I’ve been commissioned to write an essay for Membrana and Fotografija magazines and I’m going to be considering how Snapchat operates. For users of the image messaging Snapchat app, expressiveness is largely mediated through in-built filters and extensive use of short pieces of text and emojis. Everything is also contingent upon the disappearance of the image after a set time. The certainty these images will not be retained – that they will disappear – sanctions a degree of liberty in what is sent between users. However, there is also inevitably a reciprocal level of trust, since despite the app itself having no feature to save an image, recipients can screen capture the images they receive. Users do, however, receive notification their image has been saved in a screen capture. Such a notification is likely to elicit a spontaneous reaction of despair, a breach of the code of disappearing images implicit in Snapchat’s communication method.
What is the purpose of an imaging app, which takes portraits that deliberately do not conform to the normative conventions of the human face? Why do its users want to overlay rabbit ears, or distort their features, or draw on graphic hats and glasses or even the swap faces? What does Snapchat do to the reference points of photographic portraiture? Furthermore, what does it challenge in terms of our understanding of image, when it is based on a premise of disappearance rather than preservation?
In this essay, I propose Snapchat portraits express not the face as image but image as perplexing, disappearing, mutating phenomena. With their filters and distortions they unsettle our notions of the index and with their built in disappearance they challenge any notion of image as a memory prosthetic. Snapchat, as a form of portraiture, is not engaged with likeness or reproducibility. Instead, it stresses duplication, disguise and disappearance as the dominant features of contemporary culture.
If you have any thoughts on this please feel free to leave a comment or find me on Snapchat (john-hillman) and send me a picture of yourself!