TRAVEL IN THE TIME OF Instagram
As tourists roam the world selfie sticks in hand, journeys becomes the casualty
A young Asian girl in a crisp white organza bridal dress is precariously perched on an extraordinarily white wall with cascading cave houses and a striking blue dome in the background. A man in a black tuxedo, after regarding himself in a hand-held mirror, joins her and takes instructions from the professional photographer directing the shoot. The couple hold each other in a passionate embrace, with her eyes half-closed and the elaborate ruffles of her dress flowing gently with the wind and merging with the white wall of Oia in Santorini.
This pair is one of the many already married or engaged couples who have chosen to pose for their wedding photos in Greece, I am told by the hotel concierge later. The photoshoot has little to do with their real wedding but that minor detail is of no consequence. Nor is Santorini, except that it makes for a good background in romantic photographs on social media.
BACKS TO THE WALL
At the National Gallery in London, a bunch of young Chinese tourists are possibly the only art aficionados scuttling around from painting to painting with their backs to the great works of art, selfie stick in hand. Monet’s Water Lilies and the vibrant colours of the landscape of Arles do make for a good backdrop.
Three girls in their 20s are confronting Temple of Athena Nike with a remote in hand, their backs facing a phone cradled on a tripod a few feet away. The girl with the remote sprints to the tripod, examines the picture on her phone and seconds later, the three of them reassemble in front of the ancient remains of Athens once again. A pursuit of the perfect shot requires perseverance, patience and forbearance and this generation is equipped with all three virtues as long as it is about earning ‘likes’.
There is one thing common to all these images: the carefully dressed models are always standing with their backs against the landscape. If God is in the details, then these influencers with their salon-styled tresses, beautifully accessorised outfits that have been colour-coordinated with the location, and perfectly made up faces have surely found god.
The other thing all these people have in common is that not one of them is looking at the scene or enjoying it. William Henry Davies’ poem Leisure about stopping to stand and stare, in the context of this category of travellers, gets a whole new meaning.
THE WORLD AS A BACKDROP
What smart phones and social media have done to the essence of travel is unforgivable. With everybody so intent upon becoming the scene, travel is no longer about enjoying the scene. Whatever happened to the joy of exploration and discovery?
Just the other day, across the undulating terraces of Santorini, I witnessed five girls across five terraces posing for pictures as the flaming orange sun first blazed and then slowly diminished over the vast Aegean seas. Not even one of them was honouring the phenomenon unfolding behind their backs.
An aspiring influencer friend planning a holiday in Norway told me too many people were posting from beach holidays. She wanted to go someplace different. Selfie travelling, it dawned on my oldfashioned brain, is a competitive sport and this person was one of the many all set to ace it.
It is human nature to want to share a good experience and to some extent, we all are guilty of spending far too much time trying to photograph our travels rather than giving our full attention to what is in front of us. Installing yourself in every photograph, however, is taking it to a whole new level. ‘Selfie tourism’ is the projection of an artificial experience made to appear real.
REALITY ALL TOUCHED UP
I overheard my teen daughter and her friends discuss their forthcoming holiday recently. Clothes and accessories to go with various ‘looks’ were being planned. Good poses for Snapchat and Instagram were also discussed after consulting popular ‘influencer’ handles on both mediums. In the pastoral settings of the Cotswolds, it upset the child when I clicked a candid photograph of her. It was a decent photograph, but candid is never natural she told me. It had to be planned.
I spoke about the virtues of spontaneity, but was quickly dismissed. Spontaneity, I realised, was very last century. It wasn’t flattering and it earned you neither likes nor followers.
Reality, I concluded, is inimical to a generation hoping to build a career on Instagram. It was an indulgence that those hoping to make a living out of their social media profiles could not afford. But in the race to get free deals, airline and hotel upgrades and better still, an income from social media accounts, travel as we knew it is the greatest casualty.