If the internet’s ecosystem could be lifted from our devices and transposed into real life, influencers would be the lawmakers - simultaneously denigrated and followed by the masses.
Last month, a local newspaper reported that Instagrammers were putting lives at risk to take photos of a poppy field in Faversham, Kent. Reports painted a picture of hoards of camera phones with people attached blocking a busy A-road with their cars (presumably gifted), inviting drivers to a head-on crash. It was ‘total chaos’, according to Brian Flynn, vice chairman of Ospringe parish council.
“The field is full of Instagrammers wading through the flowers, desperately trying to find an angle to make it look like they're the only one in a field of poppies they've casually stumbled upon,” he wrote.
I, too, have no tolerance for internet behaviour spilling over into real life. So I spoke to a handful of these so-called troublemakers in the hopes they'd change my mind, and I found a bunch of people who visited the poppies for various reasons other than their algorithms. Visiting the field helped them battle mental health struggles and stress, and gave them a sense of purpose during the lockdown.
Darren started taking photos two years ago, when he realised it was helping improve his mental health.
"I’ve always found it difficult to deal with my feelings and express myself, and struggled with not knowing how to deal with issues properly, being too scared to open up. I just bottled it up, papered over the cracks and smiled through the pain."
"Taking photos gave me a reason to get up and go out. It helped me to focus on something other than my struggles. I would walk for hours just looking at what was around me and process how I was feeling. If it got too much, I'd switch my attention towards what I was seeing again."
Darren has just under a thousand followers, which he says is more than he could've ever imagined - but he'll settle for fewer followers if it means all his followers genuinely like his photography.
"I get a lot of positive comments and my photos stir up emotions and memories for people. That’s what gives me the most satisfaction. One woman asked if she could get a print made of one of my shots of a feather on a beach because it brought back memories of her father, and she hung in her living room."
Darren visited the poppy field in Faversham with his partner and dog.
"I was a little apprehensive because there's been a lot of poppy shots on Instagram. I sometimes jump on the bandwagon, but I also like to do my own thing.
"I’ll have an idea of a specific shot or location, and a lot of it's just right time right place.I have no idea what the perfect shot is but I’ll keep taking photos until I have it."
Lucy drove alongside the poppy field on her way back from a night shift at work, just as sunrise illuminated the field.
“This went on for weeks, and as time went on the poppies spread closer to the road. When I first noticed them they were off in the distance.”
Lucy dropped by the field after a family walk. Their brief visit – alongside a couple of other families and a drone overhead – was cut short by her children being less impressed by the field. She didn’t plan to take photos for Instagram, it just kind of happened.
"I never really plan or stage pictures for Instagram. We tend to take pictures wherever we are, and if I like them I use them. I started my Instagram account to share pictures that make me happy and I talk about mental health and well-being. I've been feeling particularly down about my appearance lately and I suffer with self-esteem issues.
"My husband took this picture of me without my knowledge, and even though I wasn’t massively happy with it I felt it was a good one to share and I knew others would be suffering in the same way."
Lucy wrote in the caption alongside the photo:
'Having a bit of a self esteem/body image/confidence downturn at the moment so struggling with what to share and feeling a bit unsure. I see lots of issues but here I am standing in a beautiful poppy field.
'So much of life is based on what we see... judging yourself on the standards of what others perceive to be beautiful. We are all beautiful, we are all amazing and we all deserve to not feel like shit about our looks and bodies. I’m telling myself this tonight and I hope you can tell yourself too.'
"I had some great feedback from the post and it started conversations about body image and self esteem. I did also receive a few messages from people asking if I'd been responsible with my parking or had blocked the road. But I'm not much of a risk-taker and I'm certainly not going to break any laws or obstruct a road just to get a photo.
"There's a lot of negativity on influencers and how they conduct themselves to take pictures. I don’t consider myself an influencer, but I know many people who take amazing pictures and make a living from what they do. They're professionals, artists, who consider the environment, surroundings and locality.
"It's easy to get caught up in likes and ‘Instagram cliches’ (the poppy field included), but I try and do things my own way and share what makes me smile."
Anne loves nature, and decided to teach herself photography. Now, she goes out at least once a week to take photos of her surroundings.
She saw photos of the poppy field online and took her daughter, Charlotte and her grandchildren. They parked down a side road, and didn’t see any signs telling them they couldn’t go in.
"I usually take photos of wildlife, but now the grandchildren have arrived I love getting shots of them while they play."
Anne takes photos to help her relax outside of her demanding job as a mental health nurse. She says being outside helps relieve stress – which is particularly useful during the pandemic. The hospital she works at, Springfield University Hospital in Tooting, was one of very few that adapted by closing wards and opening a mental health emergency service. For now, Anne is working in the call room, handling calls from the London Ambulance Service, police and people in crisis.
“The hospital closed all unnecessary wards and clinics and those having inpatient therapeutic care and psychological treatment to make way for possible Covid patients.
"I was redeployed to a mental health emergency service to triage people with Covid and crisis mental health issues so they could go there safely and free up A&E units."
Liz is a freelance photographer. After she left university, she picked up temp work at a major charity. The brother of the woman sitting next to her was a commercial photographer, and Liz “made him” employ her. She met people in the industry and forged her dream job. Before coronavirus she was regularly photographing celebrities for glossy magazines.
Liz visited the poppy field with her friend and their dogs. She's wanted to take photos of poppies for years, even though she knows it's a cliche.
“There were other people there, taking photos. You could tell they were Instagramming. It was amusing, watching other people. One girl was dressed in a white, floaty dress and her friend was taking her picture. She got out a dreamcatcher and started wafting away."
She laughs, adding, "It was sweet – it’s nice people are being creative."
Liz has been taking photos since she was a child, and with all her work cancelled during the pandemic, including this year's Paralympics, she’s at a loss. She's been taking photos of her three dogs, Elsa, Dolly and Jeanie to keep her busy.
"My work has been decimated because of Corona. I’m bereft without taking photos and getting commissions."