How Social Media Perpetuates Cliché Photography

Three key influencers discuss originality, the rise of copycat photographers, and the future of Instagram

A lit tent beneath a too-bright milky way. A headlamp beaming into the starry night sky. Feet hanging out of an open tent, or dangling over Horse Shoe Bend. An individual in a bright jacket at the end of a long cliff, staring off into oblivion. Maybe even a whole camp setup just feet from a water source. We’ve all seen these images. We know them by heart by now. But where did these scenes come from and how did they become so ubiquitous? Why is every photographer, from amateur to the well established, creating the same imagery over and over? And why now?

To discuss how these cliche images came to be so prevalent, why they continue to be replicated by pros and amateurs alike, and what we can do to avoid making redundant imagery ourselves, we recently gathered three key individuals in the outdoor space together for a panel workshop. Hosted at the Navarro, CA flagship event of Outpost—a new and unconventional take on the trade show that may better be described as adult summer camp for movers and shakers in the outdoor industry—and made possible in part by our friends at B+H, the panel was a blast. We likely didn’t solve any of the world’s problems, but we had quite a few laughs trying.

For those who weren’t able to attend in person, below are insightful quotations (edited for clarity) from each of our esteemed panelists on a range of key topics. (If you’re more into watching than reading, check out the hour+ video here and in the article footer).

The worst offenders

Mackenzie Duncan: Feet or legs in the back of the van, looking out the backdoors. It looks all pristine and clean, but often there’s a big parking lot on either side of you and a whole bunch of crap everywhere else. But you frame that out. That would be my big offender.

Luisa Jeffery: The ones that catch my eye all the time are obviously the tents in stupid places where you can’t sleep. People do that. Putting the light in the tent for the photo to make it stand out at night—that seems to be really popular.

Andrew T Kearns: The biggest trend that bugs me is when someone goes to a location and then everyone just flocks there. An example would be Peru. [Alex] Stroll went there recently and now all the kids are going to Peru, taking the same shots. That’s the biggest offender for me.

Trolltunga cliff in Norway, photography by @supertrampeur

Following the trends

Andrew: Being from Washington, the PNW, it was such a trendy place at the time [2015]. Everyone wanted to go out, shoot the foggy trees, shoot all this stuff—the people in the cool brim hats. And I started shooting that stuff a ton because I didn’t know any different. By 2016, I think I had like 300K followers. [Ed note: at time of publishing @andrewtkearns now has 491k followers]

Mackenzie: I spend a lot of time cruising around in my van, which is also a cliché.

"When everyone is doing the same thing, how are you going to add your little spin to it?" - @andrewtkearns

Avoiding trends and finding your own eye

Andrew: My biggest inspiration is how do I stand out and set myself apart. When everyone is doing the same thing, how are you going to add your little spin to it? Because you have to be ahead of the curve if you’re going to make it.

As a business person and an artist, I wanna be progressing. If I just sit there and milk my Instagram career and fall into the same trends as everyone else, I would just fade away like everyone else.

Mackenzie: As in any creative realm you use inspiration of people who’ve already taken that path. And I think in photography, as long as you use it to improve yourself as an artist, and then transition out of that into your own space, I think it’s fine. It’s when you stay in that realm of just riffing off of other stuff, that when it becomes a problem.

L-R: Andrew T Kearns, Luisa Jeffery, Mackenzie Duncan. Photograhy by Michael Hollender

The responsibility of being an outdoor photographer and the physical impact of places trending

Luisa: Where the problem for me is that no one talks about [getting permits and staging photos for commercial shoots]. So the copycats think that it’s real, or the kids think that it’s real, and people who are just trying to get into going outside think that it’s real...and then they go and do it.

Mackenzie: Whether you have permits or not, you’re setting a very bad example, creating an image that people think is authentic when it really isn’t.

"People eat it up, they love it. Whatever people are into is going to keep happening." - @youdidnotsleepthere

Andrew: You have to value what people see you as, and if you’re doing stuff like setting your tent closer than 100 feet to water, and lighting fires when there’s a fire ban… you look like a jerk. You’re breaking the law, you’re setting a terrible example.

I get pretty fed up when I see people doing that. I really like what you’re doing with You Did Not Sleep There because it brings a lot of awareness to that.

These online personalities, these influencer people, you have a job to do, you have an example to set. And I think a lot of people don’t take it as seriously as they should. It really gives people who are trying to do good and trying to get people outside a bad name.

Top row: Images by @jannikobenhoff, @elbunt, btonevibes. Bottown row: Images of Horse Shoe Bend by @reneeroamiing, @mimundo_avectoi, @petunia2323

Posting #ads and #sponsored content

Andrew: As an artist, 10 years ago you couldn’t support yourself that way. Even five years ago somebody who wanted to be a photographer, a videographer, they couldn’t do a post for x-amount of money to support themselves. We live in a day where you can be contacted by a company because of your work and you can support yourself in your dream. I think that’s pretty crazy.

Mackenzie: I don’t think it’s wrong if I’m getting paid to post something that I still believe in and want to support. It’s when I start to lose my integrity in that respect and I’m just in it for the money. And you can say the same thing about any public figure or athlete, it’s kind of the same game.

Andrew T Kearns, Luisa Jeffery. Photograhy by Michael Hollender

Realizing the limits of Instagram

Andrew: All my work up to November of 2016 had been social media jobs, like promo posts, ads on my Instagram. Then out of nowhere, I get this huge job that had nothing to do with Instagram and I was valued off my work, versus my number [of followers]. And I was like holy crap, it really put into perspective how small of a bubble Instagram actually is.

It was really like a punch to the face, like I realized how much more is out there. Since then it’s been veering away from [Instagram], making that switch to something that’s not so temporary.

Mackenzie: We all have our own reality channels now, if you look it that way, and I think that in itself makes [everything on social media] completely inauthentic. So it’s still all BS when it comes down to it.

"Influencers, you have a job to do, you have an example to set." - @andrewtkearns

The uncertain future of Instagram

Andrew: It’s not going to last forever. The time of PNW being trendy is kind of over now. Hawaii or certain other places are trendy. Trends come and go.

Look at stuff like Vine, like MySpace, apps like that. Vine had like 3-1/2 years in it and it’s the same exact same concept as Instagram. They come and go.

Mackenzie: I think people just absorb Instagram so quickly—you watch people and they’re just [sound effects, scrolling] and they’re barely looking at an image. So I think…it might be hard to come back. [It’s] past that point of no return.

I don’t know if other people are there, but I’m totally max’d out with my intake of screen time. I just can’t handle it. I feel like I have to be on [Instagram] for some reason. I’m hoping we kind of come back to being a little more present and not just staring at phones.

Luisa: I think it’s like when Pinterest was cool. That was really an awesome tool to find some cool ideas and put them together. And now, it’s like super basic and boring. Now you go on Pinterest and it’s like the worst memes and stupid things that. I think it’s hard to come back from that.

But also, people eat it up, they love it. We’re in a unique place because we’re hyper aware, but I think Jane from Indiana is like “Oh, this is so awesome! I love all of this stuff.” It’s what people like, so whatever people are into is going to keep happening.

Andrew T Kearns, Luisa Jeffery, Mackenzie Duncan. Photograhy by Michael Hollender

Looking on the bright side and focusing on the positive trends

Mackenzie: Vanlife, and tiny houses—that trend creates a positive impact of living a smaller life.

Inspiring anyone to get out and create anything is a positive, whether it’s on an iPhone, whether it’s for Instagram, whether it’s for an art show. There’s tons of inspiration [on Instagram]. It’s a very positive thing for up and coming creatives.

"Inspiring anyone to get out and create is a positive, whether for Instagram or an art show." - @themackenzielife

Luisa: I think the more people that get out there and go visit these places—they might be from like New York or [Kentucky] and go outside and be, “Hey, trees are cool and mountains are cool. I’m gonna vote to protect them.” Which is really important.

Related articles
The 5 Most Viewed Articles of 2017
Best of 2017: Five Most Viewed Articles

From kickstarting a global conversation on cliché outdoor photography to trekking through Peru, here we recap the year's top-performing stories

More articles
How Social Media Perpetuates Cliché Photography

Gallery Mode


Graham Hiemstra

Back to article