By Shirley Tay
During the holidays, social media feeds typically overflow with vacation photos, all of them screaming “Like me!” as they compete to outdo each other in varying levels of “sophistication” and “fabulousness”.
As you scroll through your Instagram feed, you may find out that Ben’s luxurious AirBnb comes with a jacuzzi, see Alice and friends huddling by an oceanside bonfire, and watch as an acquaintance’s brother-in-law strums his guitar to the hits of Ed Sheeran against a backdrop of a mountain range.
Going on vacations now revolves around taking “insta-worthy” photos and sharing every tiny detail on social media. With no such photos, we might as well have thrown the hundreds of dollars we spent on the vacation down the drain. As long as we garner some “likes” on Instagram, we’ve made our money’s worth.
Let’s be honest with ourselves. Who doesn’t subconsciously plan for two types of trips when going on a vacation? One filled with traditional logistics such as budget, time spent at each location and travelling routes, and the other, a list of places we want reflected on our Instagram feeds.
In this age of over-sharing, we must ask ourselves: how much is too much?
On Instagram, 40 million photos are posted every day and about 500 out of 800 million users on Instagram are active daily.
This obsession with taking and curating photos for social media becomes a problem when it prevents us from fully immersing ourselves in the moment. Before we know it, the moment might have passed, and we would not be able to recall everything that has happened.
This phenomenon is reflected in research conducted by Linda Herkel, a psychology professor at Fairfield University in Connecticut, who terms this the “photo-taking impairment effect”.
In her study, students were told to either take photos of certain art pieces in a museum, or to simply observe them. The following day, they were given a memory test. Students recalled the objects they had photographed with less accuracy than the objects that they had observed.
The same goes for photo-taking on vacations. It becomes problematic when we allow this habit to consume our actual experience.
Engagement, the key to enjoyment
A few months ago, I found myself scrolling through the photos of my vacation in Phuket on my phone. Photos of me and my friends posing with glittering sunsets and pristine beaches greeted me, our arms outstretched and mouths wide open in carefree laughter.
But no matter how hard I tried, I couldn’t seem to recall anything substantial from that day.
I then scrolled past a grainy, dark photo of rice paper rolls my friends and I were assembling during a homestay in Sapa, Vietnam. I had casually taken this photo to let my friends back home know that I was still alive after the intense trek up the rice terraces.
When I looked at that photo, I remembered the conversations we had with the Black Hmong farmers as we piled minced pork and lettuce onto rice paper. Over glasses of “happy water” — a local favourite more commonly known here as rice wine — they talked about their past and how they had to work endlessly under the merciless sun for a tiny bit of income.
I ended up deleting all the photos on my phone that were snapped with the purpose of sharing on social media. Except the photo of the rice paper rolls — the least aesthetic, least “insta-worthy” photo — because it captured a moment in which I was truly enjoying myself and making memories, rather than just posing in front of the camera to look glamorous for social media.
That was when I realized that engagement is the key to fully enjoying our vacations, and I had always been an unknowing victim of the “photo-taking impairment effect”.
But it seems harmless and everyone is doing it, you may argue. Well that’s the problem, isn’t it? Because everyone is doing it, it will be even harder to go against the tide.
Taking back control
For an extreme projection of the future, we could turn to the Netflix’s series, Black Mirror.
In the episode “Nosedive”, the main character, Lacie Pound, is obsessed with maintaining her image as an outgoing socialite in order to get stellar ratings on a futuristic social media application that links real world interactions with online rankings.
Lacie constantly checks her phone in bouts of nervousness, sighing with relief when her friends rate her photos with full five stars, and frowning when she gets only four.
With our current state of anxiety and obsession with our image, many of us, including me, are guilty of this as well.
We are social creatures that feel the urge to interact and share our experiences with others. While technology can help to resolve our innate need to maintain a certain image, it is important to remember that we should be the ones in control of technology — not the other way around.
“If you’re on vacation and enjoying some beautiful site, take a couple pictures and put the camera away and enjoy the site,” said Herkel, the Fairfield University professor. Afterwards, actively take the time to reminisce with the people you shared the experience with, or share it with close friends and family. Those are things that can help keep memories alive.
So go ahead and snap as many photos as you want for Instagram, but give yourself only five minutes to do so. When the time is up, tell yourself that the photos you took are perfect enough, or that it just wasn’t meant to be.
After all, taking photos of our travels is not what makes them memorable, it is the experience we immerse ourselves in.