“Pressure” in Online Travel Photography

Reporting on connected tourism trends in a report commissioned by the Singapore Tourism Board, We Are Social’s Simon Kemp reflects on the “pressure” felt by social media users within image sharing platforms such as Instagram to produce high quality content in order to stand out from a crowd of mixed amateur and professional content. To alleviate this pressure, Kemp suggests that destinations provide directions so that tourists can find the best angles of a particular scene or even go so far as to provide on-site professional photographers to assist tourists in phototaking. While these tips may indeed help tourists to collect memorable and shareworthy snaps, will it not be just a matter of time until feeds are well stocked with these special angles and slick packaging, and the pressure to find something new fills in once again?
This phenomena of social media induced pressure to create and share is well worth investigating. Visit an internationally famous tourist site, or prowl the travel blogosphere and you will find evidence of the increasingly dysfunctional relationship between social media using tourists and the destinations they visit. Take the selfie stick, a metonym for online photography, banned from numerous destinations and the bearer of stigmatised names like “narcisstick”, yet still quite popular, and indeed, useful, for capturing travel images. Notice also the changing standards of behaviour and experience of connected tourists who view the travelled to landscape in terms of photo opportunities and fail to connect with local ambience. Online, numerous voices opine that the need to constantly capture and share is ruining the experience of the journey. The compulsion to document one’s trip does, moreover, change the dynamics of tourist space. Photographic practices including the physical movement of the photographer and the scope of their lens do indeed take up a significant amount of space, and, with more and more people engaged in this behaviour, and valuable capital on the line, the activity starts to rub antagonistically with other tourists and locals. Not surprisingly, photography related accidents and fatalities are on the rise.

So where does this pressure to document and share come from? The imperative of travel photography to capture and record exotic experience is well covered (Sontag 1977, Urry 1990), but what affect does the addition of an online audience virtually tagging along (Urry 2002) with the journeyer add? In a study of the photographic practices of young Korean tourists, Lo & McKercher (2015) report 3 principal reasons for tourist photography: aide memoire, relationship management and impression management/self presentation. It can be seen that these last two motivations have come to the fore as the audience sits on our shoulder while we have our overseas experiences. In the era of social media, tourist experience is an effective vehicle for making assertions about what type of person one is given travel’s positive connotations with cosmopolitanism, wisdom and adventure. While on the one hand, published images are shared within the frame of the users’ profile, images do also end up in a wider menagerie of similarly tagged content. Over time online travel photos end up in competition against the content of other users and against one’s own previous creations (Dinhopl & Gretzel 2016). This competition is scored via the metrics of social media success: likes, follows and shares. The bar is set high. Or perhaps more correctly, it is set by tourism tastemakers. A recent article in The New York Times recounts the way in which Instagram, like basically all popular social media platforms, has been hijacked as a promotional tool by industry: “Tourist boards flew popular Instagrammers to their idyllic locations and paid them to post impossibly stunning photographs to attract other world trekkers.” In such an environment of performance and reward users strive to “again and again present the self as extraordinary and different” (Dinhopl & Gretzel, 2016) in a game of “social comparison” (Lo & McKercher, 2015).

The consequences of tourists online performance may easily ripple out into the wider world. Recounting a recent trip to Angkor Wat, reporter Mary Pilon recounts, “the fight for the perfect Instagram” taking place amongst the mob of technology equipped tourists jostling to snap the ideal picture of the famous monument at dawn. Looking further into this phenomena of compulsively documenting and sharing our travel experience, Pilon explores the subject with well followed Instatraveller, Annie He. Here He describes the palpable “pull to share” created by her 60, 000+ followers and the fact that this pull, and the rewards it offers, has led her to cross her personal safety thresholds in the name of a satisfying snap.  What then happens when this threshold is crossed time and time again by users competing in a tournament of what writer, Timothy Egan has called, “documentary one-upmanship.”

A recent blog post by Internet scholar, Jill Walker Rettberg brings to light the way one destination marketing organizations’ promotion of a picturesque cliff outcrop in Norway that was stated to be able to garner, “an avalanche of likes” if shared on social media, preceded, and indirectly contributed to, the fatality of a traveller engaged in photographing this site. This tragic example highlights the disjunctive relationship between destination marketing organisations, connected tourists and destinations/ hosts at this time in which picturesque travel experience is promoted to the point of jepordising personal safety. The “pressure” felt by tourists to successfully document their travel online contributes to this problem and as such merits further investigation. In my opinion, it would also be fair to say that the repercussions of our relentless image quest do indeed go beyond physical consequences and potentially damage the intercultural exchange within touristic “contact zones” (Pratt, 1992) as tourists are too preoccupied with chronicling their trip to notice the space around them. It would be interesting then to see how the increasing volume of photographic activity is accommodated by tourist spaces and how it is operates within the social reality of particular sites. This could include things like investigating how tourist photography at a destination is viewed by the people who live there, as well as business and tourist operators, and tourists themselves. Another point of inquiry would be investigating the processes through which travel photography occurs and the factors which influence this such as the interplay between what the traveller says and portrays online and their physical experiences.

The trend of recording and sharing one’s travel moments online shows no signs of stopping – rather it is demonstrating that it is it’s own mode of tourist experience, a ‘digital gaze’ (Dinhopl & Gretzel, 2016). Here, increased knowledge about the practice of recording travel online will lead to ideas on how to better structure tourism to accommodate travel recording behaviour in a sustainable way. This could be through interventions in physical tourist space, online publishing communities or the “hermeneutic circle” (Urry, 1992) of travel recording.

Cover Image reblogged from Wall Street Journal A Traveler’s Guide to Social Media

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