A recent trip to Sri Lanka reminded me of that well known Buddhist proverb: “If you visit a temple but do not take a selfie, did it actually happen?” At these sacred sites, tourists are free to take photographs – as indeed I saw a delegation of enthusiastic monks doing at the Temple of the Sacred Tooth Relic in Kandy – but you are asked to please not pose with statues of the Buddha, or be photographed with your back to him. Naturally, I observed several western tourists, most of them young, ignoring this request.
The Instagrammability of a destination is apparently now the number one motivation for booking a holiday for millennials. The eternal quest for social approval, which the platform was accused of taking advantage of this week by “withholding” likes from certain users to encourage them to log in more frequently – a charge Instagram denies – continues apace. I joined Instagram relatively recently, mainly to look at travel photos of places and people around the world, a cheering endeavour in these cold, dark Brexity times, but was disappointed how many of the photos seemed to follow a particular format. A thin, blonde, white girl stands in a floaty dress, her back to the viewer, in a seemingly preordained beautiful location. Off camera a queue of other “influencers” wait patiently to get the perfect shot.
Many of them are paid in brand endorsements and partnerships with luxury travel companies. Then you have the “arses on tour” – bums with a backdrop, basically (and if there is a sunset peeking through your thigh gap, even better).At some hotels, you can now even pay extra for your very own “Instagram butler”, who will show you all the most picturesque spots and help you and your bum conduct your own photoshoot.
These Instagrammers are collectively sucking the joy and spontaneity out of travel photography, and for those unfortunate enough to bump into them abroad, possibly travel itself. We must pity the poor locals, who have to put up with them.
Consider the train I took last week from the mountain village of Ella to Sri Lanka’s cultural capital of Kandy. Widely regarded to be one of the most beautiful train journeys in the world, it traverses verdant mountain passes, waterfalls, and tea plantations. But many of the passengers under 35 were interested only in obtaining the same photograph – lifted right from Instagram – of themselves hanging barefoot out of the open doors of the train, with significant risk to life and limb. Meanwhile, in contrast, an older couple sitting in our carriage wondered aloud what on earth the young people were playing at and spent the journey watching the scenery go by through the window.
Tourists have always taken photographs. Like graffiti, it’s a very human way of saying “I was here”. But in the pre-digital age, because of the expense of film as well as high shooting ratios, you were lucky if you ended up with one usable picture. Now “influencers” can take as many photographs as they need, photoshopping and filtering until they are able to post the perfect advertisement (for that indeed is what these images are). The centering of the self to such an extent is new too, and at the expense of knowledge, exploration and adventure.
When most travel photographs on Instagrambegin to look like fashion editorials you have to wonder whether anyone is learning anything. And when people are taking idiotic risks such as hanging out of fast moving trains or proffering food to tempt wild animals into shot, all for the sake of a photo that isn’t even an original composition, you might start to think that we’re approaching the end times.
It all goes to show how ineffective the internet can be as a lens for human experience, especially within a capitalist system. You might think social media would diversify the range of images we see, yet the most popular users operate according to a strict schema that takes full advantage of the relevant algorithms (creative, fascinating accounts are still there, but said algorithms make them harder to find). And it’s not just travel – it’s interiors, fashion, weddings, food, children. Social media encourages the memeification of human experience. Instead of diversity we see homogeneity. It’s extremely boring.
There is, of course, an irony to being a tourist who is complaining about other tourists. And we all fall victim to the odd corny snap every now and again. Live and let live, you might say. We all just want to see the world. Some of us just want to see it without someone’s peachy backside blocking the view. On the plus side, while the easily influenced will see these pictures and flock to the lupin fields of New Zealand or Tegalalang in Bali, or to selfie-stick the sunset in Santorini, those of us too grumpy, paunchy and tired to travel fashionably might be left in peace.