The day was dawning at popular Instagram spot Lago di Braies when a young man and his girlfriend broke into the boathouse, jumped into one of the waiting boats and paddled out across the mountain lake in Italy's Dolomites range.
It sounds so romantic. Waking at daybreak, stealing a boat, rowing out into the middle of the lake to watch the sunrise. And perhaps it would be, if they had been alone and a marriage proposal had ensued -- what a story to tell the grandkids.
Instead, to the frustration of a quiet lineup of 20 photographers who had dragged themselves from their beds before 5 a.m. to capture long exposures of the lake at its most glassy and still, the pair were determined to stage their own sunrise Instagram photo shoot in the middle of the lake. I winced with a very British kind of shame as their braying English accents echoed across the water, mocking those they saw as idiots on the shoreline.
I usually struggle to put coherent thoughts together before my morning coffee, but I pondered from my vantage point on the lakeside why our idea of what's normal and acceptable behavior seems to fall apart as soon as we're doing things for Instagram. "Doing it for the 'gram" has become an almost universal, tongue-in-cheek way to excuse or explain away any sad, bad or mad thing we're doing for social media. We invade people's privacy, we disrupt people's vacations, we break the law.
It would be easy to blame Instagram as a platform, but let's not conflate our own failings with the failings of technology. Technology is imperfect and often deeply flawed, but to make it the scapegoat for all our bad or downright bizarre behavior would be disingenuous. Yes, Instagram, owned by Facebook, has its problems, but the often reckless and selfish lengths we go to to capture a photo? That's all on us.
A few weeks ago, 19-year-old Instagram model Katarina Zarutskie was bitten by a shark while on holiday with her boyfriend's family in the Bahamas. Zarutskie spotted the sharks in the water -- and joined them to grab a quick shot for Instagram.
"From my previous knowledge from surfing and scuba diving, I know nurse sharks are usually very safe," she told the BBC. "I've seen countless photos of people with them on Instagram."
And she's not wrong. I too have seen plenty of Instagram snaps of models adrift amid nurse sharks in the Bahamas pop up in my feed. But this tendency to want to recreate pictures we've seen on Instagram can quite literally lead us into shark-infested waters.
For fear of being labeled a hypocrite, I will admit I'm not immune to partaking in this copycat behavior either. I have felt the pull of discovering something on Instagram and visiting that location -- not just to see it with my own eyes, but to capture a version of the shot for myself.
Most of us don't even have the excuse that we're creative geniuses who are breaking the rules in the name of producing work that's notably profound or avant garde. There are exceptions, but little done in the name of Instagram is done for the sake of art. Most of it is done for status and to sell a specific version of ourselves to the world and, if we're popular enough, to sell other things too. But at what price?
Joining in with Instagram-inspired trends can be totally benign when you're playing with extravagant swan-shaped pool floats, taking pictures of your feet against pretty tiled floors or indulging in an acai smoothie bowl. More problematic is the normalizing of risk-taking and antisocial behavior that too often creeps up on Instagram.
When I asked a closed Facebook travel group for examples of bad Instagram etiquette people had witnessed, many came back with stories of near misses with selfie sticks or otherwise beautiful moments disrupted by drones. Others talked of staged photo shoots that sometimes exasperated the "model's" travel companion and other tourists.
"My friends and I watched a guy climb up one of the bridges across the Danube while his friend laughed and snapped pics the whole time," said group member Allie Lindo, describing the risk-taking behavior she witnessed on a trip to Budapest. "The next day, I watched a woman lean over the railing on the rooftop of the Basilica to grab the perfect Budapest selfie. I was fully expecting to see this woman fall."
If the woman had lost her balance in the act of Instagramming, it would not be an isolated incident. At the extreme end of the spectrum of doing-it-for-the-'gram behavior are people who've become badly injured or even died while taking dramatic risks to capture a specific shot. The Wikipedia page dedicated to selfie-related injuries and deaths makes for illuminating reading on this matter (an alarming number of the deaths are caused by people climbing onto the roof of a train for pictures and being electrocuted by live wires).
Almost equally troubling is the exploitation of animals in order to get exciting shots. In December 2017, Instagram took matters into its own hands by delivering warnings about animal exploitation to users attaching hashtags like #slothselfie or #tigersnuggles to post.
"You are searching for a hashtag that may be associated with posts that encourage harmful behavior to animals or the environment," reads a pop-up message, encouraging users to click through to a help page about wildlife exploitation.
Instagram declined an opportunity to comment further on the matter.
With this in mind, can we say enough is enough? Surely we can all agree that no number of Instagram likes is worth dying for. Perhaps we can also agree to stop making our travel companions, wild animals and fellow tourists suffer as we seek to capture the perfect 'gram. I certainly won't stop Instagramming my own travels, and I wouldn't suggest anyone else does either, but from now on I'm determined to keep some perspective and keep my own behavior in check.
So no, you won't see me breaking into a boathouse anytime soon, or hugging any tigers or climbing on any train roofs. Care to join me in this wild proposition?
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