NAtacha de Mahieu arrived in August 2021 at the edge of Obersee, a remote lake surrounded by lush green mountains and dramatic waterfalls in a southeastern corner of Germany. It was cool; rain pelted. “It wasn’t that fun to be there. It was so cold and everything was wet,” said De Mahieu, 26, she says, laughing, from her home in Brussels.
Tourists came and took portraits of themselves against the view. De Mahieu noted that as soon as anyone stepped in front of the camera, despite the cold, they shed their layers to convey the image of a blissful summer. In front of the camera: T-shirts, flowing dresses. Behind: swathes of padded jackets. It was Instagram versus reality.
De Mahieu’s photo series, which she calls “Theatre of Authenticity,” explores the connection between tourism and spectacle, and how we travel when we think no one is watching. The photos form the final project of her master’s degree in documentary photography and combine the three topics that concern her most: tourism, social media and climate change.
“I love to travel,” says De Mahieu, recalling a trip to Bolivia when she first became interested in photography at 18. “I’m also very curious as to why we love to travel and what our motivations are.” Adding, “I spend too much time on social media.” Scrolling through Instagram, De Mahieu “got the feeling that everyone going to the same places, using the same photographic compositions and the same colors”. It set off a Generation Z artist dilemma. Surrounded by endless digital content, she began to wonder if she would ever create something truly unique.
And so De Mahieu took that concern for uniqueness and gave it a twist. She would take exactly the kind of picture that tens of thousands had already taken. But instead of doing what many camera-wielding tourists have done when confronted with a crowded destination — blocking out the other people in view and delivering an image that suggests they are alone, surrounded by natural splendor — they would more people Add.
She started by identifying some of the most geotagged European tourist destinations on Instagram, including Lake Obersee, the romantic Turkish region of Cappadocia (famous for its hot air balloons), Spain’s Bardenas Reales desert, and the rocks Calanques (Bays) in Marseille. When she traveled to these destinations in her motorhome over the summer, she typically spent two days at each location. The first day was dedicated to exploring the area and finding the best shooting angle. The next day, she set her camera on a tripod and took intermittent photos for an hour to document the comings and goings of tourists. In editing, she used Photoshop to create a time-lapse collage showing everyone who had visited the area over 60 minutes. A finished image can take up to a week to perfect.
There is a version of this project that would take on some of the world’s most popular landmarks: hikers on the Great Wall of China; Hundreds pretending to support the Leaning Tower of Pisa. But de Mahieu made a conscious decision to go off the beaten track. “I wanted to show the impact of this kind of ‘invisible tourism’ on these places. When I say invisible, I mean that you have the feeling of being alone there. But over an hour or an afternoon, a lot of people go there.”
It’s a commentary on how social media can quickly turn a place into a must-see travel destination – an Instagram post from an influencer can open the floodgates – and also how that fame can have harmful environmental effects (im June this year, Marseille’s Calanques National Park for the first time limited visitor numbers to protect the rock formations). “Climate change is very real and very obvious,” says De Mahieu; It is “natural” that her work addresses these concerns.
She doesn’t see herself as exempt from the culture she depicts in her photos. De Mahieu loves to travel and admits she spends too much time on social media; In her own photography, too, she feels the pervasive influence of the Instagram aesthetic (soft pastels, a clean composition that fits the standard square shape—”I’m like: No! I don’t want that!”). Rather than judging, her photographs are a playful invitation to reflect: about what we are looking for when we leave home; how our everyday decisions are influenced by the fascination of a beautiful image and why, in a culture that values individuality, we all seem to long for it, standing in our best summer clothes in front of a small wooden house by the lake, surrounded by the mountains and trees and the open bodies of water – and absolutely no one else.
CappadociaTurkey, November 2019
Marked 2.2m times on Instagram (based on images tagged with location at the time of Publication)
“Every day at sunrise, hot air balloons filled with tourists fly over the mountain ridges of the Cappadocia region in central Turkey,” says Natacha de Mahieu. “Here, travelers take selfies while a couple proposes on a vintage car in front of a professional photographer. In this series I wanted to play with the line between reality and fiction: are these photos ‘real’ or ‘fake’?”
The Calanques of MarseilleFrance, May 2021
Marked 132,000 times
“The rocky limestone cliffs and emerald coves of the Calanques in southern France attract more than 3 million visitors each year. As the region is difficult to access on foot, specially authorized boat tours are offered for tourists, criss-crossing each other’s wakes.”
Lac Blanc, ChamonixFrance, August 2021
Marked 44,200 times
“Reachable after a two-hour climb of 500 meters after a cable car ride to 1,877 meters, Lac Blanc offers stunning views of Mont Blanc, the highest mountain in the Alps, on the eastern edge of France. This collage is made up of photos taken over an hour.”
Bardenas Reales Desert, Spain, June 2021
Marked 96,200 times
“Bardenas Reales is a semi-desert landscape in northern Spain. The Castildetierra rock formation pictured here can be seen in many Instagram portraits. I included myself in this photo because the series is also a way for me to reflect on my own practice as a tourist and photographer.”
Gorges du Verdon, France, July 2021
Marked 216,000 times
“The Gorges du Verdon in south-eastern France is the largest river gorge in Europe and is growing in popularity. I took this photo from a great distance and height to reference Romantic landscape imagery. ”
Obersee, Germany, August 2021
Marked 43,500 times
“The fisherman’s hut on the edge of a lake used to be completely inconspicuous. Then came Instagram. This collage reflects the competition that arises when we all try to find the best spot for a selfie.”
Peneda-Gerês National Park, Portugal, June 2021
Tagged 83,800 times
“This image in Portugal’s only national park was captured remotely using a wireless connection between my camera and phone. I found tourists politely stepping out of line when I stayed close to my camera. The only way to compose this image was to leave my camera on a tripod and walk away and press the shutter remotely.”
Pont d’Arc, Ardeche Gorges, France, July 2021
Marked 126,400 times
“This collaged image of the Pont d’Arc, a large natural bridge in the Ardèche region of south-eastern France, was created from photographs taken over a period of 80 minutes at the height of the tourist season. The final result from 100 images took more than a week.”