NOTatacha de Mahieu arrived at the edge of Obersee, a secluded lake surrounded by green mountains and spectacular waterfalls in a corner of southeastern Germany, in August 2021. It was chilly; the rain fell. “It wasn’t that fun being there. It was so cold and everything was wet,” De Mahieu, 26, said from her home in Brussels, laughing.
Tourists came and took portraits of themselves against the view. De Mahieu noticed that, as soon as someone stood in front of the camera, they took off their layers in defiance of the cold to convey the image of a radiant summer. In front of the camera: T-shirts, flowing dresses. Behind, panels of quilted jackets. It was Instagram versus reality.
De Mahieu’s photo series, which she calls Theater of Authenticity, explores the connection between tourism and spectacle, and how we perform when we travel, particularly when we think no one is watching us. The photos are the final project of her master’s degree in documentary photography and bring together the three issues that concern her the most: tourism, social media and climate change.
“I love to travel,” says De Mahieu, recalling a trip to Bolivia when she was 18 as the time she became interested in photography. “I’m also very curious about why we love to travel and our motivations.” And, she adds, “I spend too much time on social media.” Scrolling through Instagram, De Mahieu began to get “the feeling that everyone is going to the same places, using the same photographic compositions, the same colors”. This sparked the dilemma of a very Gen Z artist. 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 precisely the kind of photo that tens of thousands of people had already taken. But rather than do what many camera-wielding tourists have done in a crowded destination — block out other people in view and provide an image that suggests they’re alone surrounded by natural splendor — it would add more people.
She started by identifying some of the most geotagged European tourist destinations on Instagram, including Lake Obersee, the romantic region of Cappadocia in Turkey (famous for its hot air balloons), the Spanish desert of Bardenas Reales and the rocks creeks (creeks) in Marseilles. Traveling to these destinations in her RV throughout the summer, she typically spent two days at each location. The first day was reserved to mark out the area and find the best angle of view. The next day, she set up her camera on a tripod and took photos at hourly intervals, documenting the comings and goings of tourists. During the edit, she used Photoshop to produce a time-lapse collage that showed everyone who had visited the area for 60 minutes. A finished image can take up to a week to be perfect.
There is a version of this project that would feature some of the world’s most popular landmarks: the walkers atop the Great Wall of China; hundreds pretending to support the Leaning Tower of Pisa. But De Mahieu deliberately chose destinations 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 when you’re there, you feel like you’re alone. But over an hour, or an afternoon, there are a lot of people who go there.
It’s a commentary on how social media is able to quickly turn somewhere into a go-to destination – an Instagram post from an influencer can open the floodgates – and also how that notoriety can have detrimental effects on the environment (in June this year, the Calanques de Marseille national park capped visitor numbers for the first time to protect the rock formations). “Climate change is very real and very obvious,” says De Mahieu; it was “completely natural” that his work addressed these concerns.
She does not consider herself exempt from the culture portrayed in her photos. De Mahieu loves to travel and admits she spends too much time on social media. even in her own photography, she feels the pervasive influence of Instagram’s aesthetic (soft pastel colors, careful composition that suits the default square shape – “I’m like: no! I don’t want it !”). His photographs, rather than passing judgment, are a playful invitation to reflect: on what we are looking for when we leave the house; how our daily decisions are influenced by the allure of a beautiful picture, and why, in a culture that values individuality, we all seem to crave that picture of ourselves standing in front of a little wooden house on the lake in our best summer, surrounded by mountains and trees and open waters – and absolutely no one else.
CappadociaTurkey, November 2019
Labeled 2.2m times on Instagram (based on images tagged in location at 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 stages a marriage proposal on a classic car in front of a professional photographer. In this series, I wanted to play with the boundary between reality and fiction: are these photos “real” or “faked”?
The Calanques of MarseilleFrance, May 2021
Tagged 132,000 times
“The limestone rock cliffs and emerald coves of the Calanques in southern France attract over 3 million visitors each year. Since the region is difficult to reach on foot, specially authorized boat trips operate for tourists, plying each other’s wakes.
Lac Blanc, ChamonixFrance, August 2021
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“Lac Blanc is accessible by a 500 meter ascent in two hours after a cable car ride to 1,877 meters and offers breathtaking views of Mont Blanc, the highest mountain in the Alps, east of France. This collage is made of photos taken over an hour.
Bardenas Reales desert, Spain, June 2021
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“Bardenas Reales is a semi-desert landscape in northern Spain. The Castildetierra rock formation pictured here features in many Instagram portraits. I included myself in this photo because the series is also a way for me to reflect on my own practices as a tourist and photographer.
Verdon Gorge, France, July 2021
Tagged 216,000 times
“The Gorges du Verdon in southeastern France is the largest river canyon in Europe and has become increasingly popular. I took this photo from afar and from above to reference landscape paintings from the romantic period. ”
Obersee, Germany, August 2021
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“The fisherman’s hut that sits on the edge of a lake used to be completely unremarkable. Then came Instagram. This collage reflects the competition that occurs when we each try to find the best spot for a selfie. »
Peneda-Geres national park, Portugal, June 2021
Tagged 83,800 times
“This image, inside Portugal’s only national park, was taken remotely using a wireless connection between my camera and my phone. I found that if I stayed close to my camera, tourists would politely step out of frame. The only way to compose this image was to leave my camera on a tripod, step away, and press the shutter button from afar.
Pont d’Arc, Ardeche gorges, France, July 2021
Tagged 126,400 times
“This pasted image of the Pont d’Arc, a large natural bridge in the Ardèche, south-eastern France, was made from photographs taken over an 80-minute period at the height of the tourist season. The final result, made from 100 images, took over a week to complete.