I held up a juicy red watermelon wedge from the breakfast buffet against the azure Maldivian waters reflecting the ridiculously blue skies above. I felt stupidly pleased with the reds and blues contrasting and popping in the photo, taking what’s really a cookie-cutter Instagram photo.
But I suddenly felt a wave of emotions wash over me. First, gratitude for my travel companions, my parents, who were finally on vacation after almost a decade of constrained travel due to a disorder my dad suffered, which a new miracle medicine has been able to alleviate. But then, just as quickly, came the guilt and shame for the privilege allowing me to travel while millions around the world suffered.
And, finally… terror at how people would judge me for my choice to travel in a time of universal grief and loss, and the unwillingness to become a subject of anyone’s hate. So, I decided to censor my getaway. It was to be a secret vacation meant for just close friends, family and now, well, you.
People have strong opinions about what’s popping up on their Instagram feeds these days.
“It is the height of vulgarity to flaunt those ridiculous pictures,” Indian author and person-with-lots-of-opinions Shobhaa De said earlier this week. “Enjoy Maldives by all means. You are blessed if you can get such a break in these bleak times. But do everyone a favour… keep it private.”
De said this while sharing Bollwood celebrity manager Rohini Iyer’s Insta Story, which had similar sentiments.
“You're not only coming across as brainless but also completely blind and tone-deaf,” Iyer had said in all caps. “This is not the time to boost your Instagram numbers. This is the time to step up and help or if you can't do anything, then shut up and stay home. Or stay quiet in your holiday home... masked up. No photos. This is not fashion week or Kingfisher calendar time!”
Honestly, I get it. The decision to travel is a personal one but when you put your #blessed moments out there, it’s not an acknowledgement of your blessedness as much as it’s cashing in bragging rights. Instagram is fun, no doubt, but also essentially a press release for your life, a way to show off a carefully curated version of your best self. It’s a way of saying life is beautiful when for many others, it’s been turned upside down.
When it comes to travel, especially, the flexing can be hard. While social and economic inequities have existed forever, this extraordinary pandemic is probably the first time people like me are wondering whether to avoid posting on Instagram for the very reason it was built.
I took my muddled thoughts to author and ethics expert Bruce Weinstein who, as “The Ethics Guy,” writes and speaks vociferously on ethics in everyday life. He prompted me to think about how no one in the history of civilisation has ever asked anyone to see their vacation photos.
“These photos are of great interest to us,” he reminds me. “They bring back warm memories of time well spent. But if we post these photos on social media, who will be looking at them?”
Weinstein segregated our likely Instagram followers into three categories: people who weren’t fortunate enough to be able to go on any holidays themselves; people who have gone on holiday but weren’t able to afford the trip we just took; and people who can afford to go on an exotic trip but who haven’t been able to do so because of obligations or fears that prevented them from doing so.
“For all three groups, the consequence of our posting photos of our trip will be one or more of these negative emotions: anger, jealousy, sorrow, or resentment,” he said.
Travel photos at such a time are essentially different from, say, photos of you baking banana bread. While once clumped together under good-looking things from our lives to stylise and document, today, one can come across as making good use of indoor time by picking up a skill and the other, just highly irresponsible. Just like flight-shaming has gained momentum as part of an anti-air-travel environmental movement, the pandemic pushed travel overall into a moral sphere. But with differing views on what constitutes safety, varying ideas on what people feel they need to do in these apocalyptic times, and also varying geography-based restrictions, travel and its online documentation remain in the grey area of ethics.
“What good purpose does posting these photos on social media have?” asks Weinstein, in a bid for us to ask ourselves. “Very little to none. For the few people in our lives who would in fact like to see such photos, we can send them to each person one by one (which is a more personal and respectful way to do this anyway).”
This does underscore the idea of using a social network for a social reason but there are benefits to digital detachment, as I found out on my trip. Not having to choose the best photos and then the perfect elusive caption just made me more conscious and grateful for being able to catch a break from the doom and gloom. I am also grateful that my Instagramming is not part of my job and not the reason I’m able to pay my bills. For travel influencers, the question of what to publish and how to do it is much more complex.
“Making ethical decisions involves, in part, considering the consequences of our actions,” said Weinstein. “Based on the facts above, I don’t see any compelling reason [for people like me] to post the photos on social media, but there are several compelling reasons for not doing so. It would be wonderful if we all cared deeply about the good fortune our friends have that we don't enjoy. But that's not the world we live in.”
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