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  • Elisabeth Brentano


Let’s talk about something that’s been bugging me for months: My love/hate relationship with Instagram.

I’ve connected with all kinds of amazing people here, and for that I am grateful. From tears to laughs to kisses, many of those memories will never be posted, because they were real, offline experiences that couldn’t (and shouldn’t) have been captured in a photo or video. It’s important to push harder for these moments, and understand the balance between real life and the idealistic, rapid-fire slideshow that is social media.

As much as I strive to be the type who doesn’t care about popularity, seeing my posts fail to perform as well as they once did absolutely destroys my creative energy sometimes. I know it shouldn’t matter, but it does. It makes me question my skills and ability to tell a story with my photos, and it makes me wish I switched careers before the rise of social media. Seven years ago I was managing a team of writers while maintaining my own successful personal blog, and I somehow made time to finish two TV pilots during that time. I don’t ever question my writing. I think I’m just as competent of a writer as I am a photographer, yet here I am, questioning how strong my images are, because an app has allowed me to convince myself that likes are representative of quality.

Sometimes I randomly stumble across a spot and visit it multiple times to get the right lighting, and I don’t see another soul there. Not only do I enjoy this time to myself, but I’m able to get in my zone and get inspired by the landscape around me. Other times I get lucky with roadside vistas, but I’m not in the habit of trying to recreate someone else’s photo. I want to go find my own magic moment, capture that and share it with an audience who wants to be a part of that story. I edit each photo individually, and I don’t use presets. (And if you ever see me peddling presets on Instagram, robots have taken over my body, so please call for help.)

So when I see some generic lifestyle shot that’s a copy of another copy of a photo that first appeared two years ago, and it blows up on social media, I get mad. When I see a photo that was taken somewhere the photographer clearly was NOT supposed to be (fragile vegetation, wildlife habitats, a drone shot from a national park), I get Hulk smashing mad. Mad that it’s about money and popularity, not about originality or respect.

Mad that photography has turned into a game of posting for likes — and often at the expense of the planet.

If I see one more illegal tent shot on my feed, I’m going to blast someone HARD, and publicly. I recently DMed a photographer about a tent shot he posted that was taken from a popular viewpoint in one of my favorite national parks. He admitted that he had only set it up for the shot, and that he knew he wasn’t supposed to camp there. I asked him to take it down. He removed the geotag, but the post was still up.

So I went on. I wrote:

“I’m glad you guys had the sense to not camp, but unfortunately the majority of our followers will assume it is ok. And this is how places get ruined by fires, litter and general habitat destruction. I just know the park busts people regularly for posting stuff on social, and since this is an ad you could get in deep shit for posting it. I have a friend who was fined $5k for not getting permits here, after the park saw his video on YouTube. As people with 'influence,' it's really important to set a good example to others about LNT, and even if you explain in a caption that you were just shooting the tent, not everyone is going to gather that from looking at the photo. It's implied that you spent the night, which is the problem. I really do hope you'll reconsider removing the post.”

After that, he did. I’m happy he did. I told him that. I’m also happy I didn’t have to virtually yell at him, or forward the post on to the park. But this is just one of the thousands of illegal camp shots floating around online, so am I really making a difference? Staging photos like this “for the ‘gram” not only encourage people to pitch tents in places they shouldn’t, but to think that they’re profiting from it makes me nauseous.

If Instagram can re-arrange the posts on my feed in a way that they think is more appealing to me, why don’t they create a reporting system for illegal drone and camp shots, and photos where wildlife is being baited?

They have a system that’s smart enough to detect copyrighted music, so I can’t imagine it would be that difficult to figure this out. And get this: Since they're all about monetizing the app, they could even slap users with fines for posting such images! I don’t know about you, but I think that’s a way better business model than trying to get creatives to pay to have their posts shown to the thousands of people who have actually chosen to follow them.

I post sponsored content sometimes, but it’s always products I use, love and would spend the money on anyway. I look into whether I need commercial permits, and most of the time I don’t. I don’t want to turn off my audience with sponsored posts that are clearly just about the cash, and I never post photos that were taken in sketchy locations, illegal campsites, or off the trail somewhere where it would damage the flora or fauna.

I’d be able to make a living if Instagram didn't exist, because I blog when I’m not shooting, and since 2008, that’s been a pretty sustainable way for me to earn money. But I like connecting with people and sharing my story, beliefs and messages. Messages like this. Messages that aren’t getting out to enough people, because illegal tent shots and staged photos of “Instagram models” are getting more attention, because they’re trendy. Fuck trends, let’s be real.

You didn’t actually wake up in the back of your SUV wrapped in a Woolrich blanket, wearing cozy socks, a felt hat, holding a tin coffee mug that’s straight out of the box, did you?

If you did, congrats. You've #nailedit. But the more likely scenario is that you parked your car, took thirty minutes to set up a shot that looked just like something you saw on a popular camping account, and you left when you got what you wanted. That’s not even remotely real, and that’s not what this should be about. If I’m being perfectly honest, I’d consider posting a plug for Huggies, because I don’t know about you, but when I camp, the last thing I’m looking for in the morning is my hipster blanket, fairy lights and photogenic coffee mug. I’m looking for clean underwear, baby wipes and a battered and stinky Nalgene, which I’ll fill with instant coffee after I’m done shooting the landscape around me. And baby wipes make me infinitely happier than posting #fire on the 'gram.

So, what’s the takeaway here? I’m not here to tell you how outdoorsy you should be. If you want to enjoy nature from the car and you have no interest in hiking, that’s totally cool. Sometimes that’s how I roll too, and it's awesome. However, whatever your adventure may be, you DO need to be respectful of the places you shoot. And if you are using Instagram to “creatively market” products, please try to be original and do something that hasn’t been done before, because there's nothing worse than seeing digital content that is just as unoriginal as it is illegal.

Please stop using and abusing places to create images you're profiting from, whether you're being paid in actual dollars or in a year's supply of outdoor apparel. Instead, focus on truly enjoying your experiences outdoors, and encouraging others to do the same. Protecting and preserving our amazing natural playgrounds is far more important than hitting 10k likes. Please pass this on if you agree.

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