In search of ‘Instagrammable’ moments
No one takes photos of plain rice. Even at a table for five, with every diner armed with a camera phone, there will be little appetite for a photo of the most quotidian and ubiquitous of foods in the Philippines.
But rice of any other shape or hue is a different matter, especially when it comes on a banana leaf or a nice wooden plate, on top of an antique table. Whether it is red rice from the Cordilleras, black rice made with squid ink, yellow rice made of turmeric, or basmati rice with its pointed edges, it is bound to attract the attention of those same diners, enough for them to grace it with their smiling, faux-hungry faces. Before you can eat it and find out how it tastes, it would have been photographed, edited, and uploaded on Instagram.
“To photograph,” Susan Sontag once wrote, “is to confer importance.” She was reflecting on the impact of mass photography during the 1970s, and I sometimes wonder if it is still applicable to our time. On one hand, uploading a photo of squid-ink rice suggests that it’s something unusual—and therefore important—compared to plain rice. On the other hand, squid-ink rice isn’t as important as someone’s 50th birthday.
Photography still confers importance on its subjects, but this importance has been vastly diluted. When you only have a roll of film good for 24 photos, you have to choose your shots carefully. Today, our gadgets can take thousands of images, rendering such considerations obsolete.
Sontag makes another insight, however, that remains relevant today: that photography has increased the value of appearances.
Once, when I was in a restaurant in Ortigas, the waiter came back to me to say that he could not serve the salad I had ordered because they didn’t have watermelon.
“I don’t mind not having watermelon,” I told him. (Honestly, I’m not a big fan of watermelon in my salad.)
His reply came to me as a surprise: “I’m sorry, sir, but the chef doesn’t like it when the food is uploaded on Instagram and it’s not how he wants it to look.”
“But I don’t post food on Instagram!” I protested. Sheepishly, the waiter simply repeated his explanation, and I had no choice but to order another salad. Just how much are our food choices—not to mention our travel destinations, fashion, and lifestyle at large—becoming affected by the need to be “Insta-worthy”?
I still like the ability to share my photos with other people, photos that, if nothing else, communicate to my friends the fact that I am alive and well, and to other people the truth of the world’s beauty and complexity. For these reasons, I won’t be deleting my Instagram account anytime soon.
But when I look at diners rushing to upload images of turmeric rice even as the rice itself starts to get cold, I wonder what else is lost, aside from the opportunity to savor the food at the perfect moment. When I rush to take and upload a photo of a sunrise even as my eyes have not yet left its field of view, I wonder what exactly I miss out on.
The answer came to me when I went on a hike up Mount Makiling in my hometown of Los Baños without a smartphone. Freed from the urge to take pictures, I was seeing more of the forest, hearing more of its music; I was engaging my senses more. Untethered from the internet, I couldn’t chat with my friends, but I was communing with myself, meditating, praying, and realizing—somewhat embarrassingly—that it is much easier to talk to God when there’s no one else to talk to.
On my way down, the clouds had given way to blue skies, and just as I was approaching the only part of the trail with a clearing, I saw a rainbow! Arcing up from the slopes of the mountain down to Laguna de Bay, it was a mesmerizing sight. Without a camera, I could only admire the view, and watch as the rainbow gradually spread to form a big arc, with more vibrant colors, until it faded away.
Surely it would be nice to have a camera at hand when another rainbow appears—or when the clouds serendipitously take the form of a heart. But once in a while, it is also nice to be reminded that there is more to life than a search for “Instagrammable” moments.
Gideon Lasco (www.gideonlasco.com) is a medical doctor and anthropologist
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