TIME's "Finding Home"

Hyperrealism and Social Media Photojournalism

Because of the internet’s instant and extensive connectivity, news syndicates take advantage of existing social network platforms for circulation and distribution though often for works written with traditional print and photographic journalism models in mind. A more recent development has been the incorporation of the social network platforms themselves as structures and mediums for digital storytelling. TIME’s 2016 “Finding Home” project primarily uses Instagram as its framework, telling the story of the Syrian Refugee Crisis through a series of photos that depict a year in the life of three Syrian refugee mothers and their babies. The project aims to show the life of the babies “born of no nation,” caught in the midst of geopolitical conflicts that they have no control over.[1]

The photo collection for “Finding Home” shares many of the same qualities as the mass amounts of personal, amateur images uploaded by non-professional users. As the line between amateur and professional photographers is blurred, so are the identities and voices of the narrators of the story. The use of Instagram–a social network platform centered on the instant capturing and sharing of personal, amateur photographs–creates a hyperreality as professional images of the lives of refugees are staged as immediate and intimate representations.

Posts on the account feature a broad, but aesthetically staged and curated mix of pictures of the mundane, from baby photos to shots of meals and nature. At times, the collection mirrors the appearance and tone of a lifestyle blog.

The attempt to make the refugees more relatable to Western audiences is based on digital, hyperreal representations of familiar lifestyles. The hyperreality of social media is not just limited to Western accounts of the refugee experience; social media is known for its filtered representations of reality. Additional layers of hyperrealism, however, are constructed as social media is used as a pretext for on-the-ground reporting, especially when the representations of experiences on the ground are filtered by the expectations of a Western audience and displacing self-representations of citizen journalists.

Throughout “Finding Home,” there is a distortion of whose gaze is directing the focus of the images and the perspective of the narrative. In one post, a brightly colored and strategically laid-out meal is accompanied by a caption with a recipe for home-made falafels that the user can “try at home,” allowing the distant spectator to participate in a shared cultural experience with the refugees. The style and focus of the photos coincides with the growth of food stylist photographers on Instagram, another social media phenomenon that has been noted for its hyperrealism.[2]

In another sequence, the photographs appear to depict the perspective of citizen journalism, news reporting by public citizens. The images of life in the refugee camps create the illusion of intimacy and immediacy by creating a “low-end look” that imitates the imperfections of amateur photography.[3]

Lighting is dark and muted. Some photos feature an intentional grainy and blurred aesthetic, mimicking the defects of unprofessional and spontaneous photography. Meryl Alper, in her analysis of war photojournalism on social media, explains that “as opposed to blurring or dodging flaws away, Hipstamatic and Instagram evoke pseudo-photographic flaws, scratches, and smudges. These hypermediated imperfections do not appear at random, but rather are algorithmic; they produce a heightened awareness of their own production within the digital age of information.”[4] Her observation that “the ‘imperfect’ Hipstamatic photographs taken by embedded photojournalists are potentially misleading because they feel as though they might come from the ‘subjective’ perspective of troops rather than the objective perspective of the embedded photojournalist” parallels the problems of using Instagram for professional narratives of the Syrian refugee crisis.[5] “Finding Home’s” photos present what appears to be the subjective gaze of the refugees when the images are actually from the lens and mediations of the professional photographer. For example, close-up, unpolished images of the babies and material objects from everyday life in the camps suggest that the images are presenting the unprocessed perspectives of the refugees. The blending of professional and amateur journalism, combined with the medium of Instagram, establishes a hyperreality that makes the interventions of the outside journalist difficult to detect.

Like most social networking services, all activity on Instagram is contextualized within its system meaning that a hypermediated awareness of Instagram’s function and design is always present as long as the user is on the platform. The user must go to the Instagram mobile app or website to access the images and narratives, which instills an acknowledgement of its presence. Once on Instagram, the user cannot escape the medium’s constant, hypermediated presence. The Instagram logo’s permanent fixture creates a hypermediated awarenesss of the platform that remains in the corner of the screen, even if the user scrolls down and away from the top menu bar of the site. Because the user is constantly aware of the medium and its intended function, hypermediacy also establishes expectations in the user for how the platform is being used by other users.

Additionally, Instagram’s designed function as a point-and-shoot app, where photos are meant to reflect the instant capturing of intimate moments, allows professional photographers to distort the temporality and proximity of their narratives.[6] Images that were professionally taken and edited over the course of months can be uploaded to Instagram and, because of the perceived function of the medium, posture as immediate snapshots. As a result, the hypermediacy of Instagram’s platform enables the images’ performance of immediacy.

While “Finding Home” presents itself as a medium through which users can draw near to the day-to-day experiences of the refugees, the question of whose experiences are being presented as immediate is obscured by the assumptions that the hypermediacy of Instagram reinforces.

[1] Lynsey Addario, Aryn Baker, and Francesca Trianni, “Finding Home,” TIME, accessed March 20, 2019, http://time.com/finding-home-stories/.

[2] Jenny L. Herman, “#EatingfortheInsta: A Semiotic Analysis of Digital Representations of Food on Instagram,” Graduate Association for Food Studies 4, no. 2 (November 11, 2017), https://gradfoodstudies.org/2017/11/11/eating-for-the-insta/.

[3] Susan Murray, “Digital Images, Photo-Sharing, and Our Shifting Notions of Everyday Aesthetics,” Journal of Visual Culture 7, no. 2 (August 1, 2008): 160, https://doi.org/10.1177/1470412908091935.

[4] Hipstamatic is a photography application that has the same function and similar features to Instagram, which is why Alper’s criticism of photojournalism on Hipstamatic is still applicable. Meryl Alper, “War on Instagram: Framing Conflict Photojournalism with Mobile Photography Apps,” New Media & Society 16, no. 8 (December 1, 2014): 1238, https://doi.org/10.1177/1461444813504265.

[5] Alper, 1243.

[6] Eddy Borges-Rey, “News Images on Instagram,” Digital Journalism 3, no. 4 (July 4, 2015): 586, https://doi.org/10.1080/21670811.2015.1034526.