Guest Post by Natalie Williams: The Ethics of Aesthetic Self-Presentation
If you know me at all, you probably know that I have an Instagram that goes back into the vast chasms of the Internet. I have over four thousand pictures, and I’ve been known to post (gasp) more than once a day. Needless to say, I enjoy doing it. It brings me a great amount of joy to come across something beautiful or interesting to add to my Instagram: a person, a plate of food, a shot of the hills behind my house as the sun sets. There is immense beauty in the world, and it is my privilege to try and capture it, and (perhaps this is the clincher) to present it to the rest of the world in the most aesthetically pleasing way. It is in defense of this aesthetic presentation–Instagram curation, if you will–that I would like to argue.
First of all, creation is breathtakingly beautiful and complex and worthy of love (as is, of course, its Creator). Part of my duty as a creature placed on this earth is to look at the world around me, at these hills I live between and the people I’ve been gifted with and even the pear I’m enjoying, and love it and give crazy thanks for it as a tremendous gift. If I didn’t–or when I don’t–I would be taking it for granted and not being properly thankful. I would ultimately be disrespecting where God has placed me and what He’s given me. This ought to be obvious–appreciation is part of glorification. Of course, this can be properly carried out in a variety of ways–you can appreciate the world by enjoying it in the moment and never documenting it once. But you can also appreciate it by doing your best to capture what it looks like, by bringing out its color and its vibrancy, by taking a moment in time and semi-eternally preserving it–smiles, laughs, blurry faces.
And why, if you’re going to take the time to pull out your phone and document something you care about, would you cease caring about it after you snap the picture? This is not an argument against the phenomenon of “hashtagnofilter” because doubtless that, like most things, has its place. But the point is this: the world was created beautiful, and if we are all little subcreators who take what God has given us and use it to glorify Him, would you not add a pretty filter to a picture, or bump the highlights and shadows, to make your little subcreation just a little more beautiful? (Sidenote: it’s not as if cameras even accurately capture what we’re looking at, anyway. One could make the argument that adding a filter is helping restore some of the color and vibrancy that your phone camera helpfully lost.) I see no reason to leave a picture dull if you have the choice of making it beautiful. God could have made the world look #nofilter, but thankfully He didn’t. So why should we?
Along the same lines, why wouldn’t I curate and select the posts I add to my Instagram feed? Why wouldn’t I take ten pictures and choose the one with the best composition and lighting, or refrain from posting an ugly picture of a friend or a piece of pizza? There are plenty of ugly and nasty or even just subpar things in this world, but that doesn’t mean that we have to (or should) celebrate them or parade them around for the whole world to see. Naturally, those things exist and have to be dealt with on their own terms. But I would argue that Instagram is not the place for them, or certainly does not have to be the place for them. Not posting a picture of myself crying over a heartbreak or eating a really unappetizing bit of lasagna doesn’t mean that those things aren’t a part of my life at various times, only that I choose not to share them with everyone. Instead, I choose to share what I consider to be worthwhile–things that reflect the beauty and glory of the world God has made.
And perhaps this gets into the nature of social media’s purpose–what are we supposed to do with something like Instagram? Clearly, it is different than something like Snapchat, where few filters are available and the pictures will be gone as soon as you send them off anyway. Pictures on Instagram are there for keeps, part of a chronological collection of moments that you have chosen to share. No one will think that because you didn’t post a really ugly selfie on Instagram (something most of us have undoubtedly done on Snapchat, anyway) that you have never taken an ugly selfie, or that you #wokeuplikethis. People aren’t that stupid. Instead, they ought to recognize that you take pictures that you care about, of moments that you enjoyed and want to share with others. Of course, some might see Instagram as a more artistic outlet than others, which is perfectly fine. The point is that there is no shame in curating what you share. In fact, we do that every day of our lives, from the clothes we wear to the things we choose to say or not to say to other human beings.
So I guess the takeaway would be this: God made a pretty world, and He gave you pretty moments to enjoy and love. So do it. If that means keeping your phone tucked away in your pocket, do it. If it means taking ten pictures and using one and putting a really great filter on it that perfectly brings out the white balance, do that too. But don’t hold yourself back from making it beautiful because you think you’re being dishonest. You’re not. You’re also not being dishonest by not posting one thing and posting something else instead. If you’re appreciating and loving God’s world, you’re doing exactly what you should be doing. Keep doing it. Do it with filters and good composition and captions that express your joy. And don’t stop.
–Natalie Williams (2016)
You can follow Natalie on Instagram: @natalie_katherine