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Thomas Dworzak: Mining for Memes on Instagram

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Photographer Thomas Dworzak has been on mining Instagram for various hashtags and compiling the similar images into limited-edition books.

Thomas Dworzak has photographed wars and uprisings all over the world, yet perhaps he is best known for a series of photographs he didn’t take, but found in Afghanistan. His latest obsession as a collector of imagery has taken him to the depths of Instagram, which he has been mining to curate a series of inventive, limited-edition books.

While in Kandahar in 2001, Dworzak wandered into a photo studio near his hotel and left with a box of pictures of Taliban fighters that he later compiled into what has become the cult book, Taliban. Thomas says he still gets frequent requests to take “Taliban-style” portraits: “People think I’m the one who dressed up the Taliban and took pictures in the photo studio. I will be remembered for the Taliban, [but] I was just the guy who got the box,” he maintains.

Dworzak says he wouldn’t have gone to Afghanistan solely to look for pictures of Taliban. “It’s not the main thing—it’s a side thing,” he says. Yet, he speculates the Taliban book might be more lasting than his own photography because it seems more innocent. “They [the Taliban] chose to look like that. It’s like selfies. There is something very revealing.”

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Colorized pictures of Taliban fighters with kohl-lined eyes. Though photography was prohibited during Taliban rule, these portraits were taken during the ban.

Dworzak says he wasn’t looking for a new visual outlet, “it just happened,” when he turned to Instagram the night the Pope was elected to see what people were posting. He discovered a visual stream of consciousness as Instagrammers reacted to the news.

Following various hashtag threads, he came upon a series of unusual links, including one with pictures of dogs and cats dressed as the Pope. And, what fascinated him was that the people posting these pictures apparently weren’t aware that other people were dressing their pets as the Pope too.

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A photo tagged #whitesmoke was just one of number of pictures Dworzak found of pets dressed like the pope.

Finding pictures in this immediate, spontaneous way is unique to Instagram and that is what Dworzak finds captivating, addictive even: “What are you going to do? Hire 12 photographers, then see if anyone is planning on dressing up their pets in the next 25 minutes, and go take pictures? It wouldn’t work,” he insists.

Another hashtag search for #solarium produces about 80,000 posts a week, including many selfies of people in tanning beds, or “leggies,” as Dworzak describes them. “In Russia this is very popular,” he says.

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An image from a solarium which appears in Dworzak’s book #siberianwintersarebrutal.

Once Dworzak got hooked on mining Instagram memes, he started checking to see how news events were being portrayed. He says that if he’d been in the U.S. following the Boston marathon bombing, he would have covered it as a photojournalist on the ground. Instead, he went to Instagram and followed various hashtag threads, finding surprisingly intimate images. Dworzak presumes that people living in Watertown, Mass., are highly visual people, which is why those particular Instagram posts were so compelling: “All these people were into photography—into Instagram,” says Dworzak. “Suddenly the Instagrammers get raided by SWAT teams and are [taking] better pictures.”

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Images from Dworzak’s book #REARWINDOW, taken after the Boston marathon bombing.

The images in Dworzak’s books were made from screenshots he takes on his iPhone. He produced five sets of the books, which have only been available for viewing at the Magnum office, at a social media conference, and at one evening showing at the Tbilisi Photo Festival. Additionally, he does not publish, sell, take credit or profit from them, instead, likening the artistic process to “cutting out pictures from a print magazine and glueing them into a scrap book.”  The point is for them to exist as physical objects only, not online.

“They are a highly interesting visual record of some important issues of our time I simply do not want to be lost, so I want to preserve them in a physical form,” he says. In fact, he says he wishes more people could see them, because, “I am sure they would be charmed by a lot of the quirky things out there.”

Dworzak says he finds rewarding similarities between the way he hunts for pictures on Instagram, and the way he hunts for moments as a photographer in the field. “The only reason to hashtag [pictures] is because you want them out there. You want them to be found,” he says. “You get into people’s lives.”

That said, he also recognizes that the closeness is fake. “It takes patience, and what appears is ephemeral.  [The pictures] disappear. You can go back, but if something is happening there is such an avalanche of pictures coming in, you’re not going to get it.”

For Magnum’s Creative Director Gideon Jacobs, the books are unique because they capture a new “quotidian phenomenon…[that] our actions [are] being catalyzed by a desire to make [and] share images, rather than the other way around.” Jacobs believes that: “[Dworzak’s] books show that with the ubiquity and prevalence of image making and sharing…life itself can feel a bit like a means to a photographic end.”

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Images from Dworzak’s book #REARWINDOW.

Motivated by the impulse to document, Dworzak thinks that what he finds on Instagram has value and should be preserved. “A lot of times I have to be the photographer who goes somewhere to represent people because they can’t do it themselves.” With these books, he is the curator in a visual world of self-expression, where poetic imagery can be uncovered.

And, it interests him that the photographs are not taken by professional photographers thinking like professional photographers. He adds that if Instagram had existed in 2001, the Taliban probably would have been on it.

“If it were Afghanistan 2001 right now,” reflects Dworzak, “the Taliban would be on Instagram.”

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A Taliban fighter poses against an idyllic landscape at a portrait studio in Kandahar, Afghanistan.

Thomas Dworzak’s feature on Sochi, Russia, and the North Caucasus appears in the January issue of National Geographic. He joined Magnum Photos in 2000. View more of his images on the Magnum website .

Photos of Dworzak’s books were taken by NGM photographer Becky Hale.


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