reFRAMING: The Representation of “Reality” and “Identity” on Snapchat

© Copyright 2017 Marion Grant, Ryerson University

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Since it’s emergence, photography has played a vital role in documenting the people, places, and things that everyone wants to remember. Since the evolution of the digital camera in cellphones, the opportunities to capture moments in time have become endless (Zuromskis 18- 19). This ability has enabled mobile applications like Snapchat, a platform in which users can upload different images or videos onto their stories for other users can see, very popular. Snapchat has options for ‘additions’ to the images like emoji’s, text, the pencil tool, or filters which can alter the appearance or context of the photo. These aspects change the reality of a still photo to something constructed or altered to present to the other users of the application. To explore and better understand how young adults utilize Snapchat to present themselves using these additions, this study has been created to answer the following research question: How do the additions available on Snapchat enable users to construe reality to present a constructed, ephemeral story and in turn, identity, to their viewers?

Figure 1: @lilllo’s week on Snapchat
Marion Grant. Collage of the Photo/Video Snapchat Diary of @lilllo (2017). Photographs, Ryerson University, 29 March 2017. ©Marion Grant

Methodology of The Study

In order to really understand how individuals utilize these additions, participants in this study were asked to keep a photo and video diary of everything they upload over the course of a single week. At the conclusion of the week, these images were studied and interview questions were created then asked to the participants. By creating a video and photo diary of their Snapchat stories for the basis of the study would enable a very in-depth glance into the creation and be able to study the type of ‘created content’ that was uploaded. The interview process would provide insight into the Snapchat culture in which these photos were created and they way these individuals worked within this construct.

To ensure that the content provided for the study complied with what both participants typically uploaded onto Snapchat I assured them that any content that they did not want seen by others would not be made visible, but instead may be discussed.


“Reality” and “Identity” in Snapchat

The purpose of this study was to analyze why so many of the photos uploaded on Snapchat are so different from the typical Snapchat that may be present on other media platforms. Instead of just a simple, still- image snapshots that are typically featured on Facebook or even Instagram, the content provided for this study all featured an addition that either altered the photo significantly or created context that would not have been there otherwise. This suggests that an emerging trend in social media of moving away from just taking a quick photo of reality and towards this idea of creating a photograph, changing the way that one should perceive the images of their friends presented to them over social media forms like Snapchat. Photographs over can no longer be entirely accepted as intrinsically true moments, but instead work as a method of representing someone, ingrained in reality or not.

The participants felt that their Snapchat stories most accurately portrayed their identity as opposed to other forms of social media like Instagram and Facebook, despite that majority of the content having a ‘created context’ or content that has been altered through the use of additions (emoji’s, filters, text, etc.). This draws into question the role of a ‘subjective truth’ in creating an identity and representing reality over social media.

Figure 2: @kidkwesi’s week on Snapchat.
Marion Grant. Collage of the Photo/Video Snapchat Diary of @kidkwesi (2017). Ryerson University, 29 March 2017. ©Marion Grant

Both @lilllo and @kidkwesi felt that Snapchat acted as a live stream of their lives and an effective, effortless way for their close friends to see what was happening in their lives. However, I don’t find this entirely to be true. Only select content was uploaded onto their stories and this never included day to day activities like working, studying in class, or doing chores. Instead, most of the content was ridiculous or crazy and would sometimes result in footage of behavior that was explicit and even illegal being uploaded onto their Snapchat stories. If they wanted to upload content onto their stories that less unique, participants would jazz it up with either filters like in @lilllo’s selfie’s which has completely changed her appearance or alter the context of what was happening in the photo like in some of the content provided from @kidkwesi. In his interview he claimed, “When I’m editing a photo, whether I’m giving the real context or a fake context, it’s still more [‘real’] than just a quick snapshot of something random or just a still image because I’m giving context to it”. He made this basis on the fact that the image was a representation of his personality and that of this friends, so these additions would enable viewers to better understand him or what he found funny. Simply uploading a still image is no longer a popular option on Snapchat, not without adding something to it. So even though participants felt like their Snapchat stories most effectively represented them, they were not what most would regard as an accurate depiction of reality.

There were a variety of features of Snapchat that enabled the participants to upload the content that they did. The most popular aspect being the fact that the content uploaded was ephemeral and was meant to disappear after 24 hours after being made visible to a small group of friends. The evidence, so to speak, of any illicit content or embarrassing string of altered selfies would be wiped after 24 hours. Another aspect that both participants were quite keen on was the fact that they were able to pick out of their already narrow friend group who would be viewing the photos they uploaded as Snapchat gives the option to temporarily block people and prevent them from viewing the Snapchat story. Both of these options meant they felt like they did not have to hold back on how they really wanted to represent their lives on Snapchat as opposed to Facebook, where they felt they had to confrom to a certain image.

The History of Creating An Image

The idea of creating photography has been along longer than most would expect. While historically photographs were often deemed as intrinsically true representations of reality, this is no longer the case (Callahan 58). Since photography became more available to everyone photographs have been posed and set-up in way to present a certain image. For example, not very often anymore does one take a candid still-shot but instead will opt for having a group gather and smile all at once. Arguably, photography has always worked as a method to cultivate a public identity and a method in which to subscribe to social norms (Zuromskis 20-21). Snapchat works in a similar light, it enables users to upload photos based on individual impulses to cultivate a certain identity living in a certain reality or lifestyle. However, the additions of filters and emoji’s may further help to create a certain identity by adding created context.


Snapchat enables users to merge the roles of the the photographer and the artist, blurring the line between creating a piece of art to tell a story and capturing a still shot of reality. Snapchat stories also often features content that users feel they are unable to upload onto other forms of social media because the complete control and ephemeral nature of the platform. This combined with the additions available for videos and images being uploaded to Snapchat enable the users upload content that, while may be a far cry from what is happening in real life, is content that they feel best represents who they are as people and their reality. This ideology underlines the importance of subjective truth in cultivating and portraying individual identity over social media platforms.

Images in this online exhibit are either in the public domain or being used under fair dealing for the purpose of research and are provided solely for the purposes of research, private study, or education.


Callahan, Cory. “Creating or Capturing Reality? Historical Photographs of the Progressive Era.” The Social Studies, vol. 106, no. 2, March 2015, pp. 57- 71. Scholars Portal Journals,

Marion Grant. Untitled Collage (@lilllo, Photo/Video Diary). 29 March 2017.

Marion Grant. Untitled Collage (@kidkwesi, Photo/Video Diary). 29 March 2017.

Zuromskis, Catherine. “Snapchat Photography, Now and Then: Making, Sharing, and Liking Photographs at the Digital Frontier.” Afterimage, vol. 44, no. 1, Jul- Oct 2016, pp. 18- 22. ProQuest,