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An image from photographer Natacha de Mahieu’s new series “Theatre of Authenticity” of Cappadocia, in Türkiye, where thousands of travellers jostle for space each morning to take selfies and pose on vintage cars. Photo: Natacha de Mahieu

Photos of people at top Instagram spots taking selfies are intended to tell us something about ourselves

  • Natacha de Mahieu’s series of images taken at some of the world’s most popular Instagram spots highlight how little people engage with the landscapes they snap
  • Using a time-lapse technique, she shows how even a location only recently popularised on Instagram is conceptually crowded

Photographer Natacha de Mahieu has been turning her lens on some of the world’s most photographed sights. But she’s not doing it to tell us anything new about them. She wants to tell us something about ourselves.

The 26-year-old Belgian photojournalist’s new series of images, “Theatre of Authenticity”, is a reaction to the way social media has brought us a form of mass individualism, in which many of us go to the same places and take the same images as everyone else – the ones we’ve seen on social media.

“I only choose natural places, because I like to have the feeling that I’m alone in a beautiful spot – it’s a kind of invisible tourism,” she says, on a video chat from Belgium.

But this is what everyone else does, too.

“In an afternoon or a week or through the summer season you can have so many people there. It’s not always something that you can feel, and it’s also not something that you can see on social media. Social media is the starting point for this kind of invisible mass tourism, where people are just showing themselves alone in places.”

This montage, photographed at Lac Blanc in Chamonix, France, over a period of about an hour, provides a snapshot of the footfall that contrasts with the images of untamed and empty nature found on Instagram under the hashtag #lacblanc. Photo: Natacha de Mahieu

De Mahieu sets up a camera to take pictures of people taking pictures in which the place is merely a backdrop for a portrait. Then, by careful selection and superimposition, she shows how even a location only recently popularised on Instagram is conceptually crowded.

It’s the same location, the same gesture, the same “look at me alone in beauty and loving it” posture repeated again and again and again.

There are two situations, she says. In the mountains, for example, you can always find places where nobody else is around and you feel really alone. But other locations are full of tourists, where everyone has to fight to find a place to take a picture.

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“The time-lapse technique allows me to show what I want in my pictures. Some are about the quantity of people going there, other ones are more to show how we all look at the landscape in the same way – an Instagrammable way, I think – highly influenced by social media.

“Others show the relationship that we have with other tourists when we are there.

“I just want to show how we are just presenting ourselves, and that we are not any more engaging with the landscape and looking at things. We are all in our own bubble.”

This collage of photos of a fisherman’s shack by a mountain lake in Germany questions the way we interact with others and the quasi-competition we engage in when trying to find the best spot for our selfie. Photo: Natacha de Mahieu

Her composite quiet bays are teeming with dozens of boats that have made individual visits; her sunflower fields are thronged with all the selfie-takers of a day seen simultaneously; and in the rocky landscape of Cappadocia, in Türkiye, the number of hot-air balloons in the early morning sky is matched by the number of people bending themselves at odd angles to capture them in the background of their portraits.

But perhaps this is all nothing new. Once we bought postcards showing idealised images of our locations, often impossibly empty of people however thronged in reality, and sent them off to say, “Look at me. I’m here.” (And you’re not. Envy me.)

De Mahieu agrees, but also looks back even further to paintings from colonial times with the same self-conscious exoticism, sometimes with local people used as props, and the same sense of privilege.

The photos for this montage of the Pont d’Arc in France were taken over a period of about 80 minutes at the height of the tourist season in 2021. Photo: Natacha de Mahieu

The new series sprang from an earlier one, “The Place Nobody Went”, which used traditional photography to show the absurdity of the desire to go everywhere.

The series highlighted in particular the way in which supposedly remote places swiftly adapt themselves to fit the preconceptions that tourists bring with them, and provide infrastructure that suits them.

“We go there looking for authenticity, but because we are going there is no more authenticity,” de Mahieu says. “The place is transformed.”

The Bardenas Reales semi-desert area in Spain offers amazing rocky landscapes that many compare to the American Grand Canyon. Photo: Natacha de Mahieu

The Theatre of Authenticity” series is more about being seen to be in a place made desirable by social media, and beyond that being able to see how much you’ve been seen, and finding value in that rather than in putting down the cameraphone and actually looking at the destination.

“I try to show people the connection between social media and mass tourism, and to affect their own practices. The work is a way to connect people’s thinking about that,” de Mahieu says.

“It’s very easy to understand, and you can take time to think about these different aspects, about social media, about going to the same places, about tagging new places where you are going.”

Tourists on a river in Myanmar in a photo from de Mahieu’s previous series, “The Place Nobody Went”. Photo: Natacha de Mahieu
Photographer Natacha de Mahieu. Photo: Natacha de Mahieu

Perhaps some may see that following others one by one down the same increasingly tired route to temporary immortality is little different from the organised group travel they often affect to despise.

Away from filters and careful camera angles, there’s a real world to be seen.

Some of Natacha de Mahieu’s work is on display at BredaPhoto, at Breda in the Netherlands, until October 23.