Have you ever been stuck behind your desk day-dreaming about being on a tropical island? Perhaps you’ve Google image-searched beaches and imagined yourself sipping a Corona in the sun. Maybe you’ve even propped your fingers up in front of the screen, as if they were your legs on that very beach, and posted that picture on Instagram with the hashtag #fakecation.
Fakecationing is one of the many ways we might present a false image of our lives on social media. Now that status updates are status symbols, it's tempting to misrepresent your life as slightly more fabulous than your day job would allow. In 2011, Dutch artist Zilla van der Born faked an entire two-week South Asian adventure with staged shots and photo editing software. Her point: when we can no longer trust our naked eyes, how do we know what is real online? The practice of photo editing has become so commonplace that people even feel compelled to tell you when they are NOT doing it (#nofilter) .
At our live journalism show last week in Brooklyn, we decided to play a little game with the audience, claiming we would give away ‘free vacations.' All that was required to win was to have your picture taken by our photographer before the show. We then ferried those photos away to the control booth to get photoshopped.
The first winner, writer Rachel Swaby, wanted to go to Jamaica, so we happily searched for an image of a paradisiacal beach and plopped her down in the middle of it. She admitted she wasn't dressed for the beach, but enjoyed the sunset just the same.
We decided to give the second winner, The Verge's Russell Brandom, a trip to Egypt. He told us that the camel’s name was ‘Jonathan’.
Our third and final winner looked too cool for your run-of-the-mill beach vacation, so we sent him to a more exotic location: scenic North Korea. It was humorous but we also wanted to underline how photo-editing could be used to place you in a scenario you wouldn't necessarily have dreamed about, or even want suggested as something that happened.
While live-photoshopping might feel like a cheesy parlor trick, photo manipulation is a very real power. Fakecations might be easy enough to spot, but magazine cover girls shopped within an inch of an eating disorder are distorting our idea of what is real. Just earlier this year the World Press Photo Awards withdrew its top prize from a journalist who it said staged his photos, presenting a 'serious distortion of reality'.
Nowadays many of us have friends we only know through Instagram feeds, where Kardashians aren't the only ones editing themselves into a more perfect celebrity. In the absence of photoshop police or forced geotagging of vacation photos, how do we know when something is staged or edited?
The fictions we tell through the edited images we post online have become their own reality.
Cara Rose DeFabio is a pop addicted, emoji fluent, transmedia artist, focusing on live events as an experience designer for Real Future.