to make the reader think about the subject matter and what the visual clues are trying to suggest. This piece demands intellectual engagement from the viewer not just visual consideration, it makes the viewer think about what the image is trying to say. In this case it is about referring to the alcoholic, but this method of using text could be applied elsewhere, when a photographer is trying to avoid simply taking a straight forward photograph of the subject matter. Without including the person in the photograph, the viewer has to work harder in trying to find out who that person is, therefore they are less likely to jump to obvious conclusions.

This method of representation is what I want to employ in my project, I have chosen images that don’t feature my face or show any clear depiction of my body (apart from one of my hands) in the attempt to avoid the viewer assuming things about my personality from the way I look. I want them instead to consider what the images say about what kind of person I am, to see if they can put a picture together in their head as to who I might be. As an Instagram image is usually accompanied with a caption, I will be including captions in my project. When choosing the images on Instagram, I also took a screen capture of the captions I posted too, this helped me remember what the original posts were about, but I also thought they might be what I could display alongside them.

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As I looked as these captions, I realised that it was not perhaps the words I had written about the images that were the most important part, but instead it was the hashtags I had chosen to include at the end. All my captions fitted the same pattern, I never chose to incorporate a hashtag into a sentence, they were all written at the end of the sentence. The purpose of the hashtag on social media is to classify the material into different categories, making material easily searchable for other social media users. So a user that is interested in the Xbox One and different games could see what other users are currently playing and perhaps connect with them over this shared interest. It has been said that as human beings, were are constantly trying to contextualise ourselves in the world, trying to understand who we are and what our place is in society. By using these hashtags, we are effectively trying to categorise ourselves into different social groups by detailing what we like, what activities we do or what products we use. Michel Foucault wrote that society is constructed by the categorisation of different elements, when we define the world around us we find it easier to find our place within society. However the idea that a single word, or a set of singular words can define a whole person seems so restrictive, just as Martha Rosler might have been trying to say with her work. You can’t define a whole subculture, or a whole person just using a few words, you can attempt to certainly but each individual’s personality is a complex and ever changing thing.

I want to try and adapt Rosler’s idea of representative words and use it in association to my Instagram profile, to try and highlight the flaws using using singular words and hashtags to define a human being. The captions that accompany my images will be singular hashtags, like the kind I added on to the ends of my Instagram posts. However instead of using my own hashtags, in a tutorial it was suggested that I use different hashtags from other people to try and challenge the viewer to match the images to captions that weren’t actually meant for them. I decided to use the top ten Instagram hashtags used in 2015 as accompanying captions for my images, these hashtags are the ones that most people are using on Instagram therefore some of them should surely be able to match up with my images. However if they don’t appear to match up with the images, the viewer can be able to see that the idea of using categories like these to try and encapsulate a whole person is very restrictive. In order to visually reference Instagram, I made sure these captions were written in the font that Instagram uses on their social media platform. The hashtags used can be seen below:

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Coursework – Selecting Images

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After deciding to use my own Instagram profile as the focus for my project, I needed to decide on which images to use. I knew that I had to only use images that were before I chose to use my profile, to make sure I was producing material unaffected by the nature of my research project. The pictures below aren’t all of the ones I have posted on Instagram, because when I first started using the social media platform, I posted some of my photography work on there in order to share what I do with people. Then my activity changed and I decided to have Instagram as a more personal social media platform, keeping Facebook and Twitter for my photography work. In addition to not including some of my professional photography work, I have also not included pictures that show my face, or too much of my body, to make sure that the viewer of the series can’t see who I am through my physical appearance, instead they have to rely on the content of the images to give them clues as to what sort of person I might be.

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If the boundaries of the coursework brief were limitless I might have included all of these images in my submission, however the brief does state that there should be no more than ten images. In order to select ten images from my shortlist, I started to sift through them and categorise them into what the content was, leaving me with five landscape images, six images just depicting pets, five images of my hobbies, fives images of specific products or items and four images showing other aspects like architecture. These categories are by no means fixed, there are lots of overlaps, for example I included an image of a pet in the category of my hobbies, there is also a controller in the image because I was posting about playing on my Xbox One. I didn’t want too many images from the same category in my final ten, because it might overwhelm the purpose, for example too many images of landscapes might make the viewer think I am attempting to represent a place rather than myself. I then started picking out some images which I felt were more successful than others, ones that would provide some good visual clues about my daily activity and I tried to not include just one black and white image because this would make the series of images look a bit strange.

When I started thinking more about the influence of consumerism however some other images caught my eye, like the image of my Xbox One controller and my cat. In wanting to associate myself with my hobby of gaming, I have perhaps unintentionally began advertising the actual product, the Xbox One. Looking through other images I also identified moments where I could have been advertising or promoting a product in my images, holding the Costa Christmas drink, showing the decal sticker I put on my Apple Macbook and the fact I went shopping at Ikea for furniture. The influences from consumerism have crept into my Instagram account and by wanting to make sure I am partaking in the activities and buying the products that are deemed desirable, I have actually started to advertise in my images. The idea of the ‘prosumer’ is very relevant here, posting about using the product means I am consuming and promoting at the same time. Just like the process of photography now, where the image is taken and posted in the same process, a product is consumed and promoted. It appears that social media is influential in the activity of the prosumer as it allows the user to have a platform on which to share their purchases and activity.

With this in mind, my final selection was based on aesthetically balancing both colour and black and white, the content of the images in relation to the categories I divided them into, and lastly how much they related to the influence of consumerism. In some cases the images don’t relate very much at all, some are simple landscapes which social media has enabled me to share with an audience, however some clearly show a product or company, which develops their presence in the lives of each user of social media and in turn, society.

Final Ten Images:

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Self Portraiture

It was the Renaissance painters who first started to contemplate painting themselves, breaking away from the religious figures and royals they had previously been depicting. The self portrait was the product of the concept of Enlightenment, choosing individual experiences and reflecting them as a self portrait. The self portrait is a way to express the artist’s particular stance on the world, and in the history of self portraiture there have been some overall themes. Nudes were a way to depict the form and also express a raw sense of truth through the inherent vulnerability. The self portrait then became a tool to challenge the current values and structures of society, disrupting the thought process of the masses and challenging them to think differently. Producing a portrait also allows the artist to enter imaginary worlds, in order to negotiate an interpretation of a said concept. The self portrait was itself included in other movements of art such as performance art to express abstract notions in imaginative fashions. Lastly, the self portrait is also used as a tool to depict how different the artist feels from the rest of society, sometimes a creative mind can be distanced from others it doesn’t feel similarities with.

It is quite common for the photographer to use the self as a subject, because in terms of an effective representation, sometimes collaboration with an external subject can result in a slight corruption in the photographer’s overall aims. Therefore it stands to reason that the self portrait will be the perfect tool to express my own views that I interpret from the brief, as there will be no confusion in the way I want the images to to made because I will have full control. This sense of control is centric to my personality, I don’t enjoy being taken out of my comfort zone very much at all, so it’s curious that I haven’t actually explored self portraiture properly in my work before. I have discussed themes of identity and representation in my photography work, but I have always used other subjects or found material to represent my views visually. I’m looking forward to moving on to a different area in my work, however I still want it to link with the previous notions I have explored in my undergraduate studies. With this view in mind, I will be aiming to explore the notion of identity and how this is shaped by the pressures accompanied with increasing involvement in digital environments.

 

Photobooth

Representation and portraiture can be explored in photography in different forms, in the amount of control exhibited by the photographer. In some of the portraiture photography I’ve explored, which was created by Rankin, there appeared to be some negotiation in the way the subject was portrayed, however the control ultimately remained with the photographer. In response I wanted to look at a different example of portraiture, where the subject has more control over their own representation. It has been noted that when a subject can see themselves, it gives them a greater control over their own representation, so they can position themselves in a way which they feel comfortable with. Of course this does create a staged notion of representation which draws away from any naturalistic ‘decisive moment’ concept. However the idea of capturing a fleeting moment does contain it’s own problems, if the photographer isn’t familiar with the subject, they can produce a representation that is very different from what the subject would want.

The photo booth is a discourse we as quite familiar with as a society, perhaps predominately because the images from a photo booth are used to for passports and other forms of  image identification. However the dynamic has been incorporated into different parts of society, with photo booth businesses providing a source of entertainment at parties and many artists taking on the characteristic aesthetic of the photo booth in their own material. Boothnation is a business that has taken the concept of the photo booth and has expanded it’s potential to cater for anything from normal parties to fashion shows and celebrity events. The booths are an installation in which the subjects are free to create their own representation within the parameters of the photo booth dynamic. For celebrities and normal people, the booth creates an equality in the practice of being photographed and representing themselves photographically. It gives the subject a neutral environment and the ability to see themselves being photographed, meaning they can take the time to represent themselves in a way they feel comfortable with. But in addition, it removes the pressure of the photographer and any uncomfortableness the subject might feel, so in a way they can be themselves in front of the camera because they know they aren’t being watched by another person.

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There are different backgrounds that the Boothnation company can offer the subject, but the usual set up is a black or white background with high key beauty lighting. This idea of freedom in front of the camera, in front of a neutral setting is a concept I could really explore with my own project. I want to build on the structure of the photo booth, linking it to the idea of image identification and use it as part of my project.

 

The conventional photobooth photograph is a person facing the camera and striking a pose, I decided to go to a photobooth and do just that. However shown in the image below I also chose to have my back facing the camera for an alternative view. I had the idea of making a series of photobooth images which depicted the back of me instead of the front of me, to play on the convention of the photo as identification. It would also play on the idea of the photobooth allowing the participant to have full control over their representation in this seemingly neutral environment. Although I did really like this idea, it strays away from the concept of considering social media to be an expression of self. This project idea aims to challenge the portrait as a method of identification using the creative control of the photobooth dynamic. I really want to pursue this project idea however I have made the decision to choose the Instagram profile idea for this coursework because it links in very well to my dissertation idea.

 

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Portrait Photography

If you were to name a modern photographer that has taken a large amount of portraits of celebrities, it would probably be Rankin. He has taken the portrait of a vast number of celebrities and other important people including the Queen; in these images he has represented a different aspect of their personalities.

In the image below of female actress Rebel Wilson, Rankin has represented the part of her that has stood up to people identifying that she is different. Rebel flies the flag for women that don’t feel they need to be the ideological norm to fit in to society; her characters aren’t the usual damsel in distress, or the eye candy for the male viewer, they make their fame through humour and being comfortable in their own skin. This portrait is striking visually, and certainly makes the viewer remember Rebel for a reason other than ‘looking pretty’. However although this portrait isn’t meant to be a strictly beauty portrait, there are many flattering aspects for Rebel: her skin looks flawless and her teeth look very white. This portrait works to demonstrate that Rebel is successfully different, and that she’s beautiful because of it.

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The portrait below is of the male actor Daniel Craig, probably most famous for his current role as 007 James Bond in the Bond films. Craig is the most recent actor to take on the role of Bond and was met with some criticism when the casting choice was announced; he broke the chain of tall, dark and handsome Bonds with a new, hardened, emotional one. Now after four films, it is clear that Craig is was the right choice for the direction in which the films wanted to pursue, adding an element of emotional reality and exploring very personal plot lines related to the James Bond character. In this portrait Rankin chooses to shoot with lots of shadows, which makes the image very strong when in black and white. The portrait is taken from side on, however Craig’s face is far over to the left side of the screen, in the middle of the frame there is the side and back of Craig’s face, all in shadow. This makes the eye move left to look the the highlights on the subject’s face first, before considering the shadows and shapes in the rest of the photograph. This unconventional composition could reflect that Craig was an unconventional choice for Bond and that the whole Bond character was changing, however the strength in the shadows, highlights and shapes in the image reflect how strong Daniel is in this decision. Craig himself appears to be turning away slightly from the white space on the right, which could represent him turning away from the criticism that followed him securing the role.

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The photograph below is of music artist, Pharrell Williams, what’s really interesting about this ‘portrait’, is that it doesn’t feature the face or profile of Pharrell Williams. There is no facial representation or depiction in this portrait, which defies the conventional set up of a portrait; usually the portrait is said to depict someone. In this portrait, although Williams’ hands are featured, there is no other likeness aside from other elements such as the belt and the ring. The belt makes a bold statement and Williams appears to be wearing it like a badge of honour, making sure it stands out in the image by holding it with one hand. The other hand is positioned to show the ring, which could indicate the success and wealth he has achieved through his prosperous career, Williams could be trying to say that it’s good to be a ‘nerd’ in what you’re interested in, because you could make a huge career out of it. By making this image black and white, Rankin really brings the shapes and highlights out and makes the image appear very strong, reflecting Williams’ secure position in his own lifestyle.

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This photograph is so interesting and effective to me, because it demonstrates that you can portray the identity and personality of a person without following the conventional forms of depiction and likeness by photographing faces. Although in the other images, Rankin has achieved a really effective depiction of the subject, I like the fact that as a photographer he has explored other methods in portraying identity. In this case it is through material things like a belt and a ring and this is something I am really interesting in exploring in my project, this idea of material and consumer identity and how this is accentuated and encouraged in the world of digital and social media.