Natacha de Mahieu arrived at the edge of Obersee, a remote lake surrounded by lush green mountains and dramatic waterfalls in a south-east corner of Germany, in August 2021. It was chilly; rain pelted down. “It was not so fun to be there. It was so cold and everything was wet,” De Mahieu, 26, says from her home in Brussels, laughing.
Tourists came and took portraits of themselves against the view. De Mahieu noticed that, as soon as someone stepped in front of the camera, they would shed their layers in defiance of the cold to convey the image of a blissful summer. In front of the camera: T-shirts, floaty dresses. Behind it: swathes of padded jackets. It was Instagram versus reality.
De Mahieu’s photo series, which she calls Theatre of Authenticity, explores the link between tourism and spectacle, and how we perform when we travel, particularly when we think no one is watching. The photos make up the graduation project for her masters degree in documentary photography, and bring together the three issues that most preoccupy her: tourism, social media and climate change.
“I love to travel,” De Mahieu says, recalling a trip to Bolivia when she was 18 as the moment she became interested in photography. “I’m also very curious about why we love travelling, and our motivations.” And, she adds: “I spend too much time on social media.” Scrolling through Instagram, De Mahieu started to have “the feeling that everyone is going to the same places, using the same photographic compositions, the same colours”. It sparked a very generation Z artist’s dilemma. Surrounded by endless digital content, she began to wonder if she would ever make something truly unique.
And so De Mahieu took that concern about uniqueness, and gave it a twist. She would take precisely the sort of photo that tens of thousands had already taken. But rather than do what many a camera-wielding tourist has done when faced with a crowded destination – block out the other people in view and deliver an image that suggests it is them alone surrounded by natural splendour – she would add more people.
She began by identifying some of the most geotagged European tourist destinations on Instagram, including the lake at Obersee, Turkey’s romantic Cappadocia region (famous for its hot-air balloons), Spain’s Bardenas Reales desert, and the rocky calanques (coves) in Marseille. Travelling to these destinations in her campervan across the summer, she would usually spend two days in each place. The first day was set aside for scoping out the area and finding the best angle to shoot from. The next day, she would set up her camera on a tripod and take photos at intervals for an hour, documenting tourists coming and going. When…