How to spot a phony

In the days leading up to my departure, almost everyone gave me the same advice: Take lots of pictures.

I have been – as anyone who follows me on Facebook, Instagram or Twitter can attest.

At first it was something of an afterthought: A snapshot of the beach I sat on all day. My running route. A walking tour. Why not? I was there and I had a camera.

But then, somewhere along the way, I became preoccupied with taking pictures. I wasn’t just taking a shot or two when I thought of it, I was actively seeking out photo opps. I was crouching on a stranger’s front porch, waiting for a car to pass and cursing the other tourists as they slowly moved out of my frame. I was standing on a park bench so as to avoid having a trashcan in my shot. I was about to feed a seal and thought, “I better get this on video.”

Two weeks. That’s how long it took me to go from being the person walking along the beach silently judging two bikini-clad girls as they staged a photo of a beach bag and a single banana leaf to the person who was propping her cell phone against a tube of sunscreen and taking a video of herself jumping in the sand.

Happy Leap Day! Get it? Do you? Do you get it? #leapday #leapyear #capetown

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(Life hack: Here’s the secret to timing this: Take a video, not a photo. Then, while in editing mode, screen-grab the frame you want.)

“Should I really post this?” I wondered a few hours later. I knew that it wasn’t what it seemed. It wasn’t a spontaneous picture of me having fun. It was a highly orchestrated screenshot. I put it up anyway. It was Leap Day, after all, and I love a good pun. How could I not?

My cousin seemed sincerely disappointed when I told her how I caught that particular image. She wrote, “Here I was imagining this wonderfully romantic run in with a native South African with a to die for accent, passing you by while making a nonchalant comment about how you took his breath away. And you then play hard to get and bargain with him saying that if he agrees to take your impossible to capture picture, that you will allow him to take you to lunch, or at the very least coffee.”

I don’t know how you thought I took the photo, but I doubt your version of events involved a bottle of sunscreen and a do-over when a Dachshund ran through the background.

Day trip. #capetown #southafrica #muizenberg

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Let me be the first to admit it: Much of what I post appears more glamorous and exciting than it really is. At the same time, my cousin and several other people have rightly pointed out that I look happy in the pictures I’ve been sharing. Guess what? I am.

For the first time in years, I feel energized. I wake up excited to do whatever I have planned for the day. If that leads to me videotaping myself on a beach, so be it. Because I am happy. That much is real – even if the moments are posed.

Everyone is on board with that, right? It’s fine that Instagram makes it possible – no easy – to aggrandize every waking moment, right? Everyone accepts that what we see on social media is staged, yes? And it’s perfectly normal to spend ten minutes trying to take a selfie with a shark at an aquarium, isn’t it?

Sometimes it feels like I’m trying too hard. For every perfectly ordinary photo I take walking around town, there are ten others of me trying to feed a seagull an ice cream cone. Just fourteen days in and I find myself asking, What kind of person has an entire folder of selfies on her phone? What self-respecting 33 year-old posts a photo of herself in a bikini? What, pray tell, is next? Snapshots of food? Moody tree branches? God forbid, a picture of my feet? I shudder to think.

The struggle for authenticity is hardly new to me. As a blogger, it’s something I think about a lot. To be entertaining is to get right to the point – and perhaps embellish it a little bit too. There’s no time for set up, no room for nuance. The best stories are told quickly and simply.

But is that fair? Is it honest to kick off my trip with a photo of a picturesque beach and the accompanying caption, “I’m here. It’s perfect,” instead of the anecdote about how an Embassy misplaced my passport the month before and there was at least a few days when I considered calling the whole thing off? I don’t know. You tell me.

I don’t think my problem is unique. I’ve never met a writer who was very good at telling the truth. As narrators go, we tend to be a wholly unreliable bunch. The fact that my writing sounds like me – that it so clearly captures my voice and my energy – makes it all the more confusing. In fact, when someone reads this blog before meeting me personally, we always have a hard time working out the difference between how I write and how I live.

I was once on a second date with a guy who said, “I’m glad I read your blog because now I feel like I already know you.”

“You don’t,” I wanted to say. But I didn’t because, for one thing, I liked him and I know better than to be disagreeable when what I really want to be is likable. And, for another, I knocked over a bottle of beer while I was thinking about how to respond, and that, as it turns out, is a good a way as any to change the subject.

What I told him, and what I tell most people, is that everything I write is absolutely true – but none of it is very real.

For example, last week, this happened: I took a trip to Table Mountain; a South African man who has the same first and last name as a friend’s husband sold me a ticket so I could skip the line for the cable cars; and once at the top, a little boy showed me a lizard and then, apropos of nothing, warned me not to fall off a cliff.

But all that won’t show up on Instagram or the blog. What you get is highly edited, totally orchestrated version. It’s cropped – literally and figuratively.

Cape Town needs no filter. #capetown #tablemountain #nofilter

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All this is to say that as I continue on my travels for the rest of the year, I’ll be trying to strike a balance between being entertaining, but honest – polished, but authentic.

It’s a slippery slope and I’m still finding my footing. As you follow along, do me this one small favor: if and when I go off the rails – if I become overly self-indulgent or blissfully unaware – tell me.

It’ll be advice I needed yesterday.

10 Comments
  1. Hey. It’s your blog, your camera, your trip, attitude, adventures. When I see the nine bajillion photos people take of nearly nothing but pouty lips in the mirror or overly painted nails, I’d not worry too much if you want to take selfies of yourself until the camera died.
    The key here, is, edit, edit, edit. Keep what you like, dump the rest. Show only the best/most interesting/funniest of those, or the ones that illustrate where or who or why you are.

    Just don’t worry about it.

    And the photos are fine. Really.

  2. In the years to come as your memory of the trip fades the photo fiction you’re creating will be the only reality left. If nothing else you owe it to your future self to make it an interesting one!

    • Hi Toby – yes, you’re absolutely right. In the end, the photos and videos are for me. When I look back at photos of recent trips – like Peru – I’m surprised by how it all looks. It was only a few years ago, but already I’ve forgotten. Onward.
      xoxoxoxx – thanks for reading. hope you’re well. also, assuming this aerial Toby, in which case, do something fun for me on Monday night! I will do the same :)

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