Natacha de Mahieu arrived on the shores of the remote Lake Obersee, surrounded by green mountains and dramatic waterfalls, in the south-eastern corner of Germany, in August 2021. It was cold; It is raining. “It wasn’t that fun to be there. It was very cold and everything was cold,” de Mahieu, 26, she says with a laugh from her home in Brussels.
Tourists came and took pictures of themselves against the scenery. De Mahieu noticed that, as soon as someone stepped in front of the camera, they shed their layers to convey an image of joyous summer, defying the cold. In front of the camera: T-shirts, floaty dresses. Behind it: padded jackets. It was Instagram versus reality.
De Mahieu’s photo series, which she calls Theater of Authenticity, explores the link between tourism and spectacle, and how we perform when we travel, especially when we think no one is watching. The photos form a graduation project for her master’s degree in documentary photography, and bring together the three issues she cares most about: tourism, social media and climate change.
“I love to travel,” says de Mahieu, recalling a trip to Bolivia when she was 18 that sparked her interest in photography. “I’m very curious about why we love to travel, and also about our motivations.” And, she adds: “I spend a lot of time on social media.” Scrolling through Instagram, De Mahieu began to realize “everyone is going to the same place, using the same photographic compositions, the same colors.” This created a dilemma for many generation Z artists. Surrounded by endless digital content, she begins to wonder if she’ll ever make something truly unique.
And so de Mahieu took the worry about specificity, and gave it a twist. She would take exactly the kind of picture that thousands had already taken. But instead of doing what many a camera-wielding tourist has done when faced with a crowded destination—stop other people in the scene and deliver an image that suggests they’re alone, surrounded by natural beauty—she’ll add more people.
She began by identifying the most geotagged European tourist destinations on Instagram, including Lake Obersi, Turkey’s romantic Cappadocia region (famous for its hot air balloons), Spain’s Bardenas Reales desert, and the cliffs. creeks (coves) in Marseille. Traveling to these destinations in his campervan during the summer, he would usually spend two days in each place. The first day was devoted to scoping the area and finding the best angle to shoot. The next day, she set up her camera on a tripod and took photographs at hourly intervals, documenting the tourists coming and going. When editing, she uses Photoshop to produce a time-lapse collage showing all the people who visited the area over 60 minutes. A finished image can take up to a week to complete.
There is a version of this project that will take in some of the most popular landmarks around the world: the Great Wall of China walkers; Pretending to support a leaning tower of hundreds of pisa. But de Mahieu deliberately chose off-the-beaten-track destinations. “I want to show the effect of that kind of ‘invisible tourism’ in these places. When I say invisible, I mean that when you are there you feel alone. But for more than an hour, or in the afternoon, there are many people going there.
It’s a comment on how social media is able to quickly transform somewhere into a must-see destination – an Instagram post from an influencer can open the floodgates – and how this fame can have a detrimental environmental impact (in June of this year, the Calanques in Marseille. National Park for the first time visitors to protect the rock formations “Climate change is very real and very clear,” says De Mahieu; it was “very natural” that his work would respond to those concerns.
She does not consider herself free from the culture depicted in her photographs. De Mahieu loves to travel, and admits she spends a lot of time on social media; Even in her own photography, she feels the pervasive influence of the Instagram aesthetic (soft pastel colors, an orderly composition that fits into a predetermined square shape – “I’m like: No! I don’t need this!”). His photographs, rather than standing in judgment, are a playful invitation to think: what are we looking for when we leave home; How our everyday decisions are influenced by the allure of a beautiful image, and why, in a culture that prizes individuality, we all long for that shot of ourselves standing in front of a little wooden house on a lake in our summer. Mountains and trees and open water – and absolutely no one else.
CappadociaTurkey, November 2019
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“Every day at sunrise, hot air balloons filled with tourists fly over the mountain peaks of the Cappadocia region of central Turkey,” says Natacha de Mahieu. “Here, passengers take selfies, while a couple proposes in a vintage car in front of a professional photographer. In this series, I want to play with the line between reality and fantasy: are these photos ‘real’ or ‘fake’?
The Calanques of MarseilleFrance, May 2021
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“The rocky limestone cliffs and emerald bays of Calanques in the south of France attract more than 3 million visitors every year. As the area is difficult to reach on foot, special official boat tours are conducted for tourists, passing each other’s consciousness.
Lac Blanc, ChamonixFrance, August 2021
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“Lac Blanc can be reached after a 1,877-meter cable car ride followed by a two-hour climb of 500 meters, and offers stunning views of Mont Blanc, the highest mountain in the Alps on the east coast of France. This collage is made up of pictures taken in one hour.”
Royal Bardenas Desert, Spain, June 2021
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“Bardenas Reales is a semi-desert landscape in the north of Spain. The Castildetierra rock formation pictured here features in many Instagram portraits. I included myself in this photo because this series is a way for me to reflect on my own practices as a tourist and photographer.
Verdon Gorge, France, July 2021
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“The Gorges du Verdon, in south-eastern France, is the largest river gorge in Europe and has become increasingly popular. I took this photograph from a distance and above to refer to the landscape paintings of the Romantic period.”
Obersee, Germany, August 2021
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“A fishing shack by the lake used to be completely unremarkable. Then came Instagram. This collage reflects the competition that each of us has as we try to find the perfect selfie spot.”
Pineda-Gerres National Park, Portugal, June 2021
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“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, the tourists would politely step out of the frame. The only way I could compose this image was The trick is to leave my camera on the tripod, walk away and press the shutter remotely.”
Pont d’Arc, Ardeche Gorges, France, July 2021
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“This collaged image of the Pont d’Arc, a large natural bridge in the Ardeche, south-eastern France, was created from photographs taken over a period of 80 minutes during the height of the tourist season. The final result, made up of 100 photographs, took over a week to complete.”