Instagram in Plato’s Cave: Part 1

First published on LinkedIn 30 September 2019

Michael Sankey with the help of Richard Avedon

In homage to Susan Sontag’s ‘On Photography’ some 42 years on

As humanity moves from lingering on in Plato’s cave to creating new visions, or representations of so-called truth, by representing ‘the moment’ millions of times an hour, it potentially makes it harder for us to find our once artisanal images. Or is it there are now so many great images claiming our attention that the preciousness of the image has given way to this just being expected, and that the ‘old’ artisanal image is simply an illusion of the good old days. The inventory started in 2010 when Instagram was released and since then, literally everything has been photographed and not just once or twice, or so it seems. The insatiable thirst for instant recognition and ‘likes’ allows us to enter a new cave, one in which we become imprisoned by the shadows of our narcissistic impressions of the world. It has taught us to reinterpret the visual codes that we once presented as history to understand that it is ‘the now’ we are observing, and this has forever changes the notion of what is worth observing, or even to what we have the right to observe. The emergence of a ubiquitous visual grammar that tells the story of our lives, played out in the public eye, no longer confined to the family album, or at best the gallery wall, shifts the ethic from seeing, to instantly sharing what we are experiencing. Not only do we get to share the whole world with our ‘friends’, but we gratuitously get to hold theirs in the palm of our hands at the same time – with a veritable cornucopia of images and experiences on offer.

To own a smart device is to own the world, its images, movies, information and news, networked by an invisible silver cord to all you love. No longer does the image flicker on the wall, it is seen in the train, the shopping centre, the loo, and in fact wherever you can find connection. It is light, not so cheap, but easy to carry and with plenty of memory to store yours and others’ accumulated reminiscences. So much so, that now the call to war, by society’s norms, is publicly and daily screened on our devices, with images of the battlefield complete with death, rape and pillage, while accompanied by the sponsored image tempting us to fulfil our covetous cravings. This intermingled with picturesque electronic postcards, of sunsets, foodporn, selfies, famous buildings and beautiful scenes, only dreamed of prior to the era of discount airfares. Let’s not forget the mandatory business trip of conference where one gets to leave their loved one at home, just to be seen by them enjoying themselves flanked by other equally revelling in their free food and drink, the gag being on them of course when they return. The insidious #tag revealing modern mysteries previously concealed, but now forever categorized in a sea of metadata. The experience captured in an endless stream of electronic consciousness acquired and shared so freely.

It is no longer a question of whether the photograph actually appropriates, but more so how widely the appropriation is shared and ‘liked’. For it is that which equates to real power, not the knowledge or skill that may have gone into making the image that is celebrated.  But that which was meant for good (possibly) too can be used for evil, and for those who choose to dance with Mephistopheles, as Faust once did, have every opportunity to share their dissipation, there but for the code of ethics that protects the unwitting. But let us not forget ‘the print’, the digital made tangible by placing ink on paper. Downloaded and fashioned in Photoshop no longer treacherous, just an outright lie, but a good lie, as truth was dispensed with long-ago. Seduced by the airbrushed face, the enriched hue of the sunset, and the storm clouds enhanced, provides us a view of the past that far exceeds our knowledge or memory of the phenomenon. Let’s face it, it has always been about our interpretation, just like the painting or drawing still is, it’s just know we are playing with, manipulating what once was considered integral, being a piece of the world, a statement, acquired and now made public, but without the integrity it once had. 

Photographs still fiddle with the size of the world, ever reducing the reach of once unexplored exotic destinations, but now not unrestricted, shared in formats that were unknown, or even dreamed of 40 years ago. Packaged now in inviting and intriguing guises, linked again with texts but in virtual albums, still behind glass and still illusionary. Electronic news and virtual magazines syndicate as quick as a flash the latest tragedy to befall mankind, but behind many of these the armature lurks to challenge the pro, to compile a story much bigger and broader than once was reportable. But do not fear, for big brother watches-on seeking to find those who would use this freedom to rain down constraint.

For decades now the book, once so influential in providing opportunities to those who would be famous, has given way to a new form of longevity and immortality, no longer fragile but immutable. No-longer mislaid or mistakable, but digital, searchable and viewable by a wider adoring public. Interestingly, were once the image in the book was an image of an image, we now have an image that is the image, the original viewable by all. Though if lucky one can still see the ink on paper version. But however rare this may be, there is still a tangible presence and mystique about the image in a book. There is a satisfaction to picking up and turning the pages to reveal what once was seen, but now in a new context. It provides a framework and a sequence so different to the electronic version that is so easily accessed by comparison. Where the author gets to stipulate the order in which the images will be seen is a luxury, although the reader still has the right to skip a page. So, as with the electronic form the power still resides with the viewer, not the maker. Unless of course the images are seen in motion, where the timing and sequence is set by the author, the viewer has little option but to participate, albeit in a less democratic form of engagement. Though one might suggest the more dominant visual discourse is now more around viewing the images of ones connections rather than an offering by a complete stranger. 

Instagram handle: @michael_sankey Or see:

If citing please use: Sankey, M. (2019). On Photography in Instagram: Instagram in Plato’s Cave, Part 1. LinkedIn. 30 September. Available from:

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s