Fake views: Why travel bloggers manipulate images
Prolific UK travel blogger Amelia Liana has come under fire for posting what appear to be doctored images of herself in fabled locales around the world.
Her Instagram followers were quick to spot that there was something missing from an image of her purportedly gazing out at the New York City skyline from the top of the Rockefeller Centre - the Freedom Tower that was built four years ago.
"That's not what NYC looks like," one commenter wrote. "And your reflection in the mirror isn't reversed. It's just copied and pasted on top."
Experts from The Times picture desk confirmed that an image of the 26-year-old blogger had been superimposed over an old image of New York.
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It wasn't the first time the London-based blogger had been called out for manipulating images. A photograph seemingly of her at the Taj Mahal in India also attracted unwanted attention, with followers pointing to the notably absent crowds and scaffolding, and a flock of birds which appeared to have been edited in.
But Liana, who has nearly 450,000 followers on Instagram, contends that all her photos are taken in real locations, although she concedes that she "may use all available techniques to enhance, sharpen or smarten" her images.
"I feel a great bond with you, my followers, and I would never wish to deceive you..." she says on her website. "I am striving for authenticity as well as giving you imagery that is stylish, progressive and inspiring."
If she has manipulated her images, she is far from alone. Travel bloggers, or social media "influencers" as many like to be known, often enhance their images in an effort to paint themselves and the places they visit in the best light. Doing so isn't always just an ego boost. Those that gain enough followers are often given free flights and accommodation, companies happy to pick up the bill - and pay them - to endorse their brands, products and services.
But in an era in which media organisations globally are accused of perpetuating "fake news", should bloggers be allowed to post images which are tantamount to ads without disclosing their backers? New Zealand-based bloggers tend to think not.
Faking it to make it
Vince Frascello, a self-professed adventurer, traveller and photographer who has posted numerous pictures of his travels around New Zealand on his website and social media, believes the main problem lies in influencers portraying pictures or stories as authentic when they're not.
"Almost everyone edits photos and there is nothing wrong with that, however when you try to pass off a photo as a genuine representation of a location, scene or experience and it's edited beyond a reasonable standard, you fall into a grey area of shady manipulation."
Frascello, who has 14,600 Instagram followers, doesn't have a problem with influencers editing and staging photos if they're upfront about it.
"But when you begin to mislead your followers, or even get financial compensation to pass an advertisement off as a "real scene", well you're just being a w..... when it really comes down to it."
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Sam Deuchrass, a photographer and University of Otago student with nearly 40,000 Instagram followers, also believes manipulated images can amount to misrepresentation.
"[P]hotographers and influencers have to be careful so that they are promoting the particular scene in a manner that was actually experienced at the time. If the night sky was amazing and the milky way was shining bright then by all means showcase that. However, don't Photoshop a fake scene in just for the likes."
Faking it, he says, promotes unrealistic ideals which followers may strive to emulate, inevitably leading to disappointment.
Deuchrass believes it is the desire to stand out from the crowd on social media - as well as increasing competition among influencers - that motivate people to manipulate images.
"With social media becoming increasingly saturated with people posting similar photos to each other, whether that's to say they have visited a certain location or just to fit in with their follow list, a new desire to be different to everyone has emerged."
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Influencers addicted to the "high" of social media success
Brando Yelavich, who describes himself as "a creative adventurer who carries a GoPro", argues that many bloggers who manipulate images are simply making the most of their medium.
"I look at Instagram as a canvas and content creation as the paint. There are a lot of staged and edited shots out there, but I wouldn't say that's a problem. Personally, I like to be authentic and raw as my goal is to inspire. I wouldn't try to pass off anything that's not."
But that doesn't mean Yelavich, who has 13,200 Instagram followers, won't edit his images to maximise their visual appeal.
"Photos often don't look as good until I put up the brightness and make them more vibrant etc. You'd have to be silly not to realise that everyone does that."
Like the others we spoke to, Yelavich believes that influencers' main responsibility to their followers is to be true to them. He can see how Liana's images could be construed as misleading, but thinks she could have avoided this if she had been clear that she was creating an "artist's impression" of the places she depicted.
"From an aesthetic point of view, those are beautiful images. But I do think it's wrong to be unauthentic to an audience that's inspired by your lifestyle. Lying to thousands of people is wrong... You have to ask yourself is she really travelling to these locations or is she sitting at her computer at home? Instagram has created a lot of people who pretend to be something they're not."
Yelavich likens Instagram to a drug, saying the more you put out there and the more likes and followers you amass as a result, the more you want to keep doing it.
"You do get a real dopamine release, a real high," he says.
Carmen Huter, an Austrian based blogger now based in New Zealand with 57,200 Instagram followers, says she can see how people get "carried away" with new photo editing technologies in their quest to create stand-out images.
"I think photography is a form of art and the beauty of art lies in the eye of the beholder. With that in mind, no form of dishonesty should ever be awarded and I strive to depict my experiences in the most authentic, natural way possible. I personally don't use Photoshop."
Near "impossible" to be discovered without extra help
All the bloggers we spoke to agreed that the life of an influencer is much harder than it looks, largely due to the huge amount of competition.
Frascello said it's almost impossible to make a living unless you're a "beautiful blonde bikini babe" happy to sacrifice your morals by stealing photos, or are just plain lucky.
"However if you can generate unique and special content, honestly connect with your followers and continue to push yourself to be the best, you might just make it."
It's a sentiment each of the other bloggers we spoke to concurred with.
"The market is highly competitive, but quality content will always succeed in the end," Huter says.
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