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 🙂