Zooming and its Discontents

Wednesday, April 22nd, 2015

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A motif that has been circulating on Instagram recently is the conspicuous use of camera zooming. Photos possess the grainy quality of having been taken from a distance, and often resemble surveillance footage. What is the impetus behind this trend, and where might it be heading?

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There are various aspects of the camera’s zoom that make it appealing. Most basically, it functions as a telescope, enabling us to see beyond our body’s physical limitations, and it allows us to discretely photograph others. Psychologically, it can transform the now sometimes banal act of photography into a spy mission fantasy, imbued with new importance, and calling upon your stealth, precision, even bravery. In cases with human subjects involved, zooming is an act of exercising ones power over the body of another. There is a thrill to this.

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Alongside these appeals, a more recent development seems to be that the zoom is being favoured for aesthetic purposes. Through its production of grainy picture quality and subdued colour schemes, zooming can serve a similar function as that of Instagram’s built-in “vintage” filters, which ironically are now commonly regarded as gauche.

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While the compromise of photo quality achieved through zooming does not denote age in the way a vintage filter intends to, I think that we do (at least subconsciously) associate the grain of the zoom and the weathered quality of a vintage filter as aesthetics of decay. The aged photograph decays as its materials wear down with the passage of time. The zoomed photograph decays as its resolution reduces.

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Upon this reasoning, one might argue that the aesthetic of zooming is more authentic that that of a vintage filter. Decay occurs in zooming as a by-product of focusing in on a distant image, while filtering merely imitates the effects of decay. This reasoning only holds to a certain extent.  It is challenged by the fact that one can use the zoom function to imitate the process of zooming.

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We see this imitation at play when people zoom in on objects that a) are not interesting enough to warrant “getting a closer look” or b) were close enough to have photographed without zooming. Yes, these criteria are subjective and difficult to verify, but I think as the trend of zooming continues to gain ubiquity, we will sense a rise in such scrutiny, an hostility toward aesthetic zooming, and a push to restore the zoom’s utility through more impressive captures.

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Another topic to be addressed within the scope of this zooming trend is the discreet photography of strangers. Voyeurism is nothing new, nor is treatment of the anonymous other as artistic subject matter. Still, it seems as though there is currently a novel abundance in this type of photograph circulating Instagram.

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This abundance parallels well with current discourse around sousveillance. Wearable tech enthusiasts optimistically treat sousveillance as an emancipatory movement, a taking back of surveillance: “Little Brother.” The influx of stranger photography on Instagram evokes a similar vibe of solidarity.

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But isn’t there something twisted about feeling emancipated or united by spying on people and then using the footage for amusement with your friends? I’m guilty of this. Often the stranger photography on Instagram has a subtle tone of classism or ridicule, similar to previous aestheticizations of “tacky” signage. I think it is possible that we might begin to develop some tacit code around “ethical” or “politically correct” practices.

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With respect to emancipation, it seems naive to attribute sousveillance with this ability. Instagram probably does research on leveraging the popularity of sousveillance for the sake of user engagement. At the same time, I’m not sure if people actually do feel emancipated. Maybe it is just a convenient rhetoric, and all we’re really looking to be is entertained.

Big Brother

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