Everybody knows things can get pretty daft on Instagram and I’m sure we all see images which are… shall we say a little ‘fantastical”? There is a great parody account called @youdidnotsleepthere – “celebrating Instagram’s most illogical campsites”. It’s very funny, and most of the pictures are pretty ridiculous. There could equally be an account for “you did not picnic there”. Tables laid for dinner in the middle of uncut wheat fields… waist deep grass meadows… the desert?! But should we let practicality get in the way of a good Instagram photo (even if it does mean sandy sandwiches)?
Recently there has been a lot of negativity surrounding Instagram. Not only the platform itself, but criticism of the creators and the choices they are making. From images being too cliched, to sponsored posts and how they are declared, to the brands that Instagrammers choose to promote. “Authenticity” is being questioned as the app becomes increasingly monetised, and competition for a slice of that becomes stiffer. Some photographers are stretching the boundaries of reality to the extreme, yet passing their images off as “real” experiences.
Earlier in the summer one particular Instagrammer was singled out for heavily photoshopping her images – apparently superimposing herself into scenes and backgrounds into hotel windows. The debate over her work raged on for a few days, and I think highlighted a few important issues for brands, creators, and consumers. Discussion is good, and it is also inevitable as stakes get higher not only for Instagram themselves but for the so called “influencers” who have turned Instagramming into an industry.
Not only is this a new industry, but it’s a comparatively unregulated one. If someone is promoting an experience and a location, their work ought to in my opinion depict what is possible to experience there. Getting up at 4am to photograph a famous landmark without the crowds is great, that’s just working hard to get the best possible shot – however suggesting you slept in a hotel room hovering 200ft above the Thames, is just taking it a step too far for me. I think a consumer should be able to believe what they are seeing, and that this trust is an important element of what we do.
All the discussion has certainly made me stop and think. As much as I don’t like the term “influencer”, if it is true that we have any influence over anyone, then I think we have a responsibility to use it well. We need to try hard to promote healthy attitudes online to race, gender and body image, and we need to be aware that a so-called perfect “reality” could be making people feel bad about themselves. We also need to think about the products and brands we choose to promote, and question whether we agree with their ethics.
My first thought when people make mistakes in this industry, is “that could just as easily have been me”. Mistakes are so easy to make, we are only human and the majority of us don’t have a lawyer or a manager behind us, yet we are reading and signing contracts, dealing with large corporations and posting our work to thousands of watchful eyes, without any guidance at all. Usually our choices are not motivated by greed, or not caring. Sometimes we really need to pay the bills, but more often we really like the brand and are proud to be affiliated with them. Occasionally we misjudge things though, and mistakes are made.
We have the opportunity though to learn from the mistakes people are making in this very new industry, and to question our own online ethics and our representation of reality. The online world can be such an empowering and inspiring place, but it’s very easy to see how it is getting a little far fetched, especially now there is money involved.
I think we have to accept that almost all photography has a degree of staging. Even with candid portraiture, you have probably deliberately gone out in nice weather, to a nice spot, wearing nice clothes. If you took a camera with you with the intention of taking photos, there will undoubtably be some elements of this image which are deliberate. You are always making choices as a photographer, right down to where to stand and what to focus on.
Opinions will always differ on what level of manipulation is ok. Some people don’t even believe in editing images at all, whereas I think editing your pictures to make them look the best they can is an integral part of the artistic process that is photography. For me, this will include cleaning up images, removing a stray crisp packet, a bogey, or even an undesirable human that may be ruining my composition 😉 It wouldn’t however include adding in any element that altered the actual reality of that experience.
There is a good rule of thumb when editing photos from a portrait shoot and deciding what to remove. If it is a temporary thing, then its ok to remove it, or lessen it. Spots, grazes, unwiped noses, dark circles under eyes all fall into this category. However entirely removing someones wrinkles would just be weird, or to remove someone’s birthmark is just insulting. I know people that both these things have happened to. When they got their images back from their photographer they were mortified and upset that the photographer had assumed these were things that they would want airbrushing out of their pictures. I apply a similar thought process to all my work. If it’s a temporary blemish then I remove it, but I don’t add in or remove something that alters the reality of the moment.
Digital art is of course a totally different matter, and some of my favourite accounts create photographic artworks that are clearly manipulated to a great extent. We are all creating images which aim to evoke an idea, memory or emotion, I just think we need to ask ourselves what is fair to allow the viewer to believe is real?
Of course there is actually no harm in bonkers picnic locations… it’s just taking styling to another level. Carrying a table and four chairs into the middle of a meadow is only really an extension of laying a leaves around your coffee on the table. The scene is created to stir some emotion in us, to transport us to another time or place, to create a narrative in our minds. It’s down to personal taste whether it goes too far for you, but I don’t think it’s trying to dupe anyone, or suggest you go and and do anything dangerous.
The location could be anywhere, the people could be anyone, and that is of course the important difference between these images and those of more specific and well known locations that have been manipulated. I have seen the green leaves of trees turned pink in photoshop to look like blossom, and if I turned up in Amsterdam in spring looking for this blossom lined canal, I would be disappointed.
Opinions will always differ on this topic, and of course everyone is entitled to create whatever they wish. I just think it’s time to start to ask ourselves these questions. Because with influence comes responsibility, and I for one want to be a part of a healthy, positive online world for my kids to grow up with.
Thanks for reading,
NB the image I’ve used at the top of the post is not photoshopped at all, I just thought it was nice 🙂
I think I may know the instagrammer in question.
As you mentioned, I believe in editing as well to enhance the photo. However, photoshopping the photo to an extent where it becomes a fantasy land is a step too far for me unless that’s what your account is all about.
There should a fine line between reality and fantasy and be clear about it in the caption.
Hi Femmy, thank you so much for your comment! Yes I completely agree, it’s food for thought! x
This is such an on point post, Hannah, thank you! I was recently traveling Japan with my friend and we both love Instagram but this time something was different when we were geeking out. My buddy was all the time muttering “fake”, “this is so fake”, “that’s too much…” Etc while scrolling her feed. It s her who showed me the hilarious ‘youdidnotlsleepthere’ profile too. It is good to see that this saturation of fakes and stagers is reaching a critical point, and people are sharing their point of view. I really like that Instagram has become a more artsy place but yeah… There s been a lot of craziness going on because of the money. On the side note, I like the stories, they opened a door for spontaneity of Instagram to be spontaneous again. Just a bit more.
Hi Marta, I completely agree with everything you’ve said! That’s so interesting about your trip to Japan and your friend seeing through it all. I love stories too 🙂 x
Love this post Hannah, agree there are lines to be drawn. My biggest struggle is with the body image posts, and it’s probably to only reason you won’t see photos of me. I don’t fit the size 10 expectations and although I don’t care, putting myself under online scrutiny for being a few sizes larger is not such an appealing thought…
My most photoshopped images are the calendars, I don’t use it for anything else but agree that removing temporary things is ok.
I suspect our next meeting should involve a picnic table in a field now…
Thank you so much Julia! Personally I love seeing real people who are outside of the standard expectations. Not everyone is 24 and tiny! Makes you wonder if people are manipulating their surroundings so much, whether it’s going on with the faces and bodies we see on Instagram too …xx
So much to discuss about this topic… isn’t Hannah? after IG, photography is somehow morphing into something else besides its pure and original essence: ART. How times are changing! x
Definitely! I love your Art, and the surreal has a strong place within photography. But as Olena said not within `’lifestyle” photography. “Normal” people shouldn’t be photoshopping in perfection to their faces, bodies, or their surroundings and passing themselves of as normal, in my opinion! x
Such a beautiful written post! You said it all, but in short notes. Now, about the topic, I totally agree. For example, I always like to add to my photos a ‘dreamy’ touch, but more of in an filter or like really create it in real world then in a program/app. Until recently, i really never wanted to put anything that Isn’t real. And since I’m mostly a foodie, I have the ability to manipulate with the food itself, but I really never did. I really always wanted to create what I later wrote in the caption it is. But, then few weeks ago I realized that many other foodies manipulate … and a lot. I mean, it’s again I guess “the okay” manipulating. I’m talking about adding in photoshop strawberries or some other fruit on the cake/muffin what ever. I mean it was kinda making me feel awkward in a way, I really put all of my efforts into creating something (or my mom, ’cause she makes a lot of recipes I take photos of) and then I see someone just added half of things in photoshop. But, I’m still doing it my way, and i think and hope I will continue to do so. Anywho, great post! p.s. I always wondered how does everyone has this gorgeous fields empty for themself, I really never even thought of PS 😀
Hi Jovan, thank you so much for your thoughtful reply and adding your perspective! That’s so interesting to hear the way you work with food. It’s a fascinating topic and a bit of a mine field I think! There will always be differences of opinion, but I think it’s important that we start tot think about these things, and what is fair, or what is deception! x
This was such a helpful perspective xx I think influencers set the bar for those just venturing into photography or Instagram, and will lead people down the same path as them, perhaps without realising. I like shots that look like the best version of themselves. And that’s actually how I appreciate make up too. Enough to enhance natural beauty and cover problem areas but not so much that the reality is no where to be seen 😄
Thanks Rhoda, and that is a brilliant analogy! I guess its all down to personal taste, but it’s definitely worth thinking about when we post things, whether it is really fair to deceive people xx
Really interesting post, thank you. Will ponder on the issues you’ve raised.
(Also, love that your subscribe to comments has choices! Nicely done 🙂 )
Thanks so much for reading Jax! Glad you like that subscribe feature too, I went hunting for it after seeing it on someone else blog! x
My images on instagram aren’t edited ( I might brighten the image or the colour) but I don’t know how to use photoshop (!) so don’t go any further than that. I don’t have a theme, I just post photos of my house as an interiors blogger. I think some of the images we see, even if photoshopped show a level of creativity and for amusement purposes that’s fine but to change the colour of the leaves or to manipulate the image to something it’s not feels a little dishonest. A very interesting post. Thanks!
Hi Vicki, thanks so much for your comment! I think where we choose to draw the line is such a personal thing, but it’s definitely something that we should all be starting to think about – what is really fair and honest! x
What a great post and much needed perspective Hannah. And yes, it elbow in the eye kind of war out there and people are ready to say yes even to the lowest forms of compensation. I thing everything we do should look organic, natural and not forced. At least for me. Alternatively, the surrealism is a form of art too, but it has no place in lifestyle photography the brands are looking for. I would also add, that brands should share responsibility as well, as sometimes the sponsored posts I see do not reflect brand vision at all and yet they are endorsed.
Thanks so much Olena! That’s a brilliant way to think of it and I hadn’t actually thought of that, but I think you’re right and lifestyle photography is where the line needs to be drawn! Agreed about the brands too x
Really interesting post, raising so many points which in my naivety I never realised went on! It gives Instagram a bad name amongst people of my generation who are too quick to condemn everything they see as “false” or “superficial”, when in fact so much skill, talent and good taste is on display. Reassuring to think that maybe not all influencers are slim, beautifully dressed and wildly attractive!
Thank you so much, I’m so glad you found it interesting! There is definitely a positive and creative side to all of this, we just have to keep striving for it and self regulating I guess! xx
Brilliant, brilliant post Hannah!
Thank you so much lovely! xx
Great post. Honest and real – just how my favourite IG accounts are.
I approach editing on my phone much like yourself. But there certainly is a time and place for more creative edits – there is some amazing art being created.
But. If photographers are being sponsored/paid to experience and promote, then their photography should show a real and honest experience.
Thanks for this Hannah x
Thank you so much for reading Elaine! Absolutely I agree on all fronts. I love what digital artists are creating, but definitely a time and a place xx