By Alexandra Martin
“Climb the mountain so you can see the world, not so the world can see you.” – David McCullough
I recently returned from a 19-month international travel assignment for work and came across this quote. It spoke so honestly to me about our social media society. I often wonder what traveling was like before Instagram? A time when you actually had to discover new places by exploring, getting lost and by word-of-mouth. A time when you stood at the base of a waterfall in Bali just to feel the mist, basked in the majestic shadows of Machu Picchu’s towering peak and pondered its history or hiked up a mountain just to experience what the birds see when they look down on us. What was it like before the screen became wedged between us and the world?
This paradigm shift has changed the way we see the world. After visiting one destination after another overrun with selfie-stick carrying tourists, endless line-ups of people waiting to get a shot of themselves in front of a monument or view, I couldn’t help but wonder, are we driven by a quest for a unique cultural experience or by the opportunity to show everyone elsewhere we’ve been? As the saying goes, “Instagram it or it didn’t happen.”
A travel company called Unsettled recently came out with a #TravelUnfiltered series uncovering those places that are meant to be special and sacred but have become wall-to-wall tourist-traps of people trying to get their quintessential IG shot; a true exposé about the realities of these once-precious destinations.
As the Instagram-generation takes over, making anyone with a smartphone and Instagram account an aspiring NatGeo photographer, we see the same photos, the same views, the same stories shared by everyone, diluting the idea of one’s own unique and personal travel experience. Through the thousands of #travel photos that appear on my feed, it almost feels like I’ve already been everywhere, but through the lenses of other people, not my own.
It got me thinking about the role I play in all of this. As a photographer and digital creator myself, I’m far from innocent; my job is to capture and tell a story through visual imagery and films. But if the Wonders of the World have become overrun with selfie sticks and ubiquitous on Instagram, how can I change the way I experience the world and what I share with others?
Lately, I’ve tried to trade in the most gram’d spots in the world for the quieter, less-traveled corners in order to learn about and experience these outposts for their inherent uniqueness instead of striving for the best angle for the shot. I talk to locals more than other tourists and try to savor my food instead of photographing it. I try to live in the moment I’m in instead of trying to create a moment for someone else.
In this new age of global travel and digital connection, it can be liberating to unplug from your device and truly connect with your surroundings. How does it make you feel? What does it smell and taste like? What did you learn? Who did you meet? Can you discover something that someone has yet to post?
The real question to ask yourself is, ‘What is your intention?. Is it to be present in the moment or just to share this moment with your followers? Challenge yourself with the former. It is not the images, likes and follows that will stay with you forever, but the life-changing moments, encounters and experiences you discover when you remove the device between you and the world.