On Instagram the force of Walter Benjamin’s flâneur strong. On Instagram we are connoisseurs of daily life. Urban spectators. Observers of what Balzac described as “the gastronomy of the eye”. We feed hungrily on images that are served to us. Our fingers swipe across screens, giving approval to frames that appeal to us, contributing social comment when compelled. And these are not the hard-hitting reportage images popular before 1990. These are images of feet in places, cute pets, the meal in front of you and newly manicured nails in bombastic colors.
It is only in the past year that I have engaged with Instagram, and I will admit to being more a voyeur than a contributor. What I find interesting about my own behaviour is how I have developed an ‘Insta-gaze’; the awareness between the subject (viewer – me) and the object (photos). The people who are sharing these images are acutely aware that they are being observed and I when I check my app during the day, I am acutely aware of my ‘gazing’. In some way, you could say we are indirectly looking at each other.
But what exactly am I looking at when I peruse the dozens of tiled images I receive on my smartphone every day? Why does a photo of an acai breakfast bowl, or a lone chair in a room, or Taylor Swift’s cat hold my attention, if only for a second?
My theory (and it is just that, mere theory) is that the Insta-gaze thrives on three things: beauty, poetry and inclusivity. And in all our engagement on Instagram, we are each searching for images that represent these values for us.
In a recent opinion editorial in the New York Times, David Brooks laments the loss of importance that Beauty suffers in this “post-humanistic moment”. That certain significant things in life are now the domain of data and science. “Economists are experts on happiness. The world is understood primarily as the product of impersonal forces; the nonmaterial dimensions of life explained by the material ones,” he writes. But Beauty has not abdicated its throne on Instagram. Beauty is found in pictures of sunsets, landscapes, images with symmetrical layouts, color and good composition. Beauty is why 790,000 people subscribe to Instagram accounts like @hotdudesreading.
But then there are pictures that can’t be described as beautiful. These are more poetic. Stones in rivers. Babies. The weathered trunk of an old Kauri tree. In his book The Meaning of Culture, John Cowper Powys explains that poetry is “something profoundly and emotionally humanized.” He uses the example of a racing car and a wish-bone. One beautiful, the other poetical. This differential also explains for me the appeal of certain images that suggests intangibles like love, sadness, anger and friendship. Poetic images are about emotions represented within the moment captured; a comment on life itself.
Here is where the Insta-gaze comes into its own. Since both subject and object are aware of the transaction taking place, there seems to be a tacit agreement that we are both connected. It does not matter that Kendall Jenner does not know your name, the fact that she uploaded a photo of herself doing something somewhere, sharing a moment from her private life for your eyes to gaze upon is a call to connect. She’s not calling you personally by name, but the fact that the image is delivered to your personal mobile device (the most intimate item we own) delivers a similar feeling. Hence the reason why brands capitalize on ‘behind-the-scenes’ images. It’s a door ajar to some other person, some other life.