From Insta Repeat. All images courtesy Emma Sheffer.

Instagram travel accounts — which tend to showcase photographs of sweeping, saturated landscapes with nary a body in sight (save for, maybe, the photographer’s blushing lover) — have changed travel: social media-fueled tourism is real. The images on your phone and whatever envy they provoke are, apparently, a great impetus for getting on a plane.

But the ubiquity of such accounts has rendered even the most striking among them utterly predictable: most feature a cleanly-hued morass of pine trees, clasped hands, aquamarine water, and still-exercising-on-vacation #fitspo. Browse through the app long enough, and most Instagram travel photographs start to look invariably the same, save for a filter shade a couple degrees higher or lower.

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Hand hold 🤝with girl

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Insta Repeat, an Instagram account advertising “Déjà Vu Vibes” — the way another account might herald wanderlust vibes — aggregates images from various unrelated travel accounts into collages of nearly indistinguishable photos: twelve disembodied hands holding a leaf; twelve white girlfriends reaching back for their photographer-boyfriend’s hands; twelve drone shots of snowy treetops; twelve alarmingly meta handheld phones, mid-photograph, capturing a scene in a scene. Currently, Insta Repeat features 112 posts; the first was a collage of centered photographs of people in canoes, taken from behind, vistas stretched out before them like new horizons.

Emma Sheffer, the filmmaker managing the account, told Hyperallergic over email: “I think we all constantly see imagery pop up around us that is familiar, but on Instagram it seems to be almost encouraged by the monetization of popularity. I was interested in this and the growing repetition in images and the reasons why they were continuing to be popular and continuing to be produced.”

According to Design Boom, Instagram’s influencer market value will reach 2.38 billion US dollars in 2019, which makes the fact that I’m writing about influencers, even indirectly, feel slightly painful. In our email exchange, Sheffer went on: “Social media is a popularity contest. Popularity has never fostered risk taking or originality. I mean, think about high school.” (It’s the truth. I shuddered in response.)  “Overall, I’m not trying to be the arbiter of what photos have value and what don’t. I am just making observations about the homogeneous content that is popular on Instagram. I also think there’s an incredible amount of value in emulation both when someone is learning and continuing their craft. Improving upon and building upon what has been done, I think, is an important part the evolution of art. However, what I am particularly interested in on Instagram is that popular, established ‘top’ content creators are following a very strict aesthetic framework with very little deviation. This goes beyond mere emulation and learning.”

Even outside of those popular content creators, it’s true that those tiny images, over and over and over, have taken on wildly similar qualities, a growing language of sarcastically abbreviated captions, casual self-aggrandizement, dewy skin. Perhaps there’s something accidentally poignant, too, about so many small boats, leaves, and thin bodies moving nowhere — frozen, free of dynamism, and unwittingly timeless by virtue of their easy mimicry. It’s a testament to Insta Repeat’s artistic appeal that the collages form their own pretty, recapitulated gradients, over and over, then still fall as flat as their dimensions.

Monica Uszerowicz is a writer and photographer in Miami, FL. She has contributed work to BOMB, Los Angeles Review of Books' Avidly channel, Hazlitt, VICE, and The Miami Rail.

7 replies on “The Alarming Homogeneity of Instagram Travel Photos”

  1. I believe this is actually old news, and not something we can blame on social media. Many, many years ago, long before social media were thought of, people were taking snapshots. Someone in the snapshot business — Kodak or Polaroid or some other company like that — collected thousands of these snapshots in order to improve their cameras or film for the kind of pictures their customers seemed to want to take. One of the remarkable things about the pictures was their similarity. No doubt articles were written by theorists worrying that the box camera was making everyone think alike. (It’s a machine! Help!!) But it seems likely that people thought alike before the box camera (or social media) came along. In fact, the photos shown in the article are slightly more interesting than most of the ones I’ve seen in old photo albums, but they are certainly organized similarly. I think we’re observing something about human nervous systems and thought processes here, and not the dread social media. And if people do want to do a serial group thing about grottos or the road ahead or long streaked hair, so what? It’s not the end of the world. We’ve got heavier-duty stuff than Instagram to end the world with.

    1. True! but it’s not only photography, it has been like that with all the arts since forever, just look at the millions of amateur paintings depicting the same Parisian scenes in the same manner or the millions of identical amateur poems about sunsets, etc…

      1. Indeed – to say nothing of the avocational painters who happily and harmlessly copy other works. But for some, painting is more a craft than an art, and I don’t see any problem in it. For the more artistically ambitious, it’s another matter.

  2. Indeed this is not new and not limited to Instagram, though I-gram no doubt becomes an echo chamber.
    Anyone who’s taught intro photography classes has noted the similarities in many, perhaps most new photographers’ efforts. In a 20+ year group, we see more differentiated work, sometimes punctuated with deliberate riffs on another member’s style or subject.
    As to “popularity,” many competitions regularly reward the “WOW” factor over originality.

  3. I’m more alarmed by the apparently unacknowledged preponderance of white people as ‘influencers’ juxtaposed in the phrases “unrelated Instagram accounts” and “I think we all constantly see imagery pop up around us that is familiar” and “social media undermines originality” and the fact every single person in the images is part of an endless parade of white people on vacation. Is it possible that instead of blaming social media for homogeneity the articulator could could take some responsibility for their own ‘selection of importance’ bias habits. It’s almost as if white insularity is so normalised for this person not even the natural backgrounds have an identity beyond the person present in it. This is indicative of a spiritually isolated poverty of cultural insight dressed up as a deep and meaningful comment on the whole human condition.

    Actually, I correct myself. I am not alarmed at all. I am eternally expectant that this withered intellectual dimension will always hold itself up to self examination and importance because that is the foundation of white civilisation and so of course it is expressed in the art of white people, sorry ALL people. I have to keep reminding myself that to a lot of white people (and the white artist/commentator in particular to this article), anyone who isn’t white is even less important than the background in that barely existing in their pictures is better than not existing at all in their words.

    White people do not speak for all people even when they think they do. If you’re going to isolate yourself from the existence of all other people and the whole of the natural environment then really you forfeit the right to comment on or make art about, anything beyond your own physical existence. I know that may sound boring as an artist, but it’s a lot less distressing for all those around you who are invisible to you and it least takes responsibility for your own self important fascinations instead of projecting your curatorial prejudice onto humanity and nature as whole.

    1. I completely agree with what you’re saying. Though I am white, I don’t look like any of these folks. Plus I would much rather interact with people of all kinds of colors/cultures/etc. This is why for me, Instagram (and to some degree, SM in general) feels so fake, and makes me not very inspired to join in.

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