I wonder about instagram travellers who spend their lives hop scotching the world to collect the same photos of themselves at the same places everyone else has been. While it may seem to many that this lifestyle is one that symbolises success, I see a hollowness of experience and on some level that makes me a bit sad for humankind.
What exactly do they learn about the places they visit, let alone the people who live there? When they are older, what stories will they be able to tell and what legacy will they leave behind? When instagram perishes and is replaced by the next big thing, then what? How many travel bloggers with identical feeds does the world actually need? And how much time do we need to waste scrolling through these photos and liking them over and over?
I understand the commercial aspect of some of these lifestyles, it is a career for many, funded by sponsorship and promotions. But from a philosophical stand point that is not travel except as a means of getting to Post A to Post B. Just because you travel the world and post about it on instagram, doesn’t mean you’ve seen it.
I am grateful for the travel adventures I’ve had, for which I have no photos to share. I have been a travel photographer for around 20 years now and my work has been published in so many travel guides and publications such as Lonely Planet, Rough Guides, DK Eyewitness and so on. But the best moments I’ve experienced, I’ve chosen not to capture except in my heart. Those moments are mine and don’t need to be shared, when I take the camera out, the moment is often lost and others won’t understand anyway because they are not sexy.
I may never have grandchildren to tell my travel stories to (because I’ve been too busy experiencing the world perhaps) but I will either tell all the cats and rescue animals I intend to look after when I’m older. And more importantly, I look forward to dying with a really contented smile on my face, having experienced life and the world fully and deeply, like a really great meal that I savour with every bite.
My most memorable stories are unglamourous in every way. They are stories of not being able to bathe for weeks on end, wearing the same shorts & t-shirt everyday, being stuck in the deepest Ethiopia or Himalayas without modern communications (instagram and smart phones did not yet exist. My Nokia was stolen from my bag crossing a border on a scary night hitchhiking in the back of a truck in a place where no one spoke English), getting sick and having no one to care for me and being 7 days walk to the nearest town/doctor. All of these things at once.
I was humbled by these experiences because this was (and still is) the everyday reality for all the locals around me. In these situations where I seemed “stuck”, magical gateways to other people’s lives were opened. Locals came to me, this strange woman in strange clothing in their enviroment, and they invited me to visit their homes. They were so proud of their houses which they built by hand, sometimes of mud and kept immaculately swept. They invited me to join them for food when they had so little for themselves. They never asked for money, even when I asked to take their photo. But in some cases, if tour groups came, their hands were outreached to the clean white tourists with their cameras. I was always puzzled by that, I didn’t get why they didn’t see me the same way.
I love greetings such as “Salam Alaikum” (Peace be upon you) or “Namaste” (I see the divine within you). I love gestures such as the hand on heart or the hands pressed together with a gentle bow. These greetings make so much sense in those moments, because this is what those human connections feel like to me. I can feel them deep in the heart.
Now people come through the same places, swirling their dresses or dangling precariously on the edge of a cliff/waterfall, or launching their noisy drones – invading everyone’s privacy and right to silence, posting on instagram and off they go again. How many times I’ve seen people climb over fences that are put in place to protect the environment or building structure, as well as to protect people from falling from dangerous places. They come, one after another, slowly eroding the beauty of what is there and all for something that is both unoriginal and fleeting in the grand scheme of their lives. The locals watch, puzzled, sometimes amused, sometimes annoyed, sometimes seeing an opportunity to make money. But where is connection? Where is the respect for others and for the planet?
I can’t help but feel that this hungry desperation to capture instagram moments, has a maniacal element to it, like Pokemon Go set so many people crazy that they put their own lives in danger to get each Pokemon. To me it all hints at an emptiness within the lives of so many people.
I rarely post images of myself because my travel photography is not about me. It’s about the places and people I visit. My mother used to always complain that I’d never send her photos with me in it, but I’d tell her that she already knows what I look like, look at this is beautiful place that she’s never seen (and maybe never will) and look at these wonderful people I met.
Eckart Tolle says that the reason that we love to travel is because we are seeing things for the first time. We are in a state of alertness because everything is so unfamiliar and that feels so exciting. We’ve lost touch with this feeling of being in the moment so we think we need to travel, or pursue adventurous (perhaps also sometimes dangerous) activities to get back to that place again.
I have also been on this journey to be in the moment, and I have travelled in search of that feeling. But I’ve also travelled primarily because I want to learn about the world.
But has humankind gone another step further away? Rather than travelling to learn about the world or to feel in the moment, now humankind wants to travel to capture something it cannot grasp or define and immortalise it online with lots of digital hearts and thumbs up.
I am often amused by what people take photos of as well. I spend time putting thought into what I photograph – I know why I am taking it. I don’t waste memory card space on photos I know I don’t need or will never look at again, no matter how pretty. How many times I’ve taken a ridiculous or dull photo (usually for personal reference and practical reasons – like to make note of a sign I want to look up later). And others will walk past and take the same photo, but without knowing why they took it. They assumed I was taking a photo of something interesting and now they have that photo and they don’t know why.
Do you see the insanity of this? Why would you do something without knowing why? I feel sad for humankind, that so many people go about their days so unconsciously. And we see the worst of it in travel & tourism. Anyone who has worked in this industry, will tell you that people’s brains switch off when they travel. I would say the only exception is business travellers who need to stay alert because they are working.
An instagrammer recently said to me that they “get such a buzz” when they see all the likes when they post an image and they told me with such excitement as though they were talking about a drug hit. And it is a bit like that, it can become addictive. I won’t go into all the psychology of it here but it’s the same mechanism at work.
In any case, by sharing these thoughts, it has not been my intention to judge anyone who has chosen this lifestyle, I simply want to create an opportunity for you to ask yourself why do YOU travel? And if you have caught yourself thinking you need more instagram likes, ask yourself who is really leading your life now? The opinions of others or are you directing your life for yourself? If you are truly the captain of your ship, then it doesn’t matter what others think, or whether they like your post or not. They probably don’t even genuinely care.
Just because you travel the world doesn’t mean you really see it.
Are you going to spend your whole life cataloguing it on social media and miss life itself?
Do you really want to see it? Then turn your phone off and be in the moment. It’s all happening right now in some of the most ordinary moments you’ll remember (or forget) forever. If you simply try to cherry pick memories that will look good to others, you will miss all the authentic goodness and connection with nature and humankind.