State of the Art: Getting the perfect shot comes at a high cost to natural beauty

Shutianyi Li/Daily Trojan

Some time ago, I embarked on a well-intentioned — albeit short lived — self-improvement kick that led me to attempt a keto diet, start journaling nightly and download a helpful but insulting app that monitored and restricted my daily social media usage. But since I am equal parts insatiable art lover and shameless Instagram addict, I quickly fell (no, leaped) off the wagon with that last one. With Instagram’s eye-catching aesthetics and creative content niches, I simply couldn’t stay away. And evidently, neither can its upward of 1 billion monthly active users.

It was perhaps inevitable, then, that Instagram would shake up visual culture by introducing a language of images that inflates our notions of reality in unprecedented ways. Every post, every pictorial representation, is a miniature piece of the world — of someone’s life — that anyone can manufacture, acquire and disseminate.  

“The most grandiose result of the photographic enterprise,” Susan Sontag writes in her seminal essay collection “On Photography,” “is to give us the sense that we can hold the whole world in our heads — as an anthology of images.”

With Instagram, the anthology of the world through images is not only in our heads — it’s literally in our hands and invariably on our minds. In turn, the visual code Instagram creates affects the way we act and conduct ourselves in cultural contexts. It effectively rewires our minds to make us believe that we must participate in Instagram’s artificial image mass, that we must buy into the multimodal myth of its methods.

I recently started thinking critically about how completely Instagram has brainwashed me and others into believing photo-ops and subsequent likes are what make visual experiences worth living. I stalked my own feed and considered each individual image I’d posted — had I done it for the memories or for the digital attention it wrought? I came up with an ambiguous answer that led me to further question my own social media practices and intentions.

There are countless times I’ve directed good-natured friends to capture different angles until I’m satisfied and sufficiently assured I got the shot that will reap the most Instagram likes. As much as I hate to admit it, the prospect of Instagram-fueled validation looms in the back of my mind like a raincloud — during nights out with friends, while exploring Los Angeles, when traveling abroad. I know I’m not alone, either.

We’ve all been conditioned by the ubiquity of Instagram’s game of numbers and system of superficial substantiation to believe that contemporary visual culture has a right to co-opt our human experiences as commodities. More than that, we are all eager and complacent participants because Instagram’s visual cache accommodates the instant gratification and addictive euphoria it knows we seek.

Recently, anti-Instagram movements have popped up all over the globe as counters to the phenomenon of photo-tourism. It’s not hard to see why photography and tourism go hand in hand so neatly but Sontag explains it best: “Photographs will offer indisputable evidence that the trip was made, that the program was carried out, that fun was had.”

Naturally, complaints about travelers — drawn to remote or extraordinary locations usually for the sole purpose of documenting and flaunting their experiences — blatantly disrespecting local environments in their attempts to secure the perfect shot abound.

As people flocked to capture views that would allow them to reasonably employ Ralph Waldo Emerson quotes as captions, traffic on secluded trails eroded environments and taxed national park resources. Tourism boards have launched anti-Instagram campaigns to discourage photography and geotagging, and even Instagram accounts (like the satirical @joshuatreehatesyou,) routinely condemn other users for impudent posts.

It’s this visceral hunger for visual mastery and manufactured self-representation — borne of human nature but bred by Instagram culture — that draws people in droves to take photos in front of the Mona Lisa or gallivant through the Louvre courtyard without stopping to consider the hallowed history of the institution and the masterpieces it holds.

It’s what compels Instagrammers to trample fields of ultra-rare poppies in pursuit of the perfect, bohemian shot and treat living things as no more than photoshoot backdrops. It’s what spurs the South African government to prohibit photographers from geotagging safari routes following a surge in rhino poaching. It’s what induces Auschwitz Memorial visitors to stage abhorrent photo shoots on the very railways that hauled over 1 million people to their deaths.

At the same time, taking and sharing photographs as moments has become indispensable to the way we experience the world. I’m not saying Instagram and its nefarious agenda should be eradicated; on the contrary, the possibilities the platform presents for image-sharing and global connection are monumental.

I just think that we all (myself included) should vow to be more aware of how our vanity-driven actions impact natural landscapes or historical sites and adjust our shallow intentions when it comes to photo-taking and memory-making. Change starts with being cognizant of the social media culture we have inadvertently been absorbed into and taking steps to resist letting comments and clicks dictate our self-value.

How many likes is a patch of dead wildflowers or the desecrated site of Holocaust victims worth? Try this Instagram aesthetic for a change: Don’t be a dick to nature or history. I promise life is still worth living when you aren’t doing it for the likes and when photography is made a perfunctory affair. Just ask Susan Sontag.

Catherine Yang is a senior writing about art and visual culture. She is also the digital managing editor of the Daily Trojan. Her column, “State of the Art,” runs every other Wednesday.