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!