Why did I feel like my trip to Paris while studying abroad would be a disappointment if I didn’t get the perfect selfie in front of the Eiffel tower? Why do I have more profile pictures of me in Rome in front of famous monuments like the Colosseum, where I spent 3 days, than I do in Florence by Palazzo Vecchio, where I spent 9 months?
Why do pictures in front of the leaning tower in Pisa or in front of a royal red phone booth get more “likes” than pictures in front of equally beautiful but less well-known churches in Florence or mosques in Istanbul? Do these pictures matter if we don’t post them on Instagram or Facebook? Would we even still take them? Why was I more proud of my Istanbul pictures than my London/Paris/Italy pictures?
After studying abroad in Florence, Italy for a year, and visiting many famous European destinations while I was there, and then observing students from my university uploading pictures from the exact same places a year after I visited them, I have started to ask myself the above questions.
It is no secret that a Facebook friend changing his or her profile picture to a selfie in front of a famous monument is exciting and will illicit more “likes” than a regular selfie in one’s hometown. But why are these pictures so important to us? Is a trip to a famous destination not as valuable if one cannot post pictures from it on Facebook or Instagram? Is social media photography changing the way we experience travel?
Based on my experience, I would say yes.
While I was studying abroad, I would become very anxious if I didn’t have a perfect potential profile pic after each of my weekend trips (“how will people know I went somewhere really cool if I don’t have a sweet selfie to prove it??!!!” – my thought process).
My best friends and I almost killed each other out of exhaustion and frustration when we sprinted across Paris after a long day of walking in order to get better “selfies” in front of the Eiffel Tower. (We did succeed, posted the obligatory selfies, and did get many likes – but those photos don’t at all convey the stress we experienced while taking them).
One of those same friends and I spent an afternoon in Pisa for the same reason – not to experience it as a unique Italian town – but to obtain the iconic leaning tower selfies that you’re not supposed to leave Italy without. We probably wouldn’t have stopped there on our way to the airport if such photographs weren’t important to us – and to our social media presences (where our lives must always seem awesome).
When I went to Istanbul, Turkey, on another weekend trip, I found myself equally enthusiastic about capturing awesome monuments in selfies, but with even more pride than usual. Not only was I adding to my stockpile of photos in front of iconic religious architecture (The Blue Mosque – wow), but I was also getting potential profile pics that rarely anyone else on my Facebook news feed would have. Why did I care about this? Are Facebook likes and travel competitions to be won? Is there some sort of award to be won by having a profile picture that makes other people envious of you but “like” your posts at the same time?
No, there is not. There’s no award or winner in Facebook, or travel. This compulsion to compete with others who are posting profile pictures and getting hundreds of likes only serves to make us feel inadequate when we read our news feeds. And it seriously takes away from the goals of travel in the first place: experiencing a new place, learning about the local culture, and expanding our knowledge of the world – not rushing around cities and arguing with friends to get the best pictures (unless you’re on Top Model, and it’s fun to watch).
I have been one of the worst offenders of this “braggy” use of social media, but now that I have observed others’ study abroad photography, I am much more aware of how I convey exciting life experiences. We all do awesome things, but that doesn’t mean we have to use social media to make other people feel not-awesome.
Do people feel compelled to obtain selfies in front of ALL important monuments in tourist destinations? Speaking from my own motivation, I would say no. I cared a lot more about making sure I got a prime selfie in front of the Colosseum than I did about getting one with the Palazzo Vecchio in Florence – even though both monuments have substantial historical significance and are ‘important.’
So why did I care about my Colosseum profile pictures more? I would call this the movie-magic phenomenon. How many movies, TV shows, books, posters, and other images feature the Colosseum, the Eiffel Tower, and Big Ben? Enough to socialize our generation to believe in very stereotyped narratives about these places – that they are full of romance and magic and action, that we fantasize about experiencing in these locations someday.
According to the images we see before travelling, Italy is the place where women fall in love on Vespas and gladiators kill each other, the Colosseum as their backdrop. France is where happy couples walk through flowery streets, holding umbrellas, the Eiffel Tower in the background. England is where Harry Potter and James Bond do courageous things with red buses, phone booths, and Big Ben in the background.
So when we tourists visit these places we have seen on-screen so many times, they become iconic to us, and we want to feel that magic, too. We want to enter the scenes of our favorite European movie moments. (I wanted to live the Lizzie McGuire Movie in Rome, damnit!). So we get our pictures taken in the phone booths (thanks for helping me take the perfect shot, mom) and next to the fake gladiators in Rome. But this is also probably why less-movie-romanticized monuments like Florence’s Palazzo Vecchio or Istanbul’s equally beautiful mosques show up less frequently in selfies and profile pictures. We don’t have narratives about them from our media images, so if “likes” are the currency, a picture with these historic places seems less valuable.
My recommendation, then (if you’re still reading – thanks!), is this:
The next time you travel, embrace the awesomeness of the PLACE first, instead of worrying about how cool your Facebook album will be afterward. Enjoy the local cuisine. Learn some words in the local language. Appreciate the art and architecture. Not every memorable moment has to be photographed. You will relax and enjoy yourself so much more.
Travel shouldn’t be about fulfilling stereotypical movie scenes or imitating previous friends’ cool experiences – it’s about learning new things and exploring yourself! If more of us focused on that aspect of travel, the like-worthy pictures would follow naturally anyway.
Now who wants to book a flight to anywhere with me?