Photo Op

I don't remember whether I mentioned it on the blog, but some time ago, I took a trip to Iceland. It's an absolutely amazing country that is sure to make any visitor fall completely in love with it. There are no words or even photos to convey what a magical place it is.

Since visiting Iceland, I've come to miss being there. Consequently, I've started following Icelandic hashtags, photographers, and outdoor sportsmen on Instagram, just to remind myself of what a lovely place it is, and of how much fun I had there. In doing this, however, I've noticed something.

When you're driving through the Icelandic countryside, you can pretty much stop your car anywhere, and you'll be guaranteed a scenic photo. It seems as though every inch of that island is photogenic. This is so true that, no matter where I went in the country, there were people stopped on the side of the road, taking photos. One of my tour guides told me that this was actively encouraged. Tourism is the largest industry in Iceland; the more we do for Icelandic tourism, the more successful Iceland's economy will be.

The highly scenic nature of the country creates an opportunity for photographers -- especially Instagram-types -- to "cheat." They do this by driving somewhere relatively mundane, such as a highway pull-off a few miles outside of Reykjavik, and having a friend or a drone take a photo at just such an angle as to make it appear that they have trekked into the distant wilderness somewhere. Given that they're often wearing name-brand outdoor gear or presenting themselves on social media as experienced "travelers," this almost creates the false impression that they have done much more than what they really did. What it looks like they did was backpack into the deep sub-arctic wilderness. What they actually did was pull off the side of the main highway and snap a good photo.

There is, of course, nothing wrong with taking a nice, glamorous-looking travel photograph of yourself, but the way you present that photo to others may call your authenticity into question. What are you really trying to say with your photograph? You might be trying to say something nice, such as "Please take a look at this beautiful place." But you might also be trying to say something questionable, such as, "Isn't it awesome that I traveled here?"

As I have blogged about many times, in the context of many different issues, it is important to me that we reserve great praise for the truly great. A traveling adventurer such as Kilian Jornet or Sean Burch deserves our utmost praise for their many amazing expeditions. A social media influencer who is good at taking nice sunset photos over roadside fjords deserves some praise for his or her photography skills, and perhaps even a little of our envy for being able to live the kind of life that takes you to beautiful places like Iceland. But nice social media photographers should not be praised as great adventurers, at least not until they have some real adventures.

When I say "praise," I'm not just talking about lauding a person. I'm also talking about the mental energy we expend when we scroll through social media and consider a person. In the face of glamorous photos that are, in essence, a form of personal advertising, it's easy for us to get caught up in what we're seeing, and to assign higher value than we really ought to. The great adventurer isn't the one with the perfect sunset photo; the great athlete isn't the one with the perfect race photo; the fitness expert isn't the one with the most or the best fitness photography on their social media accounts.

The best among us are those who spend more time doing what they do, and less time presenting a fabulous photo of it. Photographs shouldn't be used to define an experience, but rather to remind us of the experiences we had. 

1 comment:

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