What is the most cliche photo on Instagram that you can think of?
Or maybe this one:
Turns out, they all are. And there are many other cliches like these. And millions of photos like these.
Modern photography is in crisis, or call it a disease. Cliches are only one of the symptoms. There are others, and we’ll cover them all.
We all know how cliches are created – something gets repeated over and over again until it loses its original meaning or effect.
Take Emma, a casual Instagram user, just like one of us. She was subscribed to several travel bloggers, some popular and not so much. One day she was browsing through the feed and noticed something. There were several identical photos. Was it a software glitch? Did some blogger upload one photo several times? Nope. Turns out, those photos were from different bloggers. Yet, they all looked the same.
Thus, @insta_repeat was born.
The photos above were all made by different bloggers. A cliche. There is no problem with cliches, they have been around since the invention of explosions and people walk in front of them with poker faces.
The problem with modern photography is that cliches are now embraced.
Many of the bloggers featured on @insta_repeat have millions of followers. Many of those bloggers blocked Emma. Some of them even reported her.
So millions of people watch cliches every day, and do what? Copy them.
Each one of us, thanks to Apple, has a portable visual copy machine in our pocket. That is exactly how we use it – to copy, to reproduce. But we reproduce not only photos – we’re also trying to reproduce the success.
We would like to reproduce likes, number of followers, and shares. So we copy what already works. And the Instagram ranking system helps us to do so – just use proven and tested cliches and get more likes.
Emily Nathan started her Tiny Atlas publication 10 years ago, on Instagram. The goal was to capture the unique spirit behind traveling – the spirit of people who live somewhere, the atmosphere, the purpose. People jumped on the bandwagon and started to send their shots.
Within years Emily noticed a worrying trend – more and more shots became uniform, repetitive, and soulless. Trends and visual cliches replaced meaning and authenticity.
There is a simple explanation for it. Photography, as a visual medium, is booming. It became a business, and anyone holding the phone can become a part of it. That business facilitates repetition. Many bloggers make a living out of their Instagram success. Get likes, get paid. But it goes further.
If on Instagram cliches are monetized indirectly, by appealing to the masses, then on photo stocks cliches are what sell.
That’s why we have so many women eating salad.
That’s why we have awkward family photos with kids hanging on their parents all the time:
These images have very little to do with reality, but they sell well. Marketers and publishers use them on their pages, so the cycle never ends. We see the same things everywhere and think that this is how it should be. But when there’s too much of it around, another problem arises – unreality
From camera obscura to the very first Canon’s, photography strived to be as real as possible.
Lenses, pixels, sensors… Photographs now look as real as ever. But they are also further from reality than ever.
When there was a lie in the photograph, it needed to be proved:
Errol Morris, an Academy Award-winning director, wrote a whole book on the nature of the reality in photographs. The whole first section of the book is a meticulous detective story on whether the cannonballs in the iconic “Shadow Valley” photo originally were on or off the road.
The investigation stretches over 70 pages. Interviews, comparisons, ballistics, geographical insights… All to prove whether the photo was a lie.
Today, with technology at its best, the narrative has changed. We’re not struggling to prove if photos are a lie. We’re struggling to prove if the photos are real.
Fake it till you make it, a hymn for social media nowadays. Thousands of influencers and ordinary people create a lifestyle that exists exclusively in their social media profiles.
It’s happening in social media now. But it started long before that.
For a long time, photo stocks were criticized for the unrealistic representation of professions, genders, and pretty much anything. Certain cliches became so popular (women with boxing gloves as a pseudo-symbol for feminism, office workplace abominations) that they became a parody of themselves.
Other cliches have become so ubiquitous that major photo stocks have to alter their search results to disrupt faulty standards.
If we combine fake photo reality with repetition and cliches, the scope of the problems is truly frightening. Stock photographers are copying unrealistic cliches that bring money. Social media users copy unrealistic lifestyles, spreading fake reality even further.
The result? Photography is not a trusted medium anymore.
I deliberately restrained myself from using the word “artificial” in the previous section, although it’s a close synonym for the word “fake”.
Yet I feel like it’s time we begin to discern these two words, and the reason is very simple: A.I.
If people create a fake reality with photos, then artificial intelligence creates an artificial reality.
Take this photo:
This woman does not exist. The face was generated by GAN (Generative adversarial network), i.e. a computer.
Face Generator generates a new face every time you refresh a page.
Now let’s take a photo from our Moose photo library:
This is a real model, Kathy. And a real photo camera, trust us.
Let’s use our AI-enhanced photo editor and change the background:
Now let’s use an AI-based Face Swapper:
And swap Kathy’s face with the AI-generated woman’s face:
The only real thing left in this photo is a camera now. And a t-shirt, but I can swap the colors with a bunch of AI-based photo editors…
If people can create fake lifestyles using photographs, AI can create fake people. Talk about supremacy.
With cliches, repetitiveness, unreality, and artificiality photography has lost its place as a realistic medium. Photographs have lost authenticity, credibility, and originality, and, finally, they are losing meaning. Now we are just exploring new ways of altering reality. Is photography dead? Not at all.
Is it dying? You tell me.
About the author: Andrew started at Icons8 as a usability specialist, conducting interviews and usability surveys. He desperately wanted to share his findings with our professional community and started writing insightful and funny (sometimes both) stories for our blog.
Title image made with Mega Creator
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