Social Media Authenticity vs Real Life
To some, the photo above may look completely natural; I was snapped as I relaxed on the hammock reading a book. Others may scoff and laugh at such a staged photo, proclaiming that I chose that exact outfit just for the purpose of the photograph and that I didn't actually read a word of the book. I probably dragged that heavy plant pot on the right of the frame all the way across the roof of the riad just to get it in shot. In fact, did I fly all the way to Morocco just to take photos? In reality, it's a little bit of both. I was genuinely wearing that outfit and sat on the hammock - but I was lounging on my back and writing in my notebook when my companion suggested taking a photo. I sat up and pretended to read the book for the sake of a photograph. Does that make this photo staged? And does that make it less appealing than a genuine image captured in the moment?
I've been thinking recently about the authenticity of social media - particularly Instagram. How many photos that I double click are truly authentic and how many are completely staged? Are most of them somewhere on that blurry line in the middle like my image above? What are the implications of creating staged images? Should we be trying to portray reality more? And is the trend for staged images declining in popularity?
Think about all of the generic travel photographs on Instagram. There are a few people who take stunning shots of landscapes with themselves in the frame, looking away from the camera who are genuinely there for the experience, spend their time off-screen soaking up the local culture and are photographed wearing the actual clothes that they wore that day. Then there are the many, many influencers who are seemingly there just to get the perfect shot. I can't say for definite that they've dressed up just to take a photo, but do we really think there are people hiking to Machu Picchu wearing an evening dress and heels?
Is that so bad? For a while I followed some of these people on Instagram, liking their photos and wishing that I could travel to the places that they visit. Then I began to get a nasty taste in my mouth: why was I feeling inspired by people who were there for the 'gram rather than for the actual experience? So many influencers travel to the exact same locations to get the exact same shots - just with a different filter and a different designer outfit. I want to see genuine photographs from people's travels, to see places I may never have heard of before, and get a glimpse into the local culture.
One person who I think does this really well is my friend Elizabeth Curtis. Elizabeth is travelling around the world documenting her journey but stays clear of the usual shots that litter Instagram. Yes, she may visit countries that countless others have photographed before, but she puts her own unique spin on her photos. Her feed shares images of local people, stunning landscapes and beautiful detail. Yes, there are photos of herself but they stand out from the crowd thanks to their authenticity. Nothing ever looks contrived. If she is doing yoga on the beach, swimming in a lake or admiring a view, you get the feeling that is exactly what she was doing that day. She didn't travel there to stage a moment for the sake of a photograph.
Honestly, I think most of the people whose work I admire probably sit somewhere on that murky middle line with my own photography. I don't want to share the less photogenic moments of my life (hence why you aren't currently seeing photos of me packing boxes and sitting around the house in my pajamas) but that's just being selective. When I show you a photo of a beautiful landscape, I've usually walked up a steep hill and am completely out of breath, wearing hiking boots and a waterproof jacket. Those photos of me throwing snow around in Norway? I really was stood outside the house we were staying in wearing just a jumper because I wanted to look at the snow. I started throwing it around and my boyfriend grabbed my camera. When you see me wearing garments that I may have been gifted by a brand, I'm genuinely wearing them that day and in that setting - I don't dress up just to take photos. I like to capture the moments that catch my eye, and yes I might go and stand in front of a bush because I like the way it looks for a photo, but I am actually wearing that outfit and I really have gone for a walk in the countryside.
When I take photos, I'm thinking about capturing that slow pace of life that I love to talk about. I'm taking the time to notice the little things like the way the light hits a leaf or the different colours of a landscape. I'm not manipulating reality, rather I'm capturing the natural beauty of what I see. In that sense, I don't see myself as staging images but I definitely do select the best bits of the world around me when I'm taking a photo. For example: for the photo above, I was transfixed by the way the light was throwing shadows on the wall and reflecting the yellow pots on the tiles so I lent against the wall wearing the dress I'd been wearing all day and asked my friend to take a photo. Is that staged simply because I saw myself in the shot?
Most of the time, I am personally more drawn to 'real' images. Some of my favourite photographers that I follow on Instagram portray a beautiful reality through their images, sharing genuine moments of their lives. Lou, Katherine, Siobhan, Freya, Ffion and Anais & Benjamin all instantly come to mind. Their feeds are brimming with authenticity and beautiful images. I could get lost for hours looking at their photographs, safe in the knowledge that there's no trickery there. It's easier to connect with a photograph when you believe in it and I constantly feel inspired to take photos of my everyday life when viewing their feeds.
The problem that I have with overly staged photos is that I instantly feel like I'm being sold something. Whether it actually is an elaborate marketing campaign with a brand or I'm simply being sold the influencer's personal 'brand', it just feels a bit too forced. I might as well be flicking through adverts in a magazine. The original purpose of Instagram was to share 'instant' moments from your day to day life, and all these fantastical shots are getting too far away from that. I want to see things that I can aspire to (like a beautifully shot coffee cup, a handmade wreath or a photograph of a girl perched on a rock gazing out at rolling hills wearing a weathered old jumper). I also want to see the beautiful details of everyday life, the things that other people may miss. That's when you start to forge a connection with someone that you 'meet' online; when you realise that you both love how the morning dew hangs from leaves or how mist looks when it rolls across an empty field. And that's what I love about Instagram; the connections that you make and the inspiration that you gain.