A few weeks ago I was home for Thanksgiving. While I was home I made it a point to visit some of my favorite places in my hometown and beyond. I went to Dubuque, Iowa to see some college friends. I took a train into Chicago for my big-city fix. I went to my favorite record store and some businesses and restaurants that living in the middle of nowhere has made me miss.
I also went to a coffee shop in my hometown that locals had been raving about, a quaint little place downtown that is the very definition of “hipster.” Clean white walls decorated with little more than art by local artists, an industrial coffee roaster and glass Chemex coffee makers proudly on display behind the counter, burlap sacks of coffee beans sitting in the corner, a playlist with acoustic folk and obscure hip-hop streaming through the speakers. The clientele sip their lattes while chatting with friends and tapping away at their laptops. The barista is happily talking to a customer about the science of roasting coffee and how some of the worst coffee he’s ever had was in Ethiopia, despite the fact that they export some of the best in the world. It’s the kind of place I like—vibe-y, cozy, inviting.
I ordered a cortado, a drink that’s half espresso, half steamed milk. I set up my tablet at the bar-style seating in front of the window and opened a new document for brainstorming new blog post ideas. After a few moments, my cortado was ready. It was a pretty little drink—only four ounces, served in a little glass, but it was still decorated with a flower like most lattes are. I set my drink down next to my tablet and my aviator sunglasses.
And then I saw it—I had created a perfect Instagram picture. The pretty coffee drink. The wood bar-top. The tablet. The cool sunglasses. I reached for my phone and put it in camera mode.
And then I stopped myself.
Because I realized that I was about to post the very type of picture that I had grown to hate—a shot of my picture-perfect coffee in an obviously posed scene.
You’ve probably seen this on Instagram or maybe Tumblr—perfectly orchestrated pictures of coffee, often accompanied by Mac Books, bibles, or some type of flower or fern, set either on pretty hardwood floors or crisp white bed sheets. Along that vein are heavily-filtered pictures of natural scenery like mountains, foggy forest trails, or lakes, often used as a backdrop for selfies or artsy shots of the back of someone’s head, and accompanied by profound quotes or personal insights. Such pictures are everywhere on social media. And they’re often tagged with #LiveAuthentic, in an effort to show snippets of the photographer’s “authentic” life.
And I’ve really grown tired of such posts. I’m tired of them because they’ve become cliché and unoriginal. I don’t have a problem with people living authentically and choosing to surround themselves with people and to spend time in places that make them come alive. I’m not against sharing pictures of pretty places and things. I do those things as much as everyone else. Still, I’ve found that all those #LiveAuthentic pictures look the same. And it makes me wonder: are we posting those pictures to show our authentic life, or are we just doing it because we want our lives to be Instagram-ready, so we can show everyone how picture-perfect our lives are?
I like Instagram. I really do. But I think it’s created a need in us to make sure that our lives look a certain way, a tendency to believe that authenticity has to be pretty or that it is only found in certain scenes. As a result, people are going out of their ways to post the perfect Instagram shot that’s really not authentic at all because it’s so heavily posed and arranged. And as much as I hate such Instagram shots, I’m obviously not immune from the desire to post them because I was tempted to take such a picture at my hometown coffee shop.
Here’s the deal: authenticity doesn’t require a camera. Our lives can be Instagrammed, sure. There’s a difference, though, between going somewhere or doing something for the joy of it, and doing it because it will get us a great Instagram picture. I’ve caught myself more than once doing something or going somewhere because I thought it would produce a great photo op.
Authenticity can’t be manufactured for the sake of a photo. If it is, it’s not authentic anymore.
Though I’ve never used that #LiveAuthentic tag, that coffee shop instance has started to make me think twice about the kinds of pictures I choose to share on Instagram. I want to be authentic, of course. That’s what Instagram is for—glimpses into someone’s world. But if I’m creating a world for the sake of a pretty Instagram picture, I’m doing it wrong.
The world doesn’t need to see my pretty coffee beverage. It will continue to spin and my life won’t be any less “authentic” if I don’t photograph my coffee.