Have you ever fallen victim to the ‘Social Media Effect’? You know, when you visit somewhere after seeing a beautiful photo on Instagram but when you get there it doesn’t meet your expectations. You may travel to the Blue Lagoons in Iceland hoping to swim in a tranquil indigo pool, but in reality it is so crowded that the hygiene is questionable. A dramatic photo of the Great Wall of China is essentially a giant queue. In reality, spectacular flowers fields are full of people crushing the flowers and insects in order to get the ‘perfect’ shot.
These places are often unusual, beautiful and/or historically significant, it is no wonder that people want to visit, and have done so for many years, well before the existence of social media. However, most of these places have undeniably witnessed an increase in visitors due to the influence of Instagram on travel and leisure, combined with the global rise in the middle class. This can result in these ‘IG worthy’ places becoming swamped with people. Santorini has to limit the number of travellers to the island each day and some places have had to close completely. On a more personal level, visitors arrive with certain expectations and it is disappointing when they turn up to see the overcrowded reality.
Is it damaging to the travel industry to constantly put out unobtainable travel ‘inspiration’? It is artistic licence to photoshop images, or simply deceptive? Instagram is not solely to blame for over-tourism but it may be at fault for creating unattainable expectations. The wave of ‘Instagram vs Reality’ videos are testament to this.
I have fallen victim to the social effect myself. Unwittingly I visited a lavender field a year ago, not fully aware of its popularity with Instagrammers. It did not stop me from taking a photos of course – I even got the classic ‘candid’ walking through the fields shot (oh the embarrassment). In all honesty, I actually had a lovely time. Visiting when it was quieter, there were few people around, the sun was shining and I bought some dried lavender that still sits in a vase in my hallway. But a positive experience is not always the case, especially when Instagram sets the bar so high.
I have also visited places knowing full well that they are going to be photographer/ influencer hotspots. Recently in the peak of cherry blossom season, I went to see Greenwich Park’s blossom avenue. The first time I arrived at 6:45am to find huge, unfriendly group of photographers. Due to their general unpleasantness towards local people and the way they selfishly hogged the avenue, I left immediately, cursing how I hated humans and resolving to never return. I came back the next day of course. But this time I arrived before 6am and, result, I was the only one there. When other photographers started to show up, everyone was much more considerate. I guess I was just unlucky with the crowd encountered the previous day.
As a person who is a sucker for a photo with a max of 0-1 people, I often turn up insanely early to capture a quiet scene. I sometimes wonder if this is wrong of me – perhaps I should be more open to showing the ‘buzz’ of a place. But on the other hand, I get more pleasure being somewhere that is quieter, and at the end of the day it is a hobby, if I’m not enjoying it then what is the point. I tell myself, as long as you are honest about how the photo was taken, it is okay. And yet, what are the consequences of taking these photos? It may seem fairly innocent to tread carefully into woodland to take photos of bluebells, but what happens if thousands of people do the same thing?
As a specific example, flower fields have become so popular in recent years and, with Instagram’s encouragement to do whatever it takes to get the perfect pic, it can have ecological impact. Natural fields like the poppy fields in California have seen a lot of damage that diminish the potential for future blooms. The impact of farmed flower fields seems less clear-cut. On one hand, these fields exist anyway to supply the florist and perfume industries, so what is the harm of opening them up to visitors to enjoy? These places are even utilising the IG appeal to up their business by setting up picture ready ‘sets’. On the other hand, the reality of these sites is that the experience can feel manufactured.
So what can be done? I think analogue photography could, in part, hold the answer. I’m not suggesting everyone go out and buy an analogue camera, but rather we look to the spirit of film photography in order to capture the more mundane, genuine aspects of life. This isn’t exclusive to analogue, as many people do this whether on their camera phone or digital camera, but I’d argue that capturing the beauty in the every day, even ugly, is a noticeable trope in analogue photos (I’m yet to understand why this is). For example, taking something as unsightly as a petrol station (a typical, if overdone analogue shot) and making it almost whimsical. If we think outside the box a little (or the IG grid), we might be able to find more authentic, less obvious places to visit and photograph.