These days, word of mouth is no longer the driving force of the tourism industry. All it takes for a hotel, restaurant, or attraction to blow up is one good photo: A meticulously-composed Instagram shot that elicits wanderlust, hunger, or an all-important tap on the bookmark button, indicating the user's desire to actually visit the spot at some point in the future.
Influence is the name of the game, and travel bloggers — with their high follower counts and multi-platform appeal — are raking it in. Forbes even curated an inaugural list of top travel influencers this April: These men and women can sway the $180 billion millennial travel industry, while making an average of $207 for one post.
But now, the inevitable backlash has begun: In article published by The Times on Saturday, blogger Amelia Liana was accused of doctoring images on her Instagram feed by superimposing her silhouette on sceneries that don't accurately depict the cities she's traveled to. The Times article points out an Instagram from May that seems to have used an outdated view of Lower Manhattan (where the Freedom Tower is noticeably missing), and an altered version the Taj Mahal in India (which has been partially covered in scaffolding since 2008), where Liana is curiously seen posing without the massive crowds that usually swarm the monument.
Social media is a virtual theater to show off how successful you are, and we all want to make sure that we're putting on a good performance — Having a blemish-free photo backdrop seems like a big part of it.
While a rush of negative comments accuse Liana of "faking" her photos, a few followers rushed to Liana's defense. "I think everyone is missing the point here, this page in whole is to show dreamy side of things, everyone has their own style of editing and she has this one," User @baig_production writes.
Another user, @na2pi, also showed support for the blogger: "Instead of saying that she 'faked' the photos, I'd rather take the alterations she has done as a form of art. I've been in Taj Mahal too, and I fully agree that a photo like this wouldn't have been possible without editing, but try to see it from a positive point of view: Did she make the scenery bad? No. Did she make people lose interest in the Taj Mahal? No. Do other photographers publish pictures in magazines without alterations? No. Is there any written rule that a Youtuber should post unedited photos? No."
It's actually not hard to side with these statements of solidarity: We've all been guilty of enhancing our photos at one point or another before posting them on social media, to make sure that the best version of ourselves are on display. I often use the stamp tool on Photoshop to remove any cracks in my hair or blur out signs of a developing pimple. Some of my Chinese friends won't ever upload a photo without running it through a skin-clearing filter on Meitu, an uber popular selfie app in China.
However, not all bloggers have the same approach to their visual editing. "The only time I think it's necessary to Photoshop a picture for any platform is to modify the colors of the image that our poor photography skills couldn't capture," says Damon Dominique, a travel blogger at Shut Up And Go. "I edit the colors of all of my pictures. but that's simply because I feel like the colors I see on the street aren't truly represented in my original shots."
Social media is a virtual theater to show off how successful you are, and we all want to make sure that we're putting on a good performance. Having a blemish-free photo backdrop seems like a big part of it. After all, some influencers are known for posting flawless grams that are often "staged" and shot by semi-professional photographers — with some level of retouching involved.
However, the lines are significantly blurrier when influencers are profiting from promoting destinations and hotels to their sizable followings. These influencers are essentially selling a dream lifestyle of constantly jet-setting to exotic locales — one that is paid for in part by funding from corporate brands. However, the power of influencer marketing stems from the endorsement being "authentic," but how real can these portrayals really be?
By projecting a life of perpetually sunny locales, pristine hotel beds, and, in Liana's case, virtually empty landmarks, they are creating a false representation of a place — an experience their millions of followers might find impossible to replicate for themselves. The fact that non-travel brands like Revolve Clothing and Light and Free Yoghurt have been tagged as sponsors in some of Liana's most debated posts adds another layer to the equation: Are these brands also aware of the potentially falsified depiction?
The reason most influencers have such large followings is for the fantasy created. [Instagram is] a highly curated portion of a person’s life, not reality.
Doctoring your images to twist the perception of reality used to be a serious offense: Photographer Steve McCurry — renowned for his National Geographic cover of The Afghan Girl — was under fire for using editing techniques to remove background figures in some of his photographs. Influencers are not photojournalists by trade, but online, they're under a similar level of scrutiny. Authorities, like the FTC, even have reason to keep a close eye on the scandal, as rules regulating sponsorship disclosures may come into play.
Liana has issued a response on her blog, stating that her photos are "shot at the time in the locations I specify," and that any level of retouching may include "improving the light, tidying the background and other enrichments, but always in a way that is representative to the true setting and always in a way that reflects my aesthetic."
For Freddy Rodriguez, a fashion and travel blogger at Blue Perk, the issue seems to be more about honesty: "You can compare Photoshop to makeup: We all want to present our best selves or photos," he says. "The reason most influencers have such large followings is for the fantasy created. It’s a highly curated portion of a person’s life, not reality. I think [Liana] should be honest and not deny what is obviously an edited photo. There is no shame in creating a beautiful image that her followers look up to her for. She is sharing a fantasy photo that allows them to live vicariously through her — but denying it isn't ethical."