Grammed to Death? Locations and Instagram Clichés



Two years ago I found myself wandering around the dusty industrial heartlands of Barking and Dagenham. I had just started a project exploring London’s boroughs. I got some interesting shots of pylons and flood barriers, but had been walking for nearly four hours and was ready to drop. I only kept going because I knew the Holy Grail was just around the corner.

Some online research had led me to the Charlton Crescent Subway (above) – a colourful pedestrian tunnel dotted with LED lights. It is tucked underneath the A13 arterial road and hidden between nondescript residential streets. In many ways it is the perfect location. It offers plenty of opportunities to play with depth of field, converging lines and symmetry – in other words, Instagram gold dust.

I found it by running a search on Google Images looking for subways, tunnels, overpasses and underpasses in the area. Clearly I wasn’t the first person to take a photo of it but I can confidently lay claim to being the first to discover it for Instagram (tell me if you can see it posted anywhere earlier than June 2014). Over the months that followed, it started to appear all over IG and became one of the most popular photo spots in London.

Not once did anyone say where they had first seen the subway and I have to admit it irritated me at first. I had put in the research to find it and all of sudden everyone was going there and taking their own version of my shot. You cannot copyright a place of course, but some credit would have been nice.

Why did it bother me so much? Was it righteous indignation or plain old insecurity? Maybe I was worried someone would come up with a better image than me.

A similar thing happened during my first year on Instagram. It seemed that every time I posted a new photo of the London Underground, a user who followed me would go and take an almost identical shot a few days later. I didn’t pay too much attention to it at first (imitation is the sincerest form of flattery and all that) but as he never mentioned where he got the inspiration, it drove me mad eventually. I challenged him after the fifth or sixth time it happened and he said there was nothing wrong with what he was doing. I disagreed, we argued some more and ended up blocking each other.

Looking back at these episodes, I now realise that my reactions were petty and I might have prevented them arising simply by not geotagging my photos. At the time I naively thought Instagram was all about sharing ideas and giving credit where it was due. If I ever went to take a photo of a spot I had seen on someone’s feed I would always mention or tag them into the picture. I couldn’t understand why other people wouldn’t do the same.

I am a lot more relaxed about things like this now. Who was I kidding anyway? Locations go viral on Instagram just as cute little puppy videos go viral on YouTube. I have come to terms with the fact that I don’t ‘own’ any location and realise the subway in Barking would have been ‘discovered’ sooner or later and then instagrammed to death. That is just the nature of social media.

It amuses me that so many people are still reluctant to share their favourite photo spots, because it really isn’t that hard to find out where something is if you are prepared to put in a little donkey-work. For example, I saw this car park pop up several times on my feed and immediately wanted to visit it myself. I had no idea where it was but it took me about half an hour to track it down by googling as many London areas as I could think of along with the words ‘car park’ (it’s in Canary Wharf by the way). I could have just asked of course, but have been ignored enough times to know better.

Last month I met up with Lisa, a Seattle-based Instagrammer taking a year off to travel the world. She was staying in London for the New Year period, which gave us the chance to finally meet in person after following each other for years. We were chatting about photography and London when she mentioned that she had spent ages trying to find a tunnel at Kings Cross St Pancras Underground station. She finally found her way to it with the help of station staff and got the prized photo she wanted.

The tunnel in question opened in 2014 and every time I walk past, I see more people photographing its spectacular 90m long illuminated wall rather than using it a means of getting from one place to another. A year ago, I took Geny (visiting from the UAE) over to it and several months later, Marco from Italy asked me where he could find it. People from all over the world have been coming to Kings Cross Station to take a photo of a tunnel!

It occurred to me that Instagram is creating a new kind of tourism. Pedestrian walkways, spiral staircases and car parks are taking their place in London’s iconography alongside the traditional tourist meccas of Big Ben, Buckingham Palace and Tower Bridge. These previously unloved and obscure spots have become destinations in their own right purely because of their photographic potential. It is a phenomenon that is happening in urban centres all over the world. I can immediately recognise an apartment building in Hong Kong or an underground station in Stockholm because of the currency they have gained on Instagram.

I don’t see this as a bad thing because people are now seeing beauty where they didn’t see it before. It just makes originality that much harder when new places pass into cliché within a matter of days and weeks. Clichés are every where you look on Instagram: whether it be a superimposed plane here, an empty tunnel there, a vintage car on a leafy street or a group of posing twenty-somethings staring away from the camera. The images, locations and filters are immediately recognisable and somehow reassuring.

I enjoy a well-delivered cliché as much as anyone, it is just much more fun to try and put your own slant on a well-known place or theme. You can do this in multiple ways, either through straightforward photography, creative editing or a combination of both. I challenge myself to make the familiar look unfamiliar and I am now challenging you to do the same.

Below is a Google Map with all my favourite photo locations in London. It contains over 50 spots, including famous landmarks and places that are a little harder to track down. I will keep adding to it as I discover new ones. I hope it will be a useful resource to anyone who lives in London or is planning a visit. If you find it helpful and manage to get some good pictures out of it, do let me know – I would love to see them. Now go out and make these places your own!


Is it ever okay to #putaplaneonit?

Abstract plane

One of the best books I read last year was Jon Ronson’s So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed. It explores the phenomenon of internet shaming through the experiences of people whose lives have been ruined by the online reaction to a mistake they have made. In all cases, they suffer consequences that are massively disproportionate to the offence they committed. They include a journalist whose career was wrecked when it was discovered he had made up a quote; a PR executive vilified for tweeting a joke in poor taste and a careworker who was sacked from her job when a Facebook photo surfaced of her posing ‘disrespectfully’ in front a war memorial.

Ronson is disturbed by the way in which otherwise decent and sane people weigh in to these daily outpourings of self-righteous anger. Social Media has certainly given a platform to marginalised voices and reactions of this kind serve a useful purpose when holding corrupt governments or corporations to account. However, things start to look a lot more sinister when the target is an individual who has simply made a minor transgression.

The latest scapegoat of this mass outrage is Chay Yu Wei, an amateur photographer from Singapore. He won a Nikon photo competition for this image. The prize was a bag. It soon emerged that he had superimposed the plane using an app called Picsart. When Nikon found out, they cancelled the prize and Chay posted a lengthy apology.

Anyone interested in architectural images on Instagram would immediately spot that the plane was added in afterwards. It is a well-worn trope and over 8000 pictures are tagged #putaplaneonit. Some are done extremely well and others are clumsier. I made a video a couple of weeks ago gently mocking this whole trend of adding plane silhouettes. Some may find it irritating, but it is a harmless enough thing to do.

It turns out that Chay’s crime was not that he doctored his photo, but the fact that he misled people about it. When he originally posted it, someone asked him how long he had to wait for the plane to pass. He responded: “Not too long, I was lucky.” To make things worse, his picture looked very similar to one posted by a fellow Singaporean Lee Yik Keat (who freely admitted he added the plane afterwards). The backlash was furious. By yesterday afternoon it was the second highest trending article on the BBC website. The comments under his apology are initially supportive before getting increasingly aggressive:

“Lies, lies and more lies. Bellend.”

“…You should hang your head in absolute shame. If I were you, I’d give up photography…”

“Disgusting. Really disgusting. You have shamed photography.”

“Your apology is nothing but a half-ass attempt to reverse something you can’t turn around. Have a nice day, now go fuck yourself.”

“Kill yourself please.”

By adding a plane onto his photo, Chay had not only tricked his way into winning a competition, he had grievously undermined the integrity of photography as an art form. I was taken aback by the strength of feeling towards this and checked the Instagram profiles of those who expressed their disgust in such strong terms. I was expecting to find galleries filled with images that were perfectly exposed and told a moving story about the human condition. Instead I found gurning selfies, fluffy kittens and Starbucks lattes.

Nevertheless, this reaction gave me pause to think about the images I’ve created over the last couple of years. Here are just some of the sins I have committed:

In other words, I use almost every editing trick available to make my pictures.

There seems to be an expectation among the outraged commenters that photography has to be ‘real’ and reveal the ‘truth’. Yet creative editing has been around as long as the medium itself. Whilst the likes of Vivian Maier, Ansel Adams, Diane Arbus and Henri Cartier-Bresson have elevated it to a serious art form, there has always been a more playful side to it as these 19th century trick photos demonstrate.

I had long enjoyed playing with different apps but got more interested in editing when a combination of family circumstances curtailed the time I had to go out and take new photos. As frustrated as I was not to be able to develop my skill as a photographer, I found a new creative outlet and it was completely liberating. The reaction on Instagram has generally been positive until recently when someone wrote: “Please stop adding people silhouettes, they’re so much better without!”

This made me think, what do people expect from my images and should I care? The etiquette on Instagram means that comments are almost always supportive so when a rare critical one appears, (even one as mild as that) it makes you think about what you’re doing.

The answer is that I do care because otherwise why bother sharing pictures online in the first place? The important thing to keep in mind is that it is all meant to be fun. None of us are journalists risking our lives to take photos from a warzone, so does it matter if our photos are 100% realistic or not? Nobody complains that the latest Star Wars film has been computer generated, so why can’t the same thing apply to images shared on social media?

The key is to be open about it. I don’t explicitly state if or how I have edited a picture, but it usually pretty easy to tell. If asked how I created it, I will happily share my editing techniques and say what apps I used. The medium of photography is surely big enough to accommodate realism and creative editing. People only get upset when they think you are trying to deceive them in some way. Chay went wrong by pretending his image was something it wasn’t. He still doesn’t deserve the abuse though. If anything the competition organisers are at fault for not spotting something so obvious.

So if you ever feel tempted to #putaplaneonit, own up to it from the start and nobody will mind.