Constructing an Identity Using Social Media and Photography

Introduction:

"The only aim in my mind at this point in my teenage life was to boost my crippling low self-esteem and get a few nice comments from locals via the Internet", Emma Gannon (2016, p.8)

When social media were introduced it became common for users, especially women, to create a version of themselves online that is more confident and glamorised than their real life selves. Platforms such as Myspace and Instant Messaging site MSN were being used to connect with new people, but in actual fact this is where users began transforming their identities from everyday identities into created and imaginary ones. These identities often showcased escapism through the online world and fantastical realities of the individual. Social media has the ability of allowing users to create an identity of themselves that can make a big impact on their popularity, culture and class. However, it has also led to an honour killing due to westernised self-representations online and its lack of acceptance in Asian society. 

In Ctrl Alt Delete: How I Grew Up Online (2016), Emma Gannon has shared her experiences of growing up using the internet, especially reasons why she changed her appearance drastically by editing her photos before she published them online. Victoria Magrath of ‘In The Frow’ is a blogger who has used social media to elevate her online presence. By gaining a large following very quickly, Victoria Magrath has now worked with large brands such as Vauxhall and appeared on a Blogosphere Magazine cover. Other magazines such as Vogue and Cosmopolitan have bloggers as their cover stars such as Zoe ‘Zoella’ Sugg and Chiara Ferragni. The success of Zoe Sugg and Chiara Ferragni shows how much of a positive impact constructing an identity on social media can have today. 

Performing for the camera is what Emma Gannon and Victoria Magrath are creating for their followers in order to continue in their chosen field of work, which is blogging, including the daily use of social media and posting regular lifestyle updates on Victoria Magrath’s and Emma Gannon’s blogs in order to give their followers an insight into their lives through the use of a snapshot aesthetic and even a highly glamorised identity. On the other hand, in the case of Amalia Ulman, a highly staged project has been created to almost fool her audience into believing the lifestyle she had imagined and created was a reality. Amalia Ulman has demonstrated in Excellences and Perfections, a project based entirely on Instagram, that the notion of the internet and photography can create identities and a performance for the camera. The use of social media can have an extreme cultural impact, which will be investigated in the chapter about Qandeel Baloch, a Pakistani social media star and model who has been murdered by her brother for her actions on social media, stating these bought shame to the family. 

Emma Gannon:

Emma Gannon is a blogger, author, speaker and digital consultant. She is an example of an online personality who has used the internet to her advantage to further her career, and one particular way she has furthered her career is by writing a book called Ctrl Alt Delete: How I Grew Up Online (2016). Within this book, Gannon has shared her experiences of growing up using the internet as a teenager, including the negative effects social media has had on her confidence, self-esteem and her own identity. Gannon writes how she was twelve years old when she started to edit her photos before she posted them online, stating that:

“I can clearly remember the rush I felt when I first edited a photo myself”, (2016, p.9).

Free editing software online allowed Gannon to alter her appearance in her photos to suit herself, which as a result gave her the confidence to be a more confident and outspoken character online compared to how she actually was in person. 

“This was the beginning of me feeling I had an online body that I loved and an IRL (in real life) version that I loathed”, (2016, p.10).

This quote will be one that many teenage girls and women will be able to relate to because it describes in its simplest form how far from reality Gannon’s online identity was from her actual identity, and how easy it was for her to create an imagined and fantastical reality in order to boost her self-esteem. The way in which Gannon changed her appearance was by erasing most of her imperfections but only leaving some natural marks on her face, rubbing out spots and giving herself smoother skin. The control that users of social media can have today is extended a step further. For example, if a friend uploads a photo of yourself on to Facebook which you are not particularly a fan of, you can request to get it removed. This is explained by Gannon in this quote:

“Even on Facebook we have the ability to ask someone to remove a bad picture of us, curating a more ‘perfect’ personal environment. It’s not editing, it’s removing an image entirely”, (2016, p.22)

 Sharing our lives online is now an everyday way of life, and with the introduction of Instagram and Facebook apps, users can do this instantly. Although Gannon’s early experiences of using social media had a negative impact on her self-esteem, due to her constant desire of aiming to showcase the perfect appearance, the use of social media now has become a big part of her life in a positive way, since one aspect of her career today is to write her own blog, but also speaking at events, running her own podcast and releasing her own book in 2016. The professional use of social media allows Gannon to excel in her career, make new connections and keep her followers up to date with her life by sharing latest news her followers may be interested in. 

Figure 1.

Figure 1.

Figure 1 is a recent photo taken from Gannon’s blog which shows a very laid back and carefree approach to the types of photos she has discussed in her book, Ctrl Alt Delete: How I Grew Up Online (2016). These were more perfected versions of herself she published online in her teenage years. On the other hand, in Figure 1 Gannon is seen laying on the sofa and not paying any attention to the camera, but instead she is concentrating on using her mobile phone. This photo is giving viewers a real look into Gannon’s life, which is not as glamorous compared to the identity that many other social media users and bloggers portray on their social media accounts. For example, in comparison to luxury fashion blogger Victoria Magrath, who I will discuss next, Gannon’s online identity is seen to be completely the opposite. The black and white photo completely strips back any attention to detail, she is not posing in it, and there is no emphasis put on the way Gannon is dressed. Instead, the viewer can see how comfortable she is in her own skin in comparison to how she described herself to be in her book as a teenager who had low self-esteem and edited each of the photos before publishing them online.

Victoria Magrath:

Today blogging, which is often used as an online diary, has become a new way for people to share their lives online alongside the use of social media. Those who have become most successful show not only a glamorous appearance of themselves, but an ideal lifestyle too. An example of this is luxury fashion and lifestyle blogger Victoria Magrath, who blogs at In The Frow. Magrath’s blog layout has gone through many changes since it began in 2012, the most recent one resembling an online magazine, with luxury fashion and editorial-style photographs taken by a professional photographer she works with regularly. This glamourous character Magrath presents on her blog appeals to many of her readers, and as a result she has worked with many large brands to promote their products and services, resulting in an income because of the thousands of followers she has gained. Large brands now see social media influencers as the best promotional tool for their products and services.

Figure 2.

Figure 2.

One such example of Magrath working with a large brand is shown in Figure 2. This is a photo taken from Magrath’s collaboration with Ted Baker, for which she did an editorial shoot to post on her blog with the title ‘Solving the Mission Impeccable’. Firstly, I shall begin with the discussion of the title of the post, which is the first thing that a reader will always see on a blog post or article online aside from the photos. The word ‘Impeccable’, according to the online Oxford Dictionary, means “in accordance with the highest standards; faultless”. This shows how Victoria Magrath is using the title of the blog post to target her audience and is already creating an impact of showcasing the ideal and glamorised lifestyle to her readers before they have clicked on the link to go and see the post. I mention to ‘see’ the post, rather than to ‘read’, because it is the photos that have got the most impact on the post, since Magrath’s blog template for In The Frow is designed to showcase the images as large as possible on screens, which in return means that the readers are impacted by the idealised lifestyle the most when visiting the blog. The ‘highest standards’ and ‘faultless’ are the reasons why readers of Magrath’s blog would want to go back to see In The Frow again and again, because she is showcasing the imagined and fantastical lifestyle ‘normal’ people would look up to. 

Moving on to the photos themselves, Figure 2 shows the photoshoot that Victoria Magrath has done for the post in collaboration with Ted Baker in the Royal Suite at The Lanesborough Hotel, in Mayfair, London. Magrath has worked with a professional photographer, Kyle Galvin, for this photoshoot. By reading the credits at the bottom of the post I have discovered the photoshoot itself was based on an original story by Ted Baker which Magrath and the photographer Kyle Galvin then executed themselves on location and at the hotel. Magrath is shown dressed in Ted Baker’s Christmas collection, but also has worn a wig to change her appearance for the purpose of the story which she has disclosed in the opening paragraph to her readers by writing, “Oh, and the hair. That’s my own secret identity”, Magrath, (2016). As part of this story, Magrath is playing the character of an undercover journalist looking for Ted Baker’s secrets. The post itself is well written and tells the reader what is happening in each scene that has been photographed but it is the photos which are the main focus on the blog, not the writing. Magrath knows that it is the lifestyle her readers look up to which is the reason why her blog has got large photos on it, and the layout resembles and online magazine. The photos must be the most important since she is selling the clothing to her readers for Ted Baker, and her potential reach is very impactful on the brand. 

This shoot and collaboration is an example of how much effort bloggers are willing to put in to change their appearance and therefore their identity for their blogs and audience. Although Magrath’s readers are aware that this post has been arranged with Ted Baker as a sponsored post with a story and a character in mind, the photos in this post are not too different from the rest of the photos on her blog. There is still the huge emphasis on the glamourous side of Magrath’s identity. 

Although the photos in the editorial discussed above are the most important, in actual fact the written aspect of blogs is just as important as the photography. It is through writing personal opinions and sharing personal life experiences that allows bloggers to connect with their audience, which differentiates them from celebrities. In an interview with Blogosphere Magazine, Magrath has discussed the problems that she has faced with internet trolls, after other bloggers directed comments towards her on their blogs. Magrath responded by writing a post titled Girl on Girl Crime, in which she wrote openly about her thoughts on internet trolls within the industry. The commentary section on blogs allows readers to post their thoughts directly under each post, which encourages further discussion between readers, and as a result Girl on Girl Crime received over 280 comments once published. 

Amalia Ulman:

Amalia Ulman is a contemporary photographer who has used Instagram to stage a highly imagined and created identity entirely for the purpose of a project that went on to fool many of her followers and became known as an “Instagram Masterpiece” (Sooke, 2016). Excellences and Perfections was a project Ulman had performed over the length of four months stating that she wants to “experiment with fiction online using the language of the internet.” (Sooke, 2016). 

The emphasis of the project was to create a narrative for the characters that Ulman would become herself. She had planned a highly imagined and created reality, and a believable lifestyle to be shared through selfies and snapshots taken on her mobile phone on the social media site Instagram. During the four-month long performance, Ulman posted three ‘chapters’ to her project which in turn would showcase the life of three characters, including her move to Los Angeles, her apparent change in character due to being influenced by celebrities, taking drugs and getting surgery, and finally her recovery after she came out of rehab. I am now going to discuss three photos from each ‘chapter’ of Excellences and Perfections performed by Ulman in order to discuss the project in more detail. 

Figure 3.

Figure 3.

Figure 3 is from the first chapter of Excellences and Perfections where Ulman has shared a selfie on Instagram without makeup. The purpose of this post has been made apparent in the caption which states “Nails yay or nay”. The snapshot is not aspirational by any means, instead she is simply showing off the design of her nails, and sharing an identity that is otherwise very relatable to her audience and giving an insight into her very normal lifestyle. The selfie is very cropped, so you can only see her face, and furthermore she is not wearing any makeup and is seen to be possibly in her pyjamas having an ordinary day at home. 

Figure 4.

Figure 4.

Moving on to Figure 4, which is a selfie from the second chapter of the project, Amalia Ulman looks physically distressed rather than the healthy girl she seems to resemble in Figure 3. Another obvious difference in change of appearance comes from the change in her hair colour. At this stage of the project the character Ulman is playing has been influenced by life in Los Angeles and celebrities, where she has been taking drugs. Figure 4 shows the loss of innocence in comparison to Figure 3, where Ulman looked more fresh and content within herself and her appearance. You can see that she seems to be wearing makeup, as her skin looks clearer and her lips are a dark pink, but at the same time you are able to see a lot of emotion through her eyes as well as her facial expression. The frame is still cropped closely to her face, but this time the atmosphere is very dark, which is a reflection of the type of time her character is going through in this chapter. 

Figure 5.

Figure 5.

The final chapter is where she is seen to have made a transformation for the better. Figure 5 shows Ulman sitting on a bed in a hotel room, where she is mediating at the beginning of a day. The caption of this Instagram post says “Mediating before a long day of work #thankful #gratitude #grateful #namaste #healthy”. This is a huge difference between figure 4, where she now is practicing and sharing the message of living a healthy lifestyle. The caption suggests that her character now also has a job, which is a big difference from the lifestyle she was leading in chapter two where she was shown to be extremely materialistic. 

In summary, Excellences and Perfections has been a performance that has showcased the rise and fall of a young woman who lived the lifestyle she wanted and became influenced by celebrities. She stated in an interview that she wanted to “experiment with fiction online” (Sooke, 2016) and through this performance she has been able to do exactly that, making her followers believe that the events she went through were in fact real. The use of photography with this project meant the performance was seen to be even more believable, because a photograph is seen as a documentation of truth. By the end of this project Amalia Ulman had a lot more followers than she began with, proving how easy it is to create a fictional identity online, as well as how far planning a project can take you in terms of the number of followers you can gain.

Such planning would also be done by previously mentioned luxury fashion blogger Victoria Magrath who writer the blog In The Frow. This shows how much of an impact social media can have on an individuals’ popularity regardless of whether they are a photographer, blogger or an individual who uses social media for their personal use. Even though sharing your life online is a very normal thing to do today with the use of so many social media sites that instantly put your photos, thoughts and opinions into the public eye, sometimes differences in culture can mean that it is a lot less acceptable to do so.

Qandeel Baloch:

Qandeel Baloch’s story is the most extreme I have come across during my research. Baloch, whose real name is Fouzia Azeem, was a Pakistani girl who grew up in a small town in Pakistan that followed the strict culture of women who must live at home with the family until they get married, usually as a teenager, to a man of their parents’ choice. Once married, Baloch suffered from abuse at the hand of her husband, so she ran away to live the life she wanted. 

Hani Taha, the reporter of the documentary on Qandeel Baloch’s life on the BBC website, “Murdered for her Selfies” (2016), shares how Baloch fled from her abusive husband. After this, Taha has reported that Baloch’s “incredible rebellion against Pakistani men began”. As a result, Baloch moved to a big city to become a model, and created an identity for herself that was deemed to be shocking and unacceptable to the nation. Despite this, Baloch soon became a huge social media star of Pakistan, getting a lot of attention from the media because she would often post photos and videos that were sexual in nature, wearing revealing clothes that are not culturally or religiously acceptable in Pakistan. 

Figure 6.

Figure 6.

Qandeel Baloch’s image played a big role in her social media identity that she had created, where she has taken on a more westernised appearance. Figure 6 shows a still from the music video by singer Aryan Khan called ‘BAN’ (2016) that Baloch has starred in. This music video shows Baloch dressed in a revealing black and lace dress which is not acceptable for women to wear in Pakistan, especially from the small town that she comes from herself. It is easy to see why her brother and many other people who live in the same town would feel ashamed of her behaviour in this video. 

Qandeel Baloch’s online identity was completely imagined and created, even the name she was using was not real. Her family, including her brother, who murdered her in July 2016, are said to have accepted Baloch’s behaviour since she began posing as Qandeel Baloch in 2014. In 2016 it was revealed by the media, who had sourced her passport, that the social media star’s real name was Fouzia Azeem. As a result, the media were able to track down the family in the small town they lived in. Once her real identity was made public, this also meant that the friends and family of Baloch’s brother Waseem, who murdered her a few months later, found out what his sister had been doing online. The shame that Waseem had felt led him to murdering Baloch, which he confessed to doing as an honour killing. 

According to Research:

As I have discussed previously, the use of social media can have great impact on a person’s well-being. Emma Gannon’s early experiences with social media during her teenage years had a negative impact on her self-esteem and confidence, but as an adult she is now able to use social media in a positive way to enhance her career. Victoria Magrath has used a created, imagined and glamorised identity to further her career and popularity, and the use of showcasing an ideal lifestyle has resulted in an income from running her social media accounts and blog, In The Frow, from large brands such as Ted Baker, but on the other hand, she has also faced abuse from internet trolls. Amalia Ulman is a performance artist who has fooled the users of the social media site Instagram with her performance in Excellences and Perfections, only to reveal that none of the lifestyle she shared was a reality. Finally, Qandeel Baloch was a Pakistani model and social media star who changed her identity and used the shock factor in order to gain a large following and rebel against her religion and culture. All of these women have used the notion of creating an imagined identity that has had a positive or negative impact on their own lives.

In an online journal called Personal Fashion Blogs: Screens and Mirrors in Digital Portraits (Rocamora, 2011), Agnes Rocamora discusses the role of fashion bloggers in the fashion industry today, and says that personal style blogs have become a central form of the fashion industry,

“Since their appearance at the beginning of the millennium, fashion blogs have become key players in the field of fashion. One type in particular, personal fashion blogs, where bloggers post pictures of themselves documenting their style, has established itself as a central form of fashion blogging.” (Rocamora, 2011)

This quote reflects on the fashion blogger mentioned previously, Victoria Magrath of In The Frow, which is the shortened meaning of ‘In The Front Row’, whose blog’s name is taken directly from the fashion industry itself, specifically the runway of a fashion show. The biggest way fashion bloggers have become part of the fashion industry has got to be the fact that they have been featured on the covers of magazines, for example, Chiara Ferragni has been on the cover of Spanish Vogue, as well as attending the fashion weeks in various countries.

Rocamora has stated that “personal fashion blogs assert themselves as a privileged space of identity construction” and that blogs share “the ongoing story about the self”. This is particularly true in the case of all of the individuals using social media and blogs I have discussed previously, since the notion of sharing a narrative of our lives on social media is a big part of using the platforms, especially since the date and time is posted alongside each photo that is published online. By looking back at old photos, followers are able to see a visual narrative and journey throughout the time individuals have been posting on social media sites such as Instagram and Facebook.

Rocamora also states that “personal fashion blogs document this process of identity construction through clothes” which is especially true in the case of Victoria Magrath of In The Frow, who shares her luxury fashion shoots daily, allowing her readers to see how her personal style has changed and evolved throughout the years just by looking back through her blog archive. By looking back through the archive on blogs, you are able to see the past identities of individuals.

“Fashion, blogging, and photography as technologies of the self come together through a fourth technology of the self, a contemporary space of individual expression: the computer screen” (Rocamora, 2011) 

Here Rocamora has mentioned the computer screen is a contemporary place of individual expression, whereas previously this would be most likely done in a hand written diary. This further backs up my previous comment that social media sites and blogs share a narrative. The computer screen is also a very limited space which allows followers to look into an individual’s life, and the contents of the frame for bloggers and users of social media is always highly thought through and staged. For example, Amalia Ulman’s project Excellences and Perfections was a highly staged narrative that had been planned from start to finish, and each frame that had been taken, as well as the location it was taken in, was thought through in order to give the viewer the impression she was living an ideal lifestyle. Very often she would post selfies on to Instagram in hotel rooms, and in locations with mirrors where she would be seen holding shopping bags to give the impression that she had been shopping for clothes all day.

Social media can be accessed by anyone today, and teenagers are amongst the age group who can be most affected and influenced by what they see. In an article on news.com.au called 'Study finds Instagram is the perfect platform for teenage self-representation' (2015), Brooke Lumsden has discussed the negative and positive aspects to using social media sites,

“Teens actually post less photos than adults do, and what they do post is more related to their mood and emotion. At a time when they are often struggling with their own identity, sometimes trialling different looks or personalities, the behaviours adolescents displayed on Instagram supported the idea that they see social media as the perfect platform for self-representation.” 

This quote is particularly true in the case of Emma Gannon as she discusses her personal use of the internet in her book Ctrl, Alt, Delete: How I Grew Up Online (2016). She has discussed openly how she would edit her photos to make herself look and feel better, and how nice comments from strangers would make her feel better about herself. By editing her photos before publishing them online, Emma Gannon was in fact “trialling different looks and personalities” just as Lumsden has stated in the above quote, but in her adult life Gannon has now settled for an identity that is less glamorised and she is very comfortable with sharing this identity of herself on her blog. 

Conclusion:

Throughout this paper I have discussed women who have used social media in a ‘professional’ context, meaning for their careers but for different reasons. Emma Gannon started using social media sites and a teenager but very early on discovered that she could edit her photos before publishing them online in order to share the best possible version of herself. Now as an adult Emma Gannon has become less inclined to edit her photos and has become a lot more accepting of the way she looks, and embraces the less glamorised identity she shares on her blog and social media accounts as seen in Figure 1.

Victoria Magrath on the other hand has to keep up her glamorised identity in order to continue to work with the large brands she has become a regular collaborator with, for example the story she worked on for Ted Baker as seen in Figure 2. If she all of a sudden started to share a less glamorised identity of herself would her followers continue to look up to the idealised lifestyle she shares on her blog and social media channels? Keeping up this identity and lifestyle enables Magrath to continue on her chosen career path but in a completely different way that Gannon does. However, this does not mean to say that Gannon is any less successful than Magrath.

Amalia Ulman successfully performed Excellences and Perfections for four months using the language of the internet. The language of the internet is in fact the construction of identities online and seeing what type of photos get the most ‘likes’, since this is often the main purpose for posting a photo on Instagram. This performance did not have a negative impact on Ulman’s life, since she planned everything in advance and she knew the project would come to an end just months later. Some of the more extreme circumstances Ulman showcases her character going through did not actually happen, for example, when she posted photos of herself after she supposedly had surgery. The only impact this created identity had on Ulman was a positive one, since by the end of the performance she had not only a lot more followers, but has had Excellences and Perfections exhibited in galleries, including the Tate Modern as part of their ‘Performing for the Camera’ exhibition.

On the other hand, Qandeel Baloch had a very tragic end to her life because of the cultural and religious differences. Even though her brother did not accept the photos and videos Baloch posted on her social media accounts, often seen to be sexual in nature, it does not change the fact that she had an audience who did want to follow her every move online. Baloch was often seen in the media, and would be invited as a guest on television shows in Pakistan. This shows that, although she was seen as being controversial, people wanted to see what Baloch would do next, and through the use of social media it was very easy for her audience to remain connected with her at all times. 

In conclusion, constructing identities using social media and photography will continue because both of these allows us to edit out things about our lives we do not wish to share, and create those we do. But this does not mean a created and imagined identity will always have a positive ending. 


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Referencing Photos:

Figure 1

Gannon (2016) Start Saving and Investing with Just Your Spare Change. Emma Gannon blog [online].[Accessed 17 December 2016]. Available at: <http://www.emmagannon.co.uk>. 

Figure 2

Magrath (2016) My New Identity and Solving the Secret Mission. In The Frow blog [online].[Accessed 26 December 2016]. Available at: <http://www.inthefrow.com>.

Figures 3-5

Ulman (2014) Excellences and Perfections. Instagram [online].[Accessed 27 December 2016]. Available at: http://www.instagram.com/amaliaulman>. 

Figure 6

Baloch (2016) BAN. Music video still [online].[Accessed 10 November 2016]. Avaialble at: http://www.indiatimes.com>. 


Dissertation, May 2017