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Instagram-hating is currently at fever pitch. From Grace Covington of American Vogue calling it “pathetic” to Kate Winslet revealing that it is banned in her household, there is a growing sense that Instagram is something bad. It enables self-deception. It allows us to live fake lives.  From “creative crops” to fancy filters, Instagram gives us the tools to create and publicize the best—often imaginary—versions of ourselves.

For Teju Cole, however, the problem with Instagram is not as clear-cut. In his monthly photography column at the New York Times, he looks at the aesthetic practice of photography within the context of Instagram as a popular medium.

The point of the article titled “Serious Play” [click here to read]  is to highlight a few photographers who are going beyond the perceived frivolities of Instagram and using it as “a space for…creative work.”

Yes, Instagram is not just about Justin Bieber’s eggplant. There are people using Instagram to create and circulate images with “pictorial intelligence.” In the process of identifying how these photographers are doing interesting things with Instagram, Cole tells us a bit about what he thinks of the platform and its users.

“Instagram users,” he writes, “value spectacular individual images and reward them with the coin of the realm: likes.”

“Spectacular images” are, to put it simply, images we create solely for their display value. They do not have to be aesthetically interesting. The point of a spectacular image is to go viral. It shocks us. But it also feeds our voyeuristic desires.

As Cole points out, these kinds of images are not about photographic quality. The example he gives are images of celebrities. “Regardless of quality,” he points out, “anything Justin Bieber or Beyoncé posts will get hundreds of thousands of likes.”

“Instagram, like any other wildly successful social-media platform” Cole concludes, “is by turns creative, tedious, fun and ridiculous.” This contradiction is actually not a bad thing. This ability to handle a wide range of difference is what transforms popular platforms like Instagram into communities.

Instagram might encourage the frivolous and the banal spectacle of celebrity lifestyle, but it offers serious photographers the possibility of clearing out a space where productive, in-the-moment conversations about their work can take place.

Instagram, as Cole sees it, is a kind of exhibition space located outside “the wall of the museum” and the “pages of a book.” It gives the serious photographer an alternate space where images can be produced and circulated before a live and dynamic community of consumers and spectators.

Side Note: I should point out that Cole who is currently taking an extended Twitter sabbatical has an Instagram page. You can find him at @_tejucole.

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Images from Teju Cole’s Instagram page _tejucole

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Ainehi Edoro is an Assistant Professor of English at the University of Wisconsin-Madison where she teaches African literature. She received her doctorate at Duke University. She is the founder and editor of Brittle Paper and series editor of Ohio University Press’s Modern African Writer’s imprint.

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