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Visual Culture

Travel Photography on Instagram Is Missing Its Soul

Image courtesy of Emily Nathan.

Image courtesy of Emily Nathan.

Search “travel” on Instagram and the visual grid of the Explore page fills instantaneously with images. Depending on when you look, they might show vivid landscapes or mostly selfies. Most often I would say that the grid is missing the cultural connections, local people, and personal revelations that define travel. When Instagram created a shorthand with tabs on their Explore page and put travel at the top, they also instantaneously became the world’s most powerful travel editor, defining for a billion users what it means to travel.
Screenshot via Instagram.

Screenshot via Instagram.

Lately, I find myself asking again and again, where is the actual travel in “travel” pictures on Instagram? And where are the travelers? Where are the real people inside the perfectly centered and brightened images? Where is the respect for the locals and the environment? These images are largely missing the soul of travel: the feeling of transporting oneself somewhere new, if only for a few days, and the visual details that can so powerfully reveal the smells and sounds of a place.
Image courtesy of Emily Nathan.

Image courtesy of Emily Nathan.

If you’re wondering why my views on travel and Instagram are so strong, it’s because I’m a photographer and the founder of the travel and lifestyle publication Tiny Atlas (@tinyatlasquarterly). In 2014, with the help of some friends, I started the hashtag #mytinyatlas. To date, the hashtag has nearly 8 million posts logged to it, and I’ve curated #mytinyatlas images on our account for over 5,600 posts—a mix of tagged images from strangers and work shot expressly for our platform. My opinion is rooted primarily in my gratitude for the space Instagram has offered photographers and travelers over the years, and my concern is that by ignoring this problem we’ll all miss an opportunity to effect positive change.
Image courtesy of Emily Nathan.

Image courtesy of Emily Nathan.

When I first started #mytinyatlas, I observed much more variety in the imagery that was tagged. My friends, who are professional photographers, helped me gain traction with it by using the hashtag on their images. Photographers are experts at visual storytelling—they reveal the culture of a place by posting pictures of local people and food, interiors and exteriors, atmospheric landscape shots, and the myriad of distinctive intricacies that define a place.
Image courtesy of Emily Nathan.

Image courtesy of Emily Nathan.

Whenever I travel, I speak the local language if I can; otherwise I stumble through whatever vocabulary I’ve learned. I learn a lot this way. I chat with my drivers and guides; the farmers, surfers, textile workers, and dancers I meet; the men and women selling their wares in the markets, and their children playing nearby. This is not a gratuitous virtue I’m proselytizing—this is what it means to experience travel. Recently, on a trip to Tamil Nadu, I struck up a conversation with a group of young women at a religious site. We swapped Instagram names, and we keep in touch. The image I captured of them—more importantly, a moment they shared with me—is a favorite from that trip. It encapsulates the sacred of the ancient and immediacy of the modern inextricably interwoven.
Image courtesy of Emily Nathan.

Image courtesy of Emily Nathan.

In Cuba, instead of shooting selfies with the candy-colored vintage cars, I sat up front with a driver and asked him about his home country. What results is a portrait of him instead of me (and stories about his family to accompany my ride). In Trinidad, when I asked a group of local girls on an ancient stone street what they were waiting for, I ended up attending the highlight of my trip—their dance class. It took place in a 500-year-old room, adorned with paintings of the Virgin Mary on one side, and on the other, images of Che. The girls were teens being teens, but remarkably different than American kids just around 100 miles away.
Image courtesy of Emily Nathan.

Image courtesy of Emily Nathan.

I love to follow accounts on Instagram that reveal an individual’s viewpoint as well as their personal take on the value of their travel experience. Architect Elke Frotscher (@elice_f) creates structured images and detailed captions that offer viewers unique and spectacular insights into the city streets, wild countrysides, and building exteriors and interiors her eye favors. Food stylist and photographer Stephanie Eburah (@seburah) relates the raw beauty and intimacy of nature through images of food, her family, and her travels. Graphic designer Dan Tom (@dantom) offers images that show the sublime in travel through portraits and landscapes shot with colorful affection.
Image courtesy of Emily Nathan.

Image courtesy of Emily Nathan.

Images shared on Instagram communicate across the globe instantaneously. Cultures that might otherwise be separated by verbal language are now immediately connected through visual technology. What was so exciting in the early days of #mytinyatlas were the contributions of strangers sharing the world from their perspective. This diversity of daily life made for a fascinating feed. Our tag connected us with architects, yoga teachers, business travelers, parents at home, and students in school. The power of this platform to introduce, inspire, inform, and create relationships across cultural divides is undeniable.
Image courtesy of Emily Nathan.

Image courtesy of Emily Nathan.

Why should it matter that travel imagery on Instagram has become uniform? It matters because photography is currently the world’s most common and most powerful cross-cultural language, and that “language” is not being honest with us. Instead, it’s been condensed into a handful of easily accessible visual clichés. As Instagram influencing becomes a career and algorithms serve viewers the images that they would most likely “like,” the imagery on the app is optimized and monetized in order to compete with other platforms and sell products.
Image courtesy of Emily Nathan.

Image courtesy of Emily Nathan.

Is there a way to save the soul of travel on Instagram? Just as movements that raise environmental awareness begin with individual responsibility, so too can we begin to hold ourselves responsible for travel that not only brings us closer to the world around us, but shows that world in its authentic multiplicity and splendor. We should challenge ourselves to share not only selfies (because mom does love those the most), but to contribute images that also show a real interaction with the people and places we meet along the way.
Emily Nathan is a photographer and the founder of Tiny Atlas. Her first book, “My Tiny Atlas: Our World through Your Eyes,” was published in March 2019.