Social media photography: Intersubjectivity and the construal of self in Instagram images

Michele Zappavigna, University of New South Wales

This talk explores how interpersonal meanings are made in self-portrait photography on social media. The self-portrait has been at the forefront of cultural development throughout history, exerting influence on how identity and selfhood are conceived (Hall, 2014). A prominent form of contemporary photographic self-portrait is the selfie, taken using the front-camera of a smartphone. The aim of the work presented is to contribute to the emerging body of literature on selfies through the disciplinary lens of social semiotics. My focus will be on exploring the resources implicated in construing intersubjectivity, that is, the different ways that perspectives on the self can be construed in a photograph. This approach is influenced by previous research into interpersonal/interactional meanings in images (cf. Kress and van Leeuwen, 2006), including point of view (Kress & van Leeuwen, 2006) and focalisation (Painter, et al 2012).

While all photographic portraiture is in some sense mediated by the perspective of the photographer, social media photography displays particular tendencies that foreground this subjectivity in ways that have not been routinely seen before in popular personal photography. I will consider how these visual resources are employed in Instagram images to mediate the relationship between the photographer, the represented participants, and the ambient social media viewer, considering in detail visual structures used to represent, infer, and imply the photographer/represented subject. These visual resources allow an individual to articulate an intersubjectivity (a relation between the self and other) that mediates discourses of self (e.g. selfies) and discourses of the social (e.g. ‘social sharing’), and, as a consequence, gives rise to a perspective on self that is unstable and open to being recontextualised in and beyond social media contexts.

Due to this potential for recontextualisation, the selfie has, in a relatively a short span of time, acquired a ubiquitous presence in our social lives, both in private contexts such as funerals (Gibbs, Meese, Arnold, & Nansen, 2015; Meese et al., 2015) and in public contexts, such as political elections (Baishya, 2015; Hammelburg, 2014). As a popular form of self-media (Fausing, 2015), the selfie has been subject regularly to varying levels of social critique and moral panic (Miltner & Baym, 2015). ‘Hand-held’ photographic self-portraits are, however, not an entirely new phenomenon, and care must be taken to factor in the technological and social environments informing the “bouquet of practices, that the term “selfie” has reunited a posteriori in a cultural construction” (Gunthert, 2015).

My talk will focus on a particular context of use as a case study: the representation of motherhood in Instagram images. The dataset analyzed is the entire Instagram feed of a single user who posts images of her experience of motherhood, together with a collection of 500 images featuring the hashtag #motherhood in their caption. Writing and posting images online about everyday experiences of motherhood is a practice that has evolved alongside social media technologies. This domain of communication involves a range of multimodal genres that have yet to be comprehensively mapped, but have been controversially labeled ‘mommyblogging’ (Chen, 2013). As an ‘intimate public’, mommyblogging is characterized by networked relationships involved in sharing of personal accounts of motherhood (Morrison, 2011: 36). These accounts offer insight into ‘the way that mothers act up and are acted upon … cast[ing] a light into some of the often-ignored corners of contemporary women’s history’ (Friedman, 2010: 199). Some scholars have viewed mommyblogging as a challenge to traditional cultural representations of motherhood, while at the same time noting the persistence of mythologies of the ‘good mother’ in framing this discursive community (Chen, 2013; Friedman and Calixte, 2009; Lopez, 2009; Powell, 2010).

Central to strong axiological alignments forged in the kind of interactive commenting seen in mommyblogging is the sharing of images, most often of children and activities associated with their care. Self-representation of the mother as the photographer through various types of selfies is integral to this practice of sharing which I will explore using the visual structures identified above.

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