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Time to take a selfie: tales from interrailing

Written By Isabelle McIntyre

This summer, I was lucky enough to undertake a trip with my friends round Europe for 2 weeks. We used the ever-popular Interrail pass and had an amazing time travelling through 5 countries via trains and buses. There were so many things I could have written about – from our lessons learnt about travelling on a budget to the impact of Brexit on European travel.

But I decided on a slightly alternative topic, and you’ll see why…


A seemingly superficial topic that, on closer inspection, sparks a very interesting conversation. Whilst we saw many iconic monuments and points of interest, what was much more fascinating was the people in front of them. Armed with selfie sticks, tripods, and high-tech cameras, the tourists were determined to get the right shot beside the famous works of art, statues, and landmarks. It is no longer enough just to go to your bucket list destination. In the age of social media, you have to prove you were there.

And a slightly blurry, thumbs up snap to send home to the family won’t do. As we people-watched from cafes, we witnessed photoshoots taking half an hour or longer, replete with ‘plandids’ (choreographed photos ironically intended to look candid), multiple angles, and poses ranging from silly jumps to serious pouting. Some of the latter were in completely inappropriate places too – peace signs in a Holocaust memorial? Using the location search feature on Instagram I could see that pictures were being immediately uploaded - having been filtered, edited, and saturated to within an inch of their life.

Of course, we were definitely guilty of being a little too snap happy as well. The fortnight long trip has been immortalised in literally thousands of photos on my camera roll, to the point where my phone storage conked out. And as nice as it is to record the special moments, I caught myself getting dressed in the morning based on clothes I hadn’t got a picture in yet, lest someone notice a repeat outfit in my posts. Certain activities like swimming started to concern me because I wouldn’t have my phone to hand to update my private story. Nice views had to be captured on iPhone (0.5x zoom and normal lens), digital camera, and disposable camera before taking it in through my own eyes. Memorable moments, like when we got trapped in a lift or a friend fell down the club stairs (sorry Amy love you!), didn’t seem as funny without photo evidence to accompany our retellings.

At what point does our online presence start to take over from our real lives? When does taking pictures stop us from enjoying the present moment?

In my defence, taking photos can be very enjoyable. Photography is a popular and rewarding hobby, and many people take pride in curating the perfect picture to remember their holidays by. In fact, one of the most bizarre yet hilarious moments of our travels was when we were looking for a nearby art gallery and accidentally stumbled into a ‘3D gallery’ by mistake. Instead of a collection of celebrated artwork, the gallery was a room full of murals and cut outs specifically designed for photoshoots – you literally paid entry to pose in front of these optical illusions and special effects for a photo op. It was one of the stranger experiences of our lives but equally had us crying with laughter all afternoon looking back through the results.

However, a more cynical perspective might view this odd tourist attraction as the epitome of the extreme narcissism and vanity that social media is arguably to blame for. Indeed, the damaging consequences of ‘pics or it didn’t happen’ culture are so prevalent that there is even a Wikipedia page for ‘List of selfie-related injuries and deaths.’ Chillingly, one of the most recent deaths back in 2021 involved a man falling to his death whilst trying to take a photo on Liberty Bridge in Budapest, a spot where I stood myself only weeks ago.

Fatalities aside, the less tangible effects of the pressure to deliver travel content on social medias are wide ranging: a reduction in self-esteem, a rise in stress levels, and an increase in mental health issues will all contribute to a thoroughly unenjoyable holiday. Furthermore, newer social media platforms like TikTok and Bereal mean there are even more outlets for people to show off their highlight reels, leading us to feel unsatisfied with our own summers and daily lives. There are now tens of thousands of influencers whose job description is to make their lifestyle as picture-perfect as possible. And even though we are all aware by now of the performativity of even the most casual of ‘photo dumps’ on Insta, the 24/7 consumption of other people’s good times can be overwhelming, and it is downright exhausting attempting to keep up.

So why don’t we just put our phones down and log off from our socials? I know that I found much more enjoyment out of alternative ways of documenting the trip, such as making a personal scrapbook with diary entries and ticket stubs, than I did out of posting photos intended for an audience.

Interestingly, it appears that a rejection of social media is on the rise as users boost hashtags like ‘digital detox’ and celebrities publicise their breaks from the online space. There are a plethora of reasons behind this mass exodus but I’d wager that it is largely due to the growing awareness that much of the time, social media makes us feel more bad than good.

Yet the addictive nature of social media keeps most of us coming back for more.

Psychologists have found that Facebook influences the brain in the exact same ways as alcohol and drugs do, giving us a quick hit of dopamine that leaves us dependent on the high we get from likes, shares, and follows. An inherent human need for belonging and validation also reinforces the desire to show others our most recent selfies and holiday pics in search of a kind of public social acceptance.

I think it is possible to use social media in healthy ways and find a balance between posting about our lives and living them out in the real world. I’m still going to take photos, on holiday or otherwise; but first and foremost, it is for myself to look back on and reminisce on happy memories, and sharing with others is an afterthought, not the goal. Taking time in the day to put down our devices and, as cringe as it is, ‘live in the moment’ is also crucial in leading a fulfilled life and avoiding becoming a slave to our Instagram feeds.


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