Instagram influencers have been accused, among other things, of caring more about perception than reality. But maybe there's some justification for that and something we can learn from it. The problem may not be the idea itself, but only that it's sometimes taken too far.
Imagine you’re camped deep in the slick rock country of the American Southwest along the shore of Lake Powell. The scenery is awe inspiring, towering walls rise like stone cathedrals from the water’s edge straight up into a twinkling wash of stars. You’re settling into a soft evening after a long day of paddling. Your camp stove whirs away nearby, warming the contents of a great dinner (alright, a possibly palatable dinner), the scent wafting toward you. You’ve got a glass of wine in hand and great friends for company as you lean back in your Crazy Creek, taking it all in. You realize this is the quintessential camp moment, the perfect example of why you spend all that time planning, why you spend all day pulling at a paddle, working your way up a lake. This is precisely the kind of moment that should be frozen in time, the kind of moment, the visual story, that has the potential to capture the essence of the experience. You grab your camera, but when you bring it to your eye, the magic fades. Your friend looks out at the most beautiful bit of the scenery, which means in the shot, he's actually framed against a few spindly bushes and an awkwardly cut-off mesa. The wine and your own whirring camp stove don't even register in the scene.
The image in the viewfinder is obviously “true” insofar as it documents the technical details of the moment. But who cares about those? From the perspective of conveying the emotional tenor of the experience, the image is at best ineffective and might even lead to your audience feeling the wrong thing. And isn’t that what we’re really trying to capture with our travel and adventure photography, how it felt to be there? An image may be true when taken strictly as a documentary snapshot, but at the same time be wholly misleading as a work of art meant to convey an emotional impression.
Unfortunately, this is an article about learning from my mistakes rather than an instance of leading by example. I’ve always approached the documentation of travels with family and friends much as I would street photography: scenes are to be discovered, not concocted. This has a couple of advantages. First, there’s that element of truth in the visual advertising (at least in a simple, tangible way). What you see really is what happened. There’s also relatively minimal disruption to the folks I’m traveling with. They may be asked to wait patiently for an extra moment or two while I fumble with a shot, but rarely are they asked to spend any time or energy being accomplices in the messy process of creating art.
But if we apply that street photography approach to tell the story of a trip, we're also likely to have roughly the same success rate that we have in street photography, which, if you're like me, is,abysmally low. How often do all the stars align in a street photo — lighting, composition, subject, moment, story — without any influence on your part? I can wear through the soles of a pair of street shoes and only get a handful of decent shots, if that. The likelihood of my fellow travelers being artfully composed against a backdrop that strengthens their story, rather than being a distracting mess, isn’t particularly high in my experience, even in really beautiful places. The likelihood that the resulting image will fully capture the emotional tenor of the place or moment is even lower. Simple photos like the one above record the most basic technical aspects of a trip, but they fail to convey its emotional tenor completely. And in that sense, they’re not a true accounting of the experience at all, let alone something that might inspire others to get out and go exploring.
A long exposure looking in the other direction a short while later provides a better idea of what we would soon be fortunate enough to bear witness to. While this image does a better job at capturing the emotional tenor of the place itself, it still fails to capture the comradery of four friends on a paddling trip, the warm glow of a camp stove heating dinner, or the even warmer glow from a partially polished-off bottle of wine.
I’m wondering, then, if there might be value in throwing a dash of the Instagram influencer’s philosophy into one’s own personal travel photography, even for those of us with zero desire to rule the Instagram world. The objective isn’t to oversell the experiences we’re having, but to better capture the way those experiences actually felt, to more effectively inspire others to seek out similar experiences of their own.
A big part of me revolts merely at the thought of “staging” a scene, at taking a role in shaping the actions of my fellow travelers rather than merely being a passive observer of their experiences from a photographic perspective, though I’m obviously an integral part of the broader experience myself. But why can’t we be a few friends out on an adventure photography trip rather than just an adventure? Why shouldn’t we declare up front that our goal is to go have a great time in amazing places and send back some great visual stories — stories that capture what it felt like to be in those places — even if we need to take a little bit of an active role in figuring out how to most effectively tell those stories?
We had to set up a spot for dinner somewhere. With a little repositioning and a minimal bit of fuss, we might well have been able to compose a scene that would actually have conveyed to our friends, families, and, yes, maybe even to our social media followers, how the evening really felt. We might have created an image that could have, years later, taken us each back to that moment in time, sitting on that sandstone bench together beneath that dusting of stars. None of that would’ve been a terrible burden on my congenial and understanding travel partners, themselves photographers and videographers. None of it would have misconstrued in any way the experience we were all having.
Next time, I’m going to do better. Each time we take a trip, we swear we’re going to prepare shot lists in advance. And each time, we get swamped with other things in the days and weeks leading up to the trip, so that by the time we leave, we’re just hoping to find that we’ve remembered paddles and tents and stoves when we touch down wherever it is we're going. So, I’m going to start my shot list for the next trip right now:
- Shot 1: Camp mates, cook stove, wine, and stars. Two exposures. One long exposure for the stars with the cook stove off. One short exposure for the cook stove flame and immediate surroundings. Blend in Photoshop.
- Shot 2: TBD
Having said all that, it’s probably worth remembering that it can be taken too far. My wife and I honeymooned in Hawaii a few years back. One morning, we walked down to the beach and sunk our toes in the cool sand. We sat with our warm (five dollar) coffees in hand to ward off the chill of the early morning breeze. There before us was the “perfect” family, a young husband and wife with their two small boys; one looked to be about six, the other about two. They all wore matching outfits, some combination of red and blue. The parents were determined to memorialize their perfect family on their perfect vacation with the perfect, quintessential beach picture. To this end, little six-year-old “Timmy” had been instructed to write something, no doubt both sweet and profound, in the sand with a stick, a love note to his grandmother or something I’m sure. The problem was that Timmy kept screwing up the letters, at first accidentally, then, I’m nearly certain, on purpose. Each time, they’d have to move six feet over to a fresh bit of sand and start again.
We sipped our coffees and watched in amusement. Timmy’s head eventually slumped forward as he listlessly poked the stick at the sand. The mom would alternately grab his hands, showing him how to drag the stick, then run out of the picture trying to leave as few footprints as possible. Dad would squint, lift the camera, stoop over trying to frame the shot, looking like a linebacker getting in position, then invariably lower the massive DSLR from his eye, sigh, and gesture for them to move over and try again. His gestures became more and more stilted and emphatic as time went on.
Meanwhile, the two-year-old — remember the two-year-old? They didn’t. He was sitting on the beach behind them, completely forgotten, his stubby little fingers shoveling tiny fistfuls of sand into his mouth just as fast as his little arms would go. We wondered how much that diaper was going to weigh.
My wife took a long sip of her coffee: “Should we tell them?”
I took a longer sip of mine, letting the warm liquid swirl across my tongue as I dug my toes further into the cool sand. The breeze wafted my wife’s sweet, honey-orange lotion past my nose. I could just make out the clinking of breakfast-ware in the hotel restaurant over the sound of the gently collapsing waves and rustling palm fronds. I smiled and shook my head: “Nah. There’s a worthwhile life lesson in there somewhere. Let ‘em learn it.”