There’s an iguana four inches from my face, and it looks about as thrilled with the situation as I do. Its handler is trying to place it on my hat, which doesn’t really have a wide enough brim for this, and although I’m not scared, I don’t love the idea of its scrabbly nails using my face for leverage if it starts to slip. But if everything goes right - fingers crossed - this is going to be a great photo for Instagram. And that’s the only reason I’m doing it: for the ’gram.
I love photography and I love to travel, so I follow a ton of travel influencers: the Blonde Abroads, the Tara Milk Teas, the Gypsea Lusts, the Pilot Madeleines, and the Chelsea Kauais. Their lives look magical as they bounce from one exotic destination to the next, meticulously documenting every gorgeous sunset, floating breakfast, and flower-filled bath they take. It’s enough to make you want to quit your job and literally follow in their footsteps.
So that’s what I decided to do. Well, I didn’t quit my job, but I used a weekend trip to the jungle of Belize to try to recreate a few Instagrams from influencers who had visited the same places. And, let me tell you, I have a whole new appreciation for how these social-media stars live - and work, because make no mistake, Instagram influencing is a job.
I stayed at the San Ignacio Resort Hotel, about two hours from Belize City and less than 20 miles from the Guatemala border. It also happens to have a made-for-Instagram pool with perky little umbrellas and bright yellow towels that contrast perfectly with the lush green jungle behind it. I wasn’t the first to notice the photo op; wellness influencer Lindsey Calla stayed at the resort last spring and took a gorgeous shot in the pool area.
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I figured this would be the easiest photo to recreate. All I needed to do was float in the pool and have someone snap a pic, right? Nope. On my first day there, I enlisted my friend Ben (an Instagram star in his own right) to stand on the balcony and take pictures of me attempting to float around gracefully before anyone else tried to go for a late-afternoon swim, around 4 p.m. I thought we nailed it but was crushed when I saw the shots - they were way too dark. Where were the sparkles on the surface of the water? Why did I look so stiff? Why was this so hard?
We tried again the next day, right at noon when the sun was highest, because I really wanted that damn water to sparkle. It took a lot of attempts, but we finally got a photo in which I didn’t look like a floating mannequin. It still took another hour or so to adjust it to the perfect light in my editing program (I use Lightroom, which I bought after seeing tons of Instagram photogs reference it in their IG Stories). If you ask me, Lindsey’s picture is still better.
The next afternoon, we went to explore Cahal Pech, one of the oldest recognizably Maya sites in Belize. I had seen a photo of it on freelance photographer and outdoor enthusiast Hike Up Your Skirt’s Instagram feed, and I knew I wanted to recreate the moody, mysterious vibe she captured while exploring the complex’s ancient temples and palaces.
This photo was actually the easiest to take, because all I had to do was hold a position (although my calves hurt after 15 minutes). But it took two other people to art direct the scenario - moving from above the stairs to below, and to the right and to the left on a thin stone wall that was thisclose to crumbling - just to get the right angle. When we were done, my positioning was perfect, but I totally hated the lighting - we had come at the wrong time of day again. I couldn’t come back and reshoot, though, so I spent about an hour YouTube-ing different tutorials for Lightroom tools to bring out the greens in the picture and make it look less blown-out thanks to the sun. It came out ... OK.
The final image I wanted to recreate was another from Lindsey Calla: the iguana shot. The San Ignacio Resort Hotel is home to the Green Iguana Conservation Project, with a number of rescued iguanas (the species is endangered in Belize due to deforestation) on the property. Lindsey’s photo, with an iguana perched jauntily on her straw hat, was the epitome of doing it for the ’gram. After all, why else would you put a reptile on your head?
The iguana’s name was Kim K, which felt appropriate, because she certainly knew how to pose. It was my fault for not giving her the right platform. We took about 100 shots trying to get the right angle, the right light, the right focus … and I felt seriously uncomfortable. Not because of the iguana on my head, but because of just how much face was in the frame. I’m not a model; I like most of my pictures taken from far away, with more of a focus on what I’m doing rather than on me. I guess it came out fine. There aren’t any shadows on my face, and the iguana contrasts nicely with my hat. But looking at the photo makes me a little cringe-y, mostly because of how close-up it is. I was totally self-conscious taking it and I’m still self-conscious about it being on my feed; I’ve never been more aware of how different I am from people who are paid to snap photos of themselves.
Taking and posting photos to Instagram is hard work. Not only do you have to look the part, you need to have an eye for photography, really know how to use a camera, and have the editing skills to make your pictures pop. All that takes time. I spent more time on this “weekend vacation” looking at my phone and stressing about whether I had gotten the perfect shot than I did enjoying the luxurious hotel or the gorgeous jungle environment. It was only when I finally got the three posts and put my phone down that I relaxed and really started to enjoy myself.
And it wasn't the first time I’d obsessed about Instagram on a vacation. I’m always trying to take the perfect photo, one that will show off the incredible place I’m in and earn the highest number of likes from my followers. This trip made me realize that I was turning almost all my vacations into work and adding stress to a time that should be fun.
So perhaps the real challenge isn’t snapping the perfect 'gram - maybe it’s about learning how not to experience a place through my phone and actually stay in the moment.
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