A recent project by Thailand-based photographer Chompoo Baritone has the internet abuzz, and it should. Baritone's project does exactly what good art should do: it makes you think. The photo series depicts a full scene, and then shows the deceptive square frame of a perfectly staged Instagram photo.
It's telling that my Facebook newsfeed has been inundated with links to this project with added comments of "YES" and "Reminder: don't compare yourself to other people's Instalife." This resonates with people, because duh—we're all tired of how social media turns us into insecure comparison addicts bent on proving our lives are artsier, more adventurous, and much, much more "authentic."
This project comes right on the heels of the discovery and wild popularity of Socality Barbie, a fantastic parody Instagram account that is way more authentic than yours. I'll be honest, the account's tagline, "That PNW Life | Adventurer | Coffee Drinker | Jesus | Authentic Living" gave me a little heartburn—wait, mine doesn't say that, right? It's a jarring reminder that maybe our millennial search for authenticity is getting tied in a few too many consumerist knots with our products, clothes, and fashion sense.
But I'm actually not here today to deliver another diatribe against the ills of social media, or even to delve deeper into how we soothe our ache for meaning with materialism, likes, and Instagram double-taps. I'm here to argue for the little square frame, the little bit of perfection surrounded by chaos, and the little pieces of art in our everyday lives.
In Defense of the Perfect Square Frame
When I was in my undergrad, I took an excellent class on digital rhetoric. Before I started that semester, I probably couldn't have defined digital rhetoric, but by the end I had some nuanced and helpful thoughts on the intersection of technology and our daily lives. One of these thoughts was this: every form of social media and technology comes with a set of rules.
The rules of each technology may be written in something as stable as code: for instance, I'm simply not able to delete someone else's Facebook post, but I can delete my own. Other rules are based on "suggestions" written into the website: they're like stone paths through a yard, gently nudging you to take a certain road. Example: sure, I could save lengthy journalism pieces to my Pinterest boards, but with the site's emphasis on visual appeal and the categories suggested, why would I?
Here is the first unspoken rule of Instagram: show me something pretty.
With editing tools, the app sets you up to filter, beautify and alter reality. With its uniform, distinctive square frame (only recently changed with the latest update), Instagram invites you to do what everyone else is doing: create some art with that computer in your pocket.
Nobody is—or at least, no one should be—suggesting that Instagram accurately represents our daily lives. Instagram was never set up to document mundanity. It's set up to document beauty.
A few years ago, I read Anne Lamott's excellent, honest book on writing, Bird by Bird. In it, she says this about trying to get started in the overwhelming work of writing:
I go back to trying to breathe, slowly and calmly, and I finally notice the one-inch picture frame that I put on my desk to remind me of short assignments. It reminds me that all I have to do is to write down as much as I can see through a one-inch picture frame... All I am going to do right now, for example, is write that one paragraph that sets the story in my hometown, in the late fifties, when the trains were still running. I am going to paint a picture of it, in words, on my word processor.
That's what frames do for us: they let us see something, but they leave out quite a bit more than they show. That's what art does: the artist shows us something, but is just as purposeful about what she leaves out.
That inauthenticity that we sniff in some Instagram accounts and that Socality Barbie parodies so well? It's there because sometimes we like to pretend there isn't anything outside our frames. Instagram invites us to make everyday life moments into art. The key to making and consuming everyday life as art in a healthy way is remembering that there are unartful, ugly moments too.
One of the reasons I like Instagram is because of this invitation to view life as art. My kitchen may be mayhem, but there's a new flower on my air plant, just inviting me to frame and celebrate it. My day may be disastrous, but the sun is shining through the trees and asking to be documented. Making art always gets me out of my bad day or bad week to find a frame—just one frame among the chaos—of art.
A friend and I were recently discussing Kinfolk, a shared obsession of ours. She made a great point: "You know, it's ironic that they talk about authenticity and embracing real community, but I've never seen a single ketchup bottle in their pictures. You know they had to move a ketchup bottle or something to get that perfect dinner photo." That's the key: we leave things out of our frames to make them art, but we become markedly inauthentic when we pretend that's how life looks—sans ketchup bottles and tacky paper napkins.
Next time you find yourself comparing your life to someone's square frame, just remember: they probably had to move at least a ketchup bottle. Move one of your own and make some art.