In the cold, gravelled backyard of her British home, 32-year-old Carolyn Stritch took a photo that would later accumulate over 18,000 Instagram likes. She wore a sunhat and sandals – even though it was March – and held out the skirt of her flowy summer dress. In the background were the red bricks and bent window blinds of her Sunderland home, with a patch of damp moss visible on the pavement outside.
The shot was vastly different from the glossy, stylised photos Stritch usually posts to her Instagram @theslowtraveler, where she has nearly 200,000 followers. For two and a half years, Stritch has posted pictures to the site and run her own personal blog, often being paid by brands to promote their products. “My images are all edited and styled to an extent,” she explains. Each is light, bright, clean, and – like most pictures posted by Instagram influencers – incredibly aspirational.
“I’m sure some people look at my account and it makes them feel bad,” Stritch says. “Look at my account and you might think I’m always either travelling or I’m lounging by the window with a coffee and a book.”
It was this that inspired the Instagrammer to lie.
The photo 18,000 people liked on Instagram didn’t look as though it was taken in Stritch’s backyard. She used Photoshop to cut out her body and imposed it on a picture of Disneyland California she found on the web. “I’ve taken myself off to California. There I am in front of Sleeping Beauty’s Castle – my crazy, self-indulgent 22nd birthday present to myself,” she captioned the picture. “Tomorrow I’ll be back home and it’ll be like it never even happened!”
Of course, it never did.
“I wanted my fictional narrative to challenge the way I portray myself online and the effects of this portrayal,” Stritch wrote in a blog post explaining her fake picture. She explained how she had “faked” other pictures in the past:
“I never read by the window – those windows, beautiful as they are, make my flat freezing cold. Sometimes that coffee cup I’m holding is empty. I suck in my stomach. I rearrange the furniture. I Photoshop out dirty marks made by bashing furniture off the walls.
“Is it bad to do those things? I don’t know.”
Since the app launched in 2010, Instagram has been accused of encouraging fakery. The social network’s filters have always made life look more magical than it really is, but the rise of influencers (people, like Stritch, who are paid to promote products to their followers) made things gradually faker. In October 2015, model Essena O’Neill called Instagram “contrived” and quit the site after rewriting the captions on her posts to explain the reality behind long photoshoots and brand deals. In May 2017, photographer Sara Melotti told the New Statesman about the “Instagram mafia”, a group of influencers who like each other’s pictures in order to seem popular.
Stritch’s faked Disney pic is perhaps most similar to a scandal involving blogger Amelia Liana last year. In July 2017, Liana was accused of Photoshopping other tourists from her pictures, with some critics even claiming she superimposed herself on to tourist sites. “All my imagery is actually shot at the time in the location I specify,” she said at the time. “I strive as far as possible to present images that have been shot using natural light and in real conditions.” Eagled-eyed followers noticed a flock of birds seemed to fly in the background of many of her pictures. Nowadays, hot air balloons are frequently seen in the background of her shots.
“I think we all have a shared responsibility to make social media better,” says Stritch, who reiterates that she faked the Disney picture in order to question her own practice, not others. Though a few of her followers asked how she managed to get a photo with no one else in shot, most simply admired the pic. “Wow amazing shot,” wrote one. Another: “This is so cool. Never seen Disneyland so empty before.” Multiple commenters used the word “magical”.
As part of the project, Stritch also faked her face. Via the photo-manipulation tool FaceApp, she made her face slimmer, brighter, and more flawless. “I was horrified when I saw my new face,” she says – her own mother didn’t question the image, assuming instead that her daughter had simply “gotten really good” at make-up.
Of course, exposing Instagram fakery is in itself now a solid Instagram PR trick. Instagrammers who take “real” pictures of themselves sans make-up, or explain in candid captions that their lives aren’t perfect, often gain publicity on the site. It’s a cynical news cycle, and one that so far seems to have come up with few answers on how to make social media a healthier place. Stritch’s fake pictures might not change the Instagram community – but she never wanted them to. “This project was about me questioning my own practice,” she says.
“I have to work, study, exercise, clean the bathroom, do all the stuff everybody else has to do. I feel all the same pressures my followers feel. I want people to know that.”
Stritch doesn’t know where the line is when it comes to Instagram fakery, and admits she’s still figuring things out. “This project has thrown up more questions than it’s answered and it’s still something I’m trying to work out,” she says.
“It’s about trying to make work that’s both responsible and good.”