These days, most of us carry a powerful digital camera in our pocket, embedded in our mobile phone. The speed and ease with which we can take and share photos means that we have become obsessed with recording every last second of our lives. Our photos confirm and enhance our experiences. We use them to validate that we really did go there, do that, meet them.

We collect, share and swap these fragments of beauty compulsively via online photo albums, social networks and editing software packages. Sites like Flickr and Pinterest are proof of our increasing tendency to trade in pictures. To paraphrase critic Susan Sontag, we’re turning into image junkies, addicted to aesthetic consumerism.

Such are our pretensions that we don’t just want to take photos and share them, we want to edit them first. Instagram allows users to do just that. It is now one of the most popular social networking sites, with around 100 million users sharing the photos with online followers. The website describes the process like this: “Snap a picture, choose a filter to transform its look and feel, then post to Instagram.” You can add a warming tint, a romantic glow, or even make the photo look like it was taken in the 1960s. But why would you want to capture a moment only to “transform its look and feel”? Because, in truth, Instagram is a symptom of our dissatisfaction with everyday reality.

In fact, one of the appeals of Instagram is the immediacy of the transformation that it offers. Captured moments can be softened and perfected; our memories can be edited. Writer Will Self claims that before the advent of clever smartphone apps, the past was “black and white, jerky, frumpy and lifeless – gelid, certainly, but altogether uncool. Unless it was coloured by [your] own vivid memories”. Now, why leave the hard work to your imagination when your phone can do it for you? It only takes a few seconds to make your life look more glamorous, both for your followers and for your future self. The cuppa on your desk can, in the click of a button, become a cinematically chic Parisian-style treat or a vintage-inspired tea party. It’s the equivalent of airbrushing for mundane cuisine.

In fact, food and Instagram seem to have a special affinity, with users perpetually snapping shots of their home-cooked creations or displaying their restaurant orders. It’s become so annoyingly incessant that a number of eateries have banned the practice, claiming that it slows service and disrupts the ambience. More than anything, David Bouley complained to The New York Times: “It’s hard to build a memorable evening when flashes are flying every six minutes.” The Michelin-starred chef wants to create shared dining experiences that will be remembered long after the final mouthful. But Instagram reveals an altogether different longing: we want to manufacture our own memories.

In fact, we’ve become so successful at it that soon it may be that looking back over old photos invokes not nostalgia for the days gone by, but frustration that we cannot recognise our own past any more. No one puts it better than Sontag: “The camera makes everyone a tourist in other people’s reality, and eventually in one’s own.”

Image by Katherine Maxwell-Cook

Written by Rachel Helen Smith // Follow Rachel on  Twitter

Rachel has always loved to read and did a degree in English at Cambridge. Since then she’s written all sorts of things, and when she’s not reading, writing or wandering around bookshops, she works in digital marketing for Newcastle University. She is married to Martin and likes art galleries, coffee and listening to people tell stories.

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