A few thoughts and observations on the impact of social media for photographers…
Designed as a tool to share visual art, Instagram is used by over 500 million people each day. From those users, up to 95 million photos are uploaded each day, 4.2 billion likes are generated and behind the screens, I’m sure millions of people are staring, wishing they were inside the photos they’re looking at rather than their current location.
It’s this last part that I want to write about, the FOMO element, the way Instagram is tapping into our creative thoughts and twisting them a little. Morphing them into what we believe we should be photographing, where we NEED to travel and blending our talents into styles that we think are going to make us popular.
Now, I don’t want this to be a rant.
There’s always one very simple solution to the problem, don’t open the Instagram app. I actually get pretty fed up with Instagram ranters hating on the app or complaining that people are scamming the system because at the end of the day, you have the power to turn it off and move on with your life.
There are plenty of traditional ways to share your work that don’t involve Instagram however, for a lot of photographers, myself included, Instagram is much more than just a popularity contest, it’s a community, a place to share work you’re proud of and I’m sure it’s this feeling that a lot of the frustration stems from. I totally understand the frustration and maybe I prefer to let karma come to those who cheat the system rather than call them out but at the end of the day, everyone is trying to get by and we all have different ways of doing so.
I’m actually quite impressed that one app, and I guess that little invention of mobile phones, has managed to change the way we travel. Think back just ten years to when you visited somewhere pretty…were there selfie sticks on fire or phones in the air in all directions then? It could be that I’m just old fashioned but observing how people visit and photograph a destination has become a fascination of mine lately. I like to soak in a location, watch the waves, check which direction the good light is coming from or challenge myself to find a fresh angle. A lot of the time though, I watch people rush around snapping quick ‘I was here’ shots then moving on to the next spot on their hit list. Did they even really SEE anything?
Instead of whinging I want to delve into the idea that Instagram is changing our concept of adventure and success, helping to form the fear of missing out when it comes to travel and opportunities. Not just because of the ever-changing algorithm or follow hungry users, but because the constant stream of content that floods our screens, flashes new ideas, destinations and manipulated photos is producing knock-on effects of overtourism and a lack of connection between what is being photographed.
“Because social media forms an escape element from our day to day lives, it’s an easy sell that we’ll be influenced by what we scroll through whether we realise it or not.”
Just a thought 🙂
Taking it back to the good old days, when travel plans were made by opening a guidebook (the physical, made of paper kind), do you remember how trips were dreamt up simply by the pull of exotic foreign lands? It was stories told by friends, articles you’d read in a magazine or images you’d see in travel agent windows that made you book that flight to venture somewhere far away. For me it was always about the unknown, the real thrill of setting off for an adventure and not knowing what was about to happen.
Now, travel can seem a little too predictable. We’ve seen others visit before, can follow their adventures live, your favourite influencer visits somewhere amazing, takes a bunch of photos and all of a sudden, that destination is THE place you’ve been dreaming of visiting forever. Sure, it’s the same thought process as flicking through a guidebook, the attraction to an idea of a destination, but with the rise of social media, visual content is being delivered in a way like never before which has to impact our mind and decision making in a big way.
Now don’t get me wrong, I still LOVE to travel but have become somewhat intrigued by how quickly the experience is changing due to the accessibility of content. It’s becoming more and more apparent to me that to really enjoy travelling, I need to avoid researching too much and checking who has been there before and what shots they captured, to rediscover what adventure is all about…perhaps it’s the same for you too?
Overtourism of Insta-famous Destinations
This year there are conferences being held around the world to discuss the rise of overtourism. Destinations are struggling to cope with the growth in visitor numbers and while a big part of this is due to cheaper flight costs and the rise of the middle class, the other chunk is down to social media, in particular Instagram and its constant visual stimulation. Like it or not, every time you view an image it’s helping to form an idea in your mind. It’s been said that if you see a single product enough times, you’ll eventually buy it, the same thing happens with destinations.
All you have to do is open Instagram to discover thousands of photos taken in Iceland that make you want to visit. Job done, Iceland is now on your wish list. Because social media forms an escape element from our day to day lives, it’s an easy sell that we’ll be influenced by what we scroll through whether we realise it or not.
Speaking of Iceland, I’ll use an experience of my own as an example of overtourism. Iceland is still somewhere I long to return to, but the following story is an observation as to how rapidly word can get around that it’s a hot spot to visit and how quickly people want to get there to capture it’s beauty.
I first visited in 2015 to do a solo road trip from Snaefellsness Peninsular in the west, to Hofn in the East. The trip was to research locations for my Iceland guides and also to plan a photo tour for the following year. I was there from the end of February to mid-March mainly to include ice caving and aurora! People were already sharing photos of Iceland on Instagram and of course it wasn’t an unknown destination but it wasn’t at the stage it is today.
Winter is known as the quieter season in Iceland due to the harsh conditions and their unpredictable nature. I had times where I barely saw another car pass by in an hour and could arrive at waterfalls or even the Jokulsarlon Glacier Lagoon with only a handful of other tourists there at the same time. It felt like an adventure around every corner, empty beaches with towering peaks rising from the shore, the open road actually felt completely open as if I had the wilderness of Iceland all to myself.
Fast forward to 2016 and 2017 when I visited again, at the same time both years to conduct my photo tours. Winter had changed, no longer was it the low season, it appears there is a year round high season now. The Jokulsarlon Glacier Lagoon carpark was almost like a city with cars scrambling to find a free space and the line for toilets flowing out the door. Of course if you opt to visit after sunset or around sunrise you can still experience an element of peace but even at sunrise, there were at least 50 people roaming around on Diamond Beach whereas on my 2015 trip there were barely 5.
The popularity of Iceland is overwhelming. There was a figure in 2017 that stated the number of visitors from the US alone, doubled that of the actual population of the entire country. The total number of tourists in 2017 was over six times that of Icelandic residents. That’s absolutely crazy when you think about it!
A country so unique in its landscapes and natural beauty is now struggling to cope under the weight of tourists stomping all over the fragile ecosystems because they need to capture ‘the best’ shot. To say I was shocked to experience a different Iceland was an understatement, perhaps I just got lucky or had blinders on in my first trip but it felt like this wilderness had been well and truly found and people weren’t afraid of the elements anymore. Please don’t let this turn you off visiting Iceland, you may just need to budget more for your trip due to rising accommodation and car hire costs and also take into account the places you visit and try to venture further than the Golden Circle or Jokulsarlon Glacier Lagoon.
The environmental impact of overtourism is one of the key areas that destinations are concerned about. Sure an increase in tourism numbers brings about an increase in tourism dollars but there is already visible damage occurring due to people wandering off paths, leaving rubbish around or approaching wildlife in order to capture that great shot. No photo should ever be worth taking if it endangers not only your own or public safety, but also that of wildlife and the environment. Sometimes I wonder if people even give their actions a second thought or if the impact of social media is so strong that they’re blinded by the need to create content for their feed and don’t actually realise the negative implications?
Maybe I just spend too much time thinking on planes haha. If you’ve got any thoughts on this issue I’d love to hear them in the comments below!
Connecting with Your Subject
As a photographer it’s important to connect with what you’re photographing, to put your stamp on an image and showcase not just what you saw, but how you saw it. Creativity is what separates us as artists and it’s what attracts us to certain photographers, who we choose to follow and even work with.
The pressure to continually create content for social media is real and I know I’m not alone in sometimes feeling a little overwhelmed by not posting an image for a few days, or not having the right shot to share. I’ve spoken with a lot of photographers who feel they’re no longer connecting with destinations the way they used to and it all stems back to trying to stay onboard the content steam train….or self-driving car, I keep forgetting we are in the future.
Getting back to the notion that Instagram is in a way selling destinations to us, the reason we’re not connecting with places as much, could be that they were never somewhere we wanted to go anyway. While it’s hard to imagine never wanting to travel to Paris, the lack of connection is perhaps due to the reason why we’re visiting…is it to see the culture and architecture, or to stand in front of it and take that perfect Instagram shot?
Perhaps we’ve seen so many photos of a destination that we enter overload trying to think up a new way to photograph it. Rather than simply enjoying the art of travel, we are searching for that killer shot or unique angle and it’s ruining the experience.
Personally, this year I’m aiming to focus on projects that mean something, not just because I don’t feel a connection to places anymore because I absolutely do, but more to use social media as a way to highlight the art of photography and two other major passions of mine, weather and climate. Yes, I’m a weather geek as explained in my article ‘Weather Forecasting for Landscape Photographers’. The reason I’m mentioning this is to say that despite the repetition on social media, we don’t all have to photograph or share the same thing.
You don’t have to have outfit changes and twirl around, to hang out of helicopters for a foot-dangling photo or to even visit those ‘Insta-worthy’ locations that guarantee popularity. Take a step back and look at what you want to share, the reason why you pick up a camera and try to connect back to the art of travel, even if it means going for a walk down the street instead of jumping in a plane.
Creating Just to Create
The whole purpose of using Instagram is to share content but due to the new careers of ‘influencers’, it’s getting to the point where people are creating to simply create. Some need to create to fulfil clients requests, others are feeling that if they don’t share any new work, the online realm will swallow them up and they’ll never be seen again.
Now of course, we all know that the world doesn’t end if you don’t share a photo on social media but as we watch the online world continue around us, it’s a new reality that we start to feel left out. Sometimes even that opportunities are passing us by because it appears that everyone else is getting that dream gig, visiting that dream destination or capturing your dream shot. A lot of the time our reaction can be to just share something, anything to remain a part of the Instagram world, to get that quick hit of likes or just a few comments that make you smile and sigh that, phew, you’re still relevant.
The problem with creating to create is that it actually takes up a lot of valuable time. Time that can be spent actually producing what you WANT to create and not just attempting to keep up with what it appears everyone else is doing.
Actually on that, it’s been written about before but just to reiterate, what we see on social media isn’t always real life. It’s a curated version of it, a highlight reel. While it can be pretty difficult to imagine that the influencer you see visiting 20 countries in three months isn’t getting paid a giant sum to do so, it could actually be that the influencer is paying for every part of that trip. Who knows what the story is in most cases! Luckily now influencers are required to include #ad or #sponsored on posts that have been paid for but all I really want to get across is that it’s important to not judge based on an edited version of someone’s life.
So, to cut this non-rant, rant short before I move on to oversharing territory, I wanted to list a few little things that might help if you’re feeling the overwhelming force of Instagram bearing down upon you.
Step one. Don’t open Instagram! Not forever, I’m not insane, but just for a day or two and try to connect back with what you love and just life in general. Your life, not anyone else.
During that time, write a list of the things that inspire your photography. Not which social media accounts or influencers, but what subjects, landscapes or art forms make you want to pick up a camera.
Avoid aimlessly scrolling. Instagram has now got a very cool feature where you can set a notification, I like to call it a warning, when you spend a certain amount of time on the app. When this warning appears, make it a habit to stop using the app for the rest of the day.
When you’re ready to post, challenge yourself to share an image that means something to you. It may not get any likes but really, does it matter? And maybe, just maybe, your shot will resonate with someone who is searching for something different.
Remember the positives of social media, forget the competition and connect with photographers who produce work you’re intrigued by. Leave them a nice comment not on the hope they’ll return the favour, but because you genuinely like their photo.
Seek out the unknown. I’ve been using Google Maps Satellite imagery lately to try and find places that require a little more effort to reach.
Know that there are still places that remain untouched by the impact of social media and that by travelling in the off-season (in most cases) you can avoid the overcrowding of major tourist destinations.
Maybe I’m being naïve in thinking that Instagram can still be a place of creativity and community but I hope that if you’ve managed to read to the end of this article, you’ll follow me. Jokes.
But seriously, I hope you can take a step back and dream up creative ideas without the influence of Instagram, or visit somewhere new and really explore it as a traveller, not as a snap thirsty grammar. Actually, if you’ve read this far I’m almost pretty certain you’re using social media for the right reasons so please feel free to leave your Instagram account in the comments below so I can check out your beautiful photos!
#creativityovercompetition – not sure if this is a real hashtag but it seems relevant!
Hello! I'm the founder and photographer behind The Wandering Lens. With 14+yrs experience as a professional travel and landscape photographer, all advice found on this site is from my personal experience on the road. I hope it's useful for your own travels and would love to hear in the comments about your trips and experiences around the world.
I'm Lisa Michele Burns, a professional photographer and founder of The Wandering Lens from Australia. Welcome to your guide to photographing the world, improving your photography and scouting unique and inspiring places to experience with your camera. After three years online, The Wandering Lens has turned into the leading publisher of photography focused travel guides and I'm always so excited to hear from readers as they're travelling and improving their photos!