Since when did we start traveling with a destination’s Instagram worthiness in mind?
I read last week that 40% of travelers under 30 are prioritizing a place’s “Instagrammability” when making trip decisions. This means that a growing amount of people are making decisions to see the world through the lens of what is photogenic or trendy.
The thought of this upsets me deeply — mostly because traveling the world has so, so much more to offer than a backdrop for your next social post. The majority of my favorite memories from the road have no photo which accompanies them. The best moments and lessons from the road are often not camera-ready.
As such I’ve been doing some extra thinking about how travel has changed with the invent of social media — both for me and collectively as a whole.
I know a girl whose one goal was to visit Rome– Drake, Emotionless
Then she finally got to Rome
And all she did was post pictures for people at home
‘Cause all that mattered was impressin’ everybody she’s known
First, a caveat: I myself feel a distinctly different level of torn about all this, as I consider at least some capturing and staging of the travel experience to be part of my job (albeit, a sometimes conflicting one.) I do not judge anyone who earns their living from travel photography or through working with brands on Instagram for working hard to ‘get the shot.’ I do, however, believe we need to look at the wider effects ‘pretty picture pervasiveness’ has on the travel experience — perhaps even more worth considering if this is your profession.
Here are a few of the complicated thoughts about social media and travel that I am currently exploring:
The first issue: Going where others have gone, as opposed to following our own instincts about places we are drawn to. One of the most beautiful things about a journey is stumbling down your own winding path — not knowing not only where it will lead but if it’s even been tread before. You honor your unique self when you take into account what you specifically seek from travel. The world is wide, and we limit ourselves if we only take inspiration from someone else’s projected images rather than allowing ourselves to be drawn even inexplicably to a place.
For instance, with the rise of Instagram I began to research photography spots before going on a trip. After some thought, I now prefer to discover the moments I want to capture with my camera as I go. If I do consult what may perform well, based on what others have shared, it’s only when I’m deciding what to post after the trip is over.
Otherwise I lose one of the most valuable things about traveling — experiencing something from my own perspective — for the first time, with an open mind and a blank slate.
Much of what we see on Instagram these days is a copycat of someone else’s angle, pose, or perspective. Originality just doesn’t seem to be valued anymore. There seem to be only a few series of photographs that everyone who is ‘doing it for the ‘gram’ replicates over and over. Not only does this restrict your own creativity and fun with a camera, think about how it may be impacting the entirety of your travel experience.
Take back your originality.
The second issue: traveling with ego and self-centeredness leading the way, instead of the spirit and openness to others. Travel is one of the most incredible gifts we can give to ourselves, but I really believe that travel (and life, but hey that’s another topic) should not be just about you. It is about the places that change you, the cultures you discover, the people you meet. What you gain personally from travel is only through what you learn about yourself through the experience of interacting with a place and the people in it.
This is not even to touch upon the thought about where/when it is or is not acceptable to bring a camera at all.
It is well known and accepted that aside from National Geographic, photographs of the people we meet or the homes we’re invited into, the conversations we share cramped around a fire or in a hostel dorm instead of in a curated space…they never get as many ‘likes’ as someone in the perfect (or barely there) outfit. Why is this?
The effects of this kind of social reinforcement may be subtle. I recently realized that not only am I no longer sharing these types of photos…I’m not even taking them.
Why are we leaving the most important part of the travel experience out of the picture?” (Literally.)
The goal of travel (for me) is to try on new ways of living, to lose ourselves a bit as we inhabit new worlds. We simply cannot do this to the same degree if our main objective is to snap the perfect photo of ourselves there.
The third issue: Overcrowding, overtourism, and the effects on destinations, nature, and cultures.
From Barcelona to Iceland, from Thailand’s Maya Bay to sunsets on Santorini…I find myself already becoming the old woman who hearkens back to “in my time…it wasn’t like this” or resigns and sighs, “I remember when this place was different.” Destinations around the globe are staging interventions to keep floods of tourists, who are often disrespectful, from harming natural or historical sites or even driving out local culture.
If you sit somewhere like Park Guell, Machu Picchu, or even the Eiffel Tower and watch visitors…do you think you’d find more people being disrespectful because they’re taking in the moment — or because they’re trying to get a selfie that proves they were there?
I appreciate that travel has become more accessible, but I often miss the days when spots that have become popularized through social media were more like a unique, immersive experience and less like a theme park.
Outside of our individual encounters with places, it breaks my heart to hear entire cultural practices being held together purely as an opportunity for tourists to ‘get the shot.’ Take the famous Sri Lankan fisherman fishing on stilts…after having seen photos of them on social media, I had hoped to see them with my own eyes as I traveled along there coast there. We did stop once we saw the stilts in the water…only to find out that no one actually fishes that way anymore. (But hey, they’d be happy to pose for a photo on them for a fee.)
I respect anyone’s wishes for a photo to document their experience…I just wish people would have the same respect for others’ experience in that moment. (Do not get me started on drones and selfie sticks.) We all need to work on being aware of the others around us — both the locals and our fellow travelers. And when we’re documenting an activity, meal, or experience to be shared, it is important that it’s accurately represented.
I know a girl that saves pictures from places she’s flown
To post later and make it look like she still on the go
How did we get here? It’s my belief that Instagram has effectively nixed the separation between work and personal for all sides of the platform.
As consumers, we absorb what really may be more of someone’s work to be a window into their personal lives. We inherently accept and compare someone projecting their best life as them living their best life. More often than not these days…that includes travel. Let us not take that as the norm. Don’t settle for crafting any part of your life based on what is often so shallow.
On the other side, as creators, we are often unable to separate the response to our work as the response to our own self worth. This can be even more true when your “personal brand” is more personal than a brand. How can we be vulnerable enough to share a more well-rounded depiction of a trip, even when the numbers next to it may appear less than enthusiastic?
The line between media that is real and true and media that is staged and strategic has never been more blurred.
Let me be clear: there are some truly beautiful, heartfelt, and artful images and words shared on Instagram. It’s what keeps me on the platform.
But I urge us all not to confuse fantasy travel with reality. The real thing, with all its uncomfortable bus rides, long days, language barriers, sweaty moments, and jet lag….is SO good.
So, where do we go from here? I’m not so sure. But I think it boils down to being honest with ourselves about our intent when sharing travel images and stories. We cannot singlehandedly control the use of social media or fight the world’s obsession with instant gratification, but we can look more closely our own behavior and voices.
Are we out there seeing the whole world to wholeheartedly experience it, with our own eyes…or are we choosing only to see and share select pieces of it in order to validate ourselves through the eyes of others?
I’m not perfect at this. I still follow writers, photographers, and brands that may not be showing up fully in this way. I bring my tripod because pictures with me in them do better, and I find myself thinking “oh, this would do well on Instagram!” But I’m no longer participating in all of it in default mode. And I’m doing my best to allow myself to feel ok when my life and my trips don’t fit this mold of online success.
Travel can be a backdrop in which you pose in front of, a style you copy to get a higher number by that ‘heart’ on your post, added to your timeline like a trophy…or it can be one of the most enriching, meaningful, and deeply personal journeys of your life.
You don’t need a camera, or an online following, to experience the latter.