Around a year ago someone wrote on Instagram ‘where would you travel to if you couldn’t post it to Instagram’. There were so many places popping into my head, Antarctica, Zanzibar, the Maasai Mara, New Zealand. These places alone made me realise why it was such a good question, for these are the places we should be going to anyway.
Most people would look at pictures of the places mentioned above and think, well they are beautiful so why wouldn’t you Instagram them? I agree, they are stunning, however on Instagram we all get stuck in a niche, and as beautiful as a lioness and her newborn cubs are if I post that on my Instagram I can guarantee my followers would either scroll past or at least do a double take on who posted them.
As soon as you start travelling for Instagram, the sooner the joy of travelling leaves you. It becomes a job, a mission to get certain photos. I get pre-travel anxiety… what if it’s busy? What if the weather is bad? What if I don’t get any nice photos? For two years this was the norm for me, I didn’t question it. But recently I realised I wasn’t enjoying these places as much as I should, I wasn’t sitting back and watching the world go by, I was watching everything through a lens.
Travelling for myself
In March I booked a trip to Thailand with Alex, a gift for his 30th birthday. Usually, when I go abroad I reach out to hotels and ask if they would like to collaborate with me, this is where I stay at their hotel for free in return for publicising them on my Instagram account. This is pretty normal when you are a travel blogger, but as soon as you do that, the trip becomes a work trip. The reason we do this is that we could never afford to travel to all these places if we were constantly paying for hotels, our followers enjoy seeing our travels and this makes it possible, so I’m okay with that. I know some people are against such collaborations but as long as the user is being honest in their reviews, I believe it can benefit the brand, the traveller, and their audience.
Thailand was to be different for us, this was a gift from me to Alex, this was a time he desperately needed to relax and so did I. So I went online one evening and I booked the whole thing outright, my bank balance was in a fair bit of pain, but the excitement and thought of going on holiday to relax outweighed that scary feeling of clicking on ‘confirm payment’.
On the plane I felt relaxed, there was no anxiety of ‘what if I can’t get any good photos?’. For four days we stayed on an island named ‘Koh Yao Yai’ in the Andaman Sea. For four days 23 hours of my day were spent without a camera in my hand. I took some photos, but they were just holiday photos, as I would have before Instagram came about, no pressure. Those four days will stay with me forever, pure happiness and relaxation. I have never been so calm and neither has Alex. He often benefits from the travel collaborations I partake in, but if I’,m honest, my constant need to photograph things does get on his nerves.
Not surprisingly, the world didn’t burn down around me because I wasn’t Instagramming every day and sharing every moment of my trip. My followers all wished me safe travels and a happy holiday, to be honest, they were probably in need of the break too! They were all still there when I did check in, and when I did post photos of my holiday they told me to get back to relaxing, and rightly so.
The last few years I have been going through phases where I think ‘what is the point in life?’. Not in a morbid or depressive sense, I genuinely was confused. Were we supposed to wake up, work, eat, go to sleep and repeat every day? What was I supposed to be doing now that I freelance? Should I be doing something every moment of the day in order to be productive? I used to go on holiday and love every second of it, this was before Instagram before I was taking photos of everything, but now I find myself worrying that if I’m not taking photos then I am wasting an opportunity.
I can’t believe it took me a few days in Thailand to realise that the point of life was not the same for everyone, even between Alex and I I’m sure it’s different. For me I have learnt the point of life is to be happy in each and every moment, to always be present, to realise that I don’t always have to be doing something, seeing something or sharing something.
I don’t think it is just me that is guilty of this, I don’t think it’s just full-time Instagrammers that are guilty of this, I think we all are in part. We all share snippets of our lives on Instagram, and usually, these tend to be the best snippets. But this is destroying the way we travel, and it is destroying the enjoyment of travel. We are choosing picturesque locations to point and shoot rather than choosing life-changing experiences and interactions.
Finding a new world
Instagram has connected the world in more ways than we can imagine. How many of us have discovered incredible new locations through this platform? I certainly have. If it wasn’t for InstagramI’m not sure my husband and I would have found El Nido 5 years ago, a beautiful place in the Philippines and one I will never forget. I am off to Paros in the Greek Islands in June, again, I would not have known this place to exist had I not seen it on Instagram. I am taking a break with my sister, again I have no pressure at all to post a thing, so it is a week in the sun I can just enjoy with her, relax, and if I want to whip out the camera I can do it on my own terms.
Keeping it real
Personally, for me, I try and keep my photos as real as possible. There are some incredible photos out there, people who are talented at photoshop and naturally want their photos to look as best as possible. But for me, I have been disappointed in certain locations I have seen on Instagram compared to what they were in person. When you have a certain amount of followers I believe you have a responsibility to be truthful, if you know your photography is influencing others to visit specific destinations, then be honest with your editing.
There has been a rise recently in the people that I follow who share ‘behind the scenes’ of their photos, I love this, it takes their audience on the journey from shooting the shot, editing it, and posting it. It gives their followers a taste of the real thing and the perfect version, that’s fine by me, people know what they are getting into. I have seen amazing ‘visual art’, Instagrammers who create magical scenes in real places, they can fill the sky with stars, add a perfect rainbow behind the Eiffel Tower, and even get a picture-perfect shot of Big Ben from a plane window. Of course these scenarios are often not possible, if you look up at the sky in any major city you will notice the light pollution has destroyed our chances of seeing the stars, anyone that has flown into London City or London Heathrow Airports know you can see major landmarks but they are far too distant to capture in a half decent photograph. The Instagram accounts that post these images will often provide a disclaimer, their audience knows it isn’t real but they enjoy the art, that’s fine by me. However, I have seen instances where an image is clearly faked, the author has written about it as if it’s real. Their audience comment on these images, telling them how beautiful the location is, how much they want to see it for themselves. These comments are often left unanswered, so people will travel to these places expecting to see something that does not exist, that is a sure way for someone to end up disappointed.
Erasing ‘undesirable’ locations
I hadn’t thought about this too much until I was in London the other week. London has become one of the most Instagrammed cities in the world, and it’s not surprising. We have many recognisable landmarks, incredible history, great people and on every street corner there seems to be a restaurant decorated entirely for the purpose of enticing ladies and gentlemen who wish to take a snazzy photo.
What I am about to explain is something that I am personally guilty of, and many of my friends. This isn’t a dig, like I said, it is something that I do but only recently have I realised this. London is a huge city with over 8 million people in it and 32 different boroughs. But unless you live in London or are particularly familiar with it, you have probably never heard of Hounslow, of Enfield, you have probably never seen the high rise council blocks in south-east London, the sound of police cars whizzing to their next location. The rubbish on some of the streets, the homeless men and women who have no place to go, and the street fights on a Friday night. No, they aren’t ‘picturesque’, not in an Instagram sense anyway.
In London, we like to see the colourful houses of Notting Hill, the cherry blossom of Greenwich Park, the bookshops of Chiswick, the fancy cafes and houses of Kensington that we could only ever dream of one day owning. In fact, it is rare for me to see on my own feed even images of the famous landmarks such as Tower Bridge and the Houses of Parliament. When I go into London with the purpose of taking photos, every place I end up tends to be a street in which houses cost millions of pounds. But behind these homes and pretty facades are tower blocks of men, women and children living in poverty. Take Grenfell for example, a story that shocked the world, a fire in which over 70 innocent people died because the local council cut corners to save money so its most vulnerable residents were not sufficiently protected. Did you know Grenfell Tower, not just a haunting shell of a building, can be seen from those areas of Notting Hill in which we all stroll through and share photos of flowers from?
We have all portrayed London as a very middle-class city, one which is pretty, ornate, and dare I say whitewashed? Not one that is currently going through a crisis of knife crime, lack of police resources and families who are struggling to feed themselves. I’m not saying London is bad, far from it, at the end of the day it is beautiful, it is democratic, anyone who lives there is living a much better life than many other places in the world, but it is not the perfect world you see on Instagram. I am sure the Parisians would say the same about Paris, I am sure those who live in Naples don’t spend every weekend driving along the Amalfi Coast stopping for lunch in Positano, this is a worldwide issue.
Why Instagram itself is guilty
I’m sure when Instagram was created, the two men behind the idea never dreamed that it would turn into what it is today. It speaks volumes that they have left the company they made, because they didn’t like the direction it was taken in.
The algorithm was brought to Instagram after it was taken over by Facebook. This algorithm often rewards those who post photos we can all recognise. This is because it is natural for us to double tap on an image we see often and have been conditioned into thinking is perfect. Views of Amalfi Coast, Santorini sunsets, swings over Bali and pictures of cake in front of Peggy Porschen’s very pink facade.
We see these images over and over again, but I don’t think the blame lies solely on the user, but with Instagram itself. The algorithm, whilst somewhat useful at times, more often than not doesn’t offer the chance for a photographer to take a new creative direction and try something they haven’t done before. I could post 10 photos of the same street in Castle Combe all from different angles, I would probably get a huge amount of likes on this, but, is that really what I want to do? Instagram is addictive and competitive, it has been created like this on purpose. It was designed to hold our gaze for as long as possible, we all fall in the trap of posting what we know will do well because let’s be real, more likes feels better than fewer likes doesn’t it?
Thanks to Instagram, new destinations are constantly being thrown into the spotlight. Destinations that once had a very small tourism industry are suddenly being inundated by hoards of tourists. The infrastructure in these locations often buckle under the strain, but of course, you wouldn’t know that from a photo would you?
Authorities in Thailand had to close a beach in the Phi Phi Islands. This beach in Maya Bay was firstly famous from the Leonardo DiCaprio film ‘the Beach’, so received a lot of tourism from this. However, in the last few years, the tourism blew up to unprecedented levels, thanks to the constant stream of images we would see online. Too many tourists caused terrible damage to the marine life and ecosystems in the immediate area, the beach is now closed until the reefs have returned back to what they once were.
It’s not just Thailand that is being damaged by tourism, but places all over the world. Take Santorini for example, one of the most beautiful islands in the Mediterranean, now under a constant stampede of feet. Santorini has become one of the most recognisable images on Instagram, because of this their tourist numbers have exploded. In 1998, Greece peaked at 6.8 million tourists, in 2019, 15 million, in 2018 that number has reached a whopping 32 million tourists and there is no sign of that number dropping. It has seen the highest increase of any European destination! It is important to not the second largest jump in tourism was between 2010 and 2014, numbers increased by 7 million. Instagram was released in 2010, the largest jump has been between 2014 and 2018 where it jumped ANOTHER 10 million, this is the period in which Instagram saw the biggest boom in new users.
Any visitor to Santorini will be happy to tell you the truth of the destination… a beautiful island currently being destroyed by tourists who think they have a right to access people’s private properties for a photo, who climb across the roofs of resident’s homes so they can get the best sunshine shot, and the poor donkeys forced to carry heavy tourists up and down hills. I have not been to Santorini, and although I have been itching to see it, I don’t think I will be going anytime soon. This has been one of the major reasons I chose Paros for my personal holiday instead, although I fear that will one day end up the same.
The cost of a selfie
Just that phrase makes me shudder, it makes me feel like I am a parent whinging on at my child. But it’s true, how many people are putting themselves at risk for a photograph, just for Instagram? I have personally done it, stupidly, I actually had someone shout at me for it.
In 2015 an Australian tourist fell to her death in whilst trying to recreate the famous Instagram image at Trolltunga in Norway, a rock that juts out 700 metres above Lake Ringedalsvatnet. Despite a serious hike to get up and down to the rock, tourists come up in their hundreds to take a photo, some even have the audacity to complain about the lack of toilets and mobile signal at the top, as if this rock is some sort of set up tourist attraction rather than a natural feature in a beautiful landscape.
Travel mindfully and don’t mimic others. Travel to the places you want to travel to, if you see something you like on Instagram, do your research, read reviews and check all is as it seems. Remember to live in the moment and watch the sunset with your eyes, not through your phone.
This is all advice I want to follow, I will keep sharing my experiences on Instagram and the places I visit, but I will be travelling where I want to go and not spending the entire time getting the ‘perfect shot’.