by Sophie Johnson, CDAE/Public Communication major at the University of Vermont.
You can thank Instagram for the demise of curiosity-driven travel. The trendy photo-sharing app that allows users to visually represent themselves has forever altered the explorative nature of traveling, once an activity to appreciate sites and encounter other travelers. Traveling has become, for many, an opportunity to take an awesome, Instagram-worthy photo to share with those back at home. Chronicling a trip has become the purpose of the trip. Travel brochures and word-of-mouth are no longer the primary influencer of where people go on vacation— Instagram is. There are over 800 million active users on Instagram, posting photos of idyllic vacation locations, sparking envy worldwide. Travel, adventurous and exciting in nature, has been overcome with the need to appear adventurous and exciting. Instagram provides the photographer with instant gratification and validation. This distortion of reality has forever changed the atmosphere of photogenic locations throughout the world.
The idea that photography distorts one’s sense of reality isn’t a new one. In 1977, Susan Sontag wrote in her collection of essays titled On Photography: “Needing to have reality confirmed and experience enhanced by photographs is an aesthetic consumerism to which everyone is now addicted. Industrial societies turn their citizens into image-junkies; it is the most irresistible form of mental pollution.” Instagram confirms reality for travelers, and positive feedback (likes on photos) feed this addiction. Traveler-journalist David Annand believes that photography once encouraged the appreciation of views, but today, it’s a means to feed one’s ego. He writes, “Photography no longer encourages seeing; it simply encourages projecting, turning the world’s greatest vista into mere backdrops for the self.” The world’s greatest vistas are no longer appreciated for their natural beauty, but for a picturesque backdrop to our selfies. Our need to document ourselves doing seemingly awesome things is significantly detracting from the actual experience of being somewhere foreign. Journalist Mary Pilon, writing for WIRED magazine, explains “it felt like destinations were morphing into mere photo sets” in regard to her travels.
Alas, stunning travel destinations aren’t filled with people trying to enjoy the moment, but with tourists snapping photos, trying to get that awe-inspiring, envious shot. Sightseers, gripping their selfie-sticks, shoving each other around for the perfect spot, can be observed all over the world, from the Inca Trail (the iconic viewing point of Machu Picchu) to the Taj Mahal. The desire to validate one’s life through Instagram has, in some circumstances, proven to be fatal. In a National Geographic article titled, “How Instagram is Changing Travel,” New-Zealand-based writer Carrie Miller discusses a tragic incident that occurred two years ago in Norway. A 24-year-old Australian student, camera in hand, lost her footing and fell to her death while trying to capture the iconic shot at Trolltunga, pictured below. Albeit an extreme case, the need to capture the perfect photo is so consuming for some, they risk their lives. I sincerely hope this longing for the perfect travel ‘gram is a fleeting one. The next time you find yourself vacationing in a different country, or simply in the presence of a photo-worthy landscape, put down your phone (step back from the cliff) and enjoy the moment.