Unpacking Murad Osmann’s #FollowMeTo Instagram Travel Series – Los Angeles Review of Books
JUNE 30, 2018
MURAD OSMANN’S Instagram series #FollowMeTo has become a viral sensation since its inception in 2011. The series began with a photograph posted on October 17, 2011, which established the standard composition of each image. Nataly, Osmann’s now-wife, is viewed from behind, set within a colorful landscape of whatever desirable vacation destination the pair is exploring. Her arm extends behind her, reaching toward the photographer and thus also toward the viewer. She grasps the photographer’s outstretched left hand while his right hand ostensibly holds the camera, capturing the scene. The successive entries derive their popularity from the lush aesthetics of the couple’s environs, which span the globe, and from the location-appropriate garb Nataly wears to blend in with the locals and perform cultural authenticity.
With 4.5 million Instagram followers as of February 24, 2018, the Osmanns have established themselves as an internet success story. As of July 2016, they had 4.3 million followers, a Channel One Russia travel show, and a coffee-table book (published in 2015) under their belts. Moving forward, the Osmanns have decided to market #FollowMeTo as an aspirational travel lifestyle brand, aiming to form partnerships with other brands for mutual cross-promotional purposes. In an interview with the Huffington Post in late 2017, the couple discussed their future plans for #FollowMeTo: “We had a lot of offers, but rejected 80% of the deals […] We wanted fewer projects, but better ones. We knew we didn’t want quick money. We wanted to build the brand first.”
No mere romantic world-traveling venture, #FollowMeTo visually embodies many characteristics of colonialist art-historical movements and styles, such as 19th-century Orientalist painting and contemporary fashion photography. Likewise, #FollowMeTo has developed from a simple travel diary into a morally complicated touristic enterprise. The project synthesizes both old-world and new-world models of visual and economic domination, ultimately transforming from personal diaristic expression to unwittingly politicized advertising.
Since the project’s inception, public response has been almost uniformly positive, with little to no significant discussion of the impact of the Osmanns’ lifestyle, imagery, and self-mythologizing narrative. Yet art-historical scholarship has long provided a guide to how to consider such images both on their own aesthetic merits as well as by their more global implications. Back in 1971, an essay in Bulletin of the Cleveland Museum of Art celebrated the museum’s acquisition of an Orientalist Delacroix sketch, taking pains to describe Delacroix’s “passionate temperament,” “the brilliancy of his color.” Linda Nochlin criticized such depoliticization of Orientalist art in The Politics of Vision in 1989, writing, “[T]he key notion of Orientalism itself […] cannot be confronted without a critical analysis of the particular power structure in which these works came into being.” Scholars have yet to apply to #FollowMeToo the structural power relationships that undergird the project — as outlined by Nochlin, and, more recently, by Gwen Sharp, who identified a “centrality of whiteness” in contemporary visual culture. Focusing on fashion photography in particular, Sharp uses the term “centrality of whiteness” to refer to “the assumption that the imagined consumer — the subject of these images — is White […] [N]on-White individuals may be included in the photo shoot, but they are not used to model the use of the product or service itself.” While Sharp’s definition is recent, this phenomenon is rooted in art-historical tradition, and is exemplified by the images of #FollowMeToo, which arguably straddle the lines of both art and advertising.
Yet despite their release of a coffee-table book in 2015, what is absent from the Osmann’s current self-conception is the idea of these meticulously constructed images as art objects in their own right. #FollowMeTo is, in its way, art and advertising, and the Osmanns thus both artists and producers, subject to the same critical thinking and discussion as Orientalist painting, fashion photography, and advertisements, but a critical analysis of #FollowMeTo is lacking, both of the visual precedents of Orientalist and colonialist imagery they uphold and the implications of their astronomical success.
The first entry in #FollowMeTo differs from the more popularized model in several key ways. First, the location is not immediately clear. Nataly is posed against a heavily graffitied vertical surface with no identifying (or essentializing) cultural characteristics. Similarly, Nataly, from what the viewer can observe, is dressed in a standard Western outfit of a flannel shirt, loose hair, and chunky bracelets, rather than any traditional or culturally specific outfit. To compensate for the utter lack of cultural specificity within the image, Osmann must use the caption of the photograph to indicate where he and Nataly are traveling, which he does, writing, “Follow me #Barcelona.”
This initial offering also differs from the later #FollowMeTo photographs in its apparent authenticity, as well as its informal aesthetic quality. While the later photographs are clearly posed, providing a facsimile of Osmann being led by Nataly, this photograph comes across as more spontaneous, as if Nataly is actually pulling Osmann along with her, with the shakier, blurrier effect indicating motion. Indeed, as they define their origin story on their website, the original Barcelona photo was spontaneous: “All of a sudden Natasha looked away and pulled Murad forward, and that was the moment when he caught ‘that shot’!”
The unfailingly positive media attention that has greeted this social media sensation originally consisted of gushing profiles and showcases on aggregator websites like Mashable, BuzzFeed, and Bored Panda, which extolled the “romantic” nature of the imagery and praised Osmann’s creative approach to travel photography. Osmann’s work has since grown in popularity and prestige, leading to 2016 features in Harper’s Bazaar and National Geographic Traveler, where they made the front cover of the April/May edition, and an appearance in a Time online listicle in 2017.
A feature on AdWeek’s website in 2016 outlined the couple’s strategy for getting the most out of their popularity. Their website is geared toward fellow travelers and potential sponsors alike, with the ultimate goal of “[building] the site into a platform that creates sponsored content. For example, a hotel brand could sponsor an influencer’s post about top travel tips.” Osmann claims: “We try to work with brands that share the same philosophies as us […] We’re very specific about how we try to keep the integrity of the projects. If you go to our Instagram page, you will never see a direct commercial.” As of 2016, the marketing agenda also includes creating merchandise like luggage, passport covers, and cell phone cases.
The Osmanns’ comments are the recognizable parlance of social media influencers, vaguely referencing their love for their “community,” and enumerating their go-getter approach toward working with (usually luxury) brands like Samsung and the Renaissance Hotels chain. The Osmanns have shifted from the second group (the tourists) to the first (the tourism industry) despite attempting to keep the lines blurred.
As the #FollowMeTo images became more obviously staged and enhanced, the Osmanns began including inhabitants of their tourist fantasias in their imagery. In the photograph dated “February 13, 2017,” the local Taiwanese women are presented as framing or flanking the blonde, conventionally attractive figure of Nataly, turning the image from documenting the location to a visual celebration of Nataly herself. The Osmanns do not identify or even contextualize these women, but merely present them as part and parcel of the scenic gate in front of Nataly. However, this image differs from successive similar entries in that Nataly is not wearing Taiwanese-style clothing, and that this image is not denoted as a particular advertisement for any product (although it arguably remains an overall lifestyle advertisement).
Nataly’s now-expected performance of cultural authenticity in #FollowMeTo first appears in 2013. In a photo dated January 24 of that year, she wears a conical hat while on a trip to Bali’s rice fields. Here, the hat is treated less as cultural immersion and more as an accessory, added for last-minute flair to a casual outfit of shorts and tank top. The first photo that depicts Nataly fully swathed in localized garb was taken several months later, where she poses dramatically above a picturesque hillside in Alhambra, Granada, wearing a long ruffled skirt, a red rose in her hair, and a Spanish pico shawl while carrying a fan.
In March 2017, the Osmanns traveled to Cuba as brand ambassadors for Samsung’s Gear S3 smartwatch, posting a total of five photographs and one promotional video. Keeping in line with the FTC’s regulations on social media advertising, each caption contains both a missive from Murad and Nataly as well as the legally mandated acknowledgment that, rather than being a simple travel diary as in the original entries, the Cuba trip photographs are indeed sponsored content.
In the most significant photograph from the Cuba series, we see the collision of both of the more under-critiqued aspects of #FollowMeTo: the idea of tourism as content to be commodified, advertised, and sold; and the use of people of color, often at work, from non-Western locations as props. The photo taken on March 14, 2017, shows Nataly’s golden-blonde whiteness framed against two darker-skinned Cuban women, all wearing “national dress,” as the caption puts it, with the large Samsung watch on Nataly’s left wrist clearly visible. Rather than being about Cuba in any substantial way, the image is about Nataly, Murad, and their experience in a country that is not theirs. Nataly and the Samsung watch are literally centered, while the two Cuban women, clearly at work selling flowers, are merely there to provide that missing sense of real, authentic Cuban-ness that would be lacking otherwise.
This image is therefore the apotheosis of the many problematic elements present in #FollowMeTo: Nataly enters a space with a long history of Western exploitation and colonization not only as a member of the leisure class, but also as an ambassador of commodification and capitalism. In so doing, the Osmanns recreate and/or activate numerous visual signifiers of imperialist art-historical traditions, such as Orientalism, and modern-day continuations of those traditions, such as contemporary fashion and travel photography.
Compare, for example, the “March 14, 2017” photograph with Jean-Marc Nattier’s 1733 portrait of Marie-Anne de Bourbon, Mademoiselle de Clermont en sultane, housed at the Wallace Collection. The full title is particularly telling, as it highlights not only the Orientalist staple of white women relaxing while being attended to by women of color, which we see implicitly in “March 14, 2017,” but also the fantasy of cultural transformation exhibited by both the French Mademoiselle and Nataly, where the association with so-called exotic cultures and modes of appearance allows them to be other than what they are. In Differencing the Canon, Griselda Pollock makes a similar point by citing the painting’s title as Madame Clermont: A Painting Representing a Portrait of the Late Mlle Clermont, Princess of the Royal Blood and Superintendent of the Queen’s Household Represented as a Sultana Leaving Her Bath. As Pollock explains, for Mademoiselle de Clermont, “the ‘Oriental’ setting of the scene allowed showing the lower legs and knees of the sitter, an otherwise unacceptable element.” Nataly’s playing dress-up in Cuban wear allows her to claim cultural immersion, ostensibly eschewing ordinary tourism for something more authentic.
Jean-Léon Gérôme’s 1870 painting Moorish Bath (Museum of Fine Arts, Boston) makes for another apt comparison. As Linda Nochlin notes in her essay “The Imaginary Orient,” unlike the less-popular Delacroix and his flagrantly Romantic images, Gérôme was admired both during his time and in the 20th century for his apparent commitment to “realism.” Yet, as Nochlin points out, paintings like this one “may most profitably be considered as [visual documents] of nineteenth-century colonialist ideology, an iconic distillation of the Westerner’s notion of the Oriental couched in the language of a would-be transparent naturalism.” Despite the attention to detail and the likely use of photography as a visual aid. Moorish Bath is a fantasy rather than a documentary, as is “March 14, 2017,” which features the similar motifs of a white woman depicted at leisure and viewed from the back being attended to by a woman (or, in this case, women) of color, who are not given the luxury of relaxation.
The highly-controversial 2013 Sports Illustrated Swimsuit Issue serves as a more recent visual precursor to “March 14, 2017,” as it featured mostly white models portrayed as subjects, while various people of color from non-Western nations are presented as background flair or as serving the models. Dodai Stewart echoes Sharp, writing for Jezebel that:
[a] white person relaxing, a person of color working. Tale as old as time. A non-white person in the service of a white person. This photo cements stereotypes, perpetuates an imbalance in the power dynamic, is reminiscent of centuries of colonialism (and indentured servitude) and serves as a good example of both creating a centrality of whiteness and using “exotic” people as fashion props.
In an article for The Society Pages, Lisa Wade lays out one of the more troubling aspects of travel photography. Analyzing images taken from an Anthropologie fashion catalog, Wade writes that “the fashion shoot uses (supposedly authentic local) Indians as backdrop for light-skinned models. Indian people are no different in these images than architecture or nature.” The photographs in the catalog recall the way #FollowMeTo stages its images in non-Western countries: locals (who are nearly always people of color) serve as a backdrop to Nataly, and are treated nearly identically to the Taj Mahal, the Eiffel Tower, or a rural mountainside landscape.
Photographer Nick Vossbrink writes in a similar vein:
Travel photography is not about pretty pictures which show that the rest of the world is different than your home. If you’re going to take photos like this, you need to tell us more about the situation. Tell me a story about the trip besides “I saw this.” This is what separates National Geographic from travel porn. One uses pretty pictures to tell a story and educate. The other is just interested in appearances and exoticizing. The difference between the two is often context.
Notably, National Geographic issued a mea culpa regarding their historically “racist” coverage of non-Western cultures in March 2018. Editor-in-Chief Susan Goldberg wrote:
How we present race matters. […] we have a duty, in every story, to present accurate and authentic depictions — a duty heightened when we cover fraught issues such as race […] [We] pictured “natives” elsewhere as exotics, famously and frequently unclothed, happy hunters, noble savages […] National Geographic did little to push its readers beyond the stereotypes ingrained in white American culture.
Many other images in the #FollowMeTo series feature Nataly against a backdrop of local inhabitants, following Sharp’s description of the “centrality of whiteness.” Nataly’s Western-style beauty — blonde, able-bodied, slim — is meant to contrast with the locals depicted in the photographs, making her the clear star of the image. Since each image must resemble the ones that came before it in order to maintain #FollowMeTo’s meme-able, viral quality — Nataly facing away from the viewer, arm extended backward, hand in Murad’s — any true interaction with the locals can only be merely implied, unless it is spelled out explicitly in the accompanying caption.
“August 4, 2017” serves as an example of how Osmann’s captions can complicate the tourist-local relationship. The image is set in Yangshuo County, China, and depicts Nataly in familiar ways: the pose is on-brand, and she is dressed in what appears to be a vaguely Asian-inspired robe (that is not visually reminiscent of any traditional Han Chinese robes) with her hair in a bun. The landscape before her is idyllic and beautiful; she gazes out over a peaceful body of water as the sun peeks out from behind numerous foothills. “August 4, 2017” resembles the earlier photos from Cuba and Taiwan in which the locals are included to provide flair and authenticity to the image; however, this image differs in that the local inhabitant is given a name in the accompanying caption: “[O]ur friend, the fisherman Huang.” On the surface, the specific naming of Huang, and the information given about him, is already an improvement — we have ostensibly moved one step away from the conflation of people, nature, and architecture mentioned by Lisa Wade.
However, the rest of the caption unwittingly locates the inclusion of Huang within the phenomenon of what Anne McClintock called in Imperial Leather “commodity racism.” The caption reads in its entirety:
#FollowMeTo the ancient village of Yangshuo with @natalyosmann. Next to us is our friend, the fisherman Huang. He is 96 and doesn’t have an Instagram account, so we, unfortunately, couldn’t tag him on the photo;) Cormorant fishing is one of the oldest Chinese traditions. Which Chinese traditions do you know?
We can see a clear thematic echo in “August 4, 2017” of a 2006 Capital One advertisement, as Terri Hasseler describes it in “The Promise of Tourism” for The Radical Teacher, in which a Western family is cursed to spend their vacation escaping indigenous South American stereotypes because their credit card airline miles expired before they could use them to fly to Ireland. Hasseler writes: “One frequent marketing device of commodity racism is the use of anachronisms: the ‘native’ or ‘colonized’ is presented as ‘prehistoric, atavistic and irrational, inherently out of place in the historical time of modernity.’” Meanwhile, Huang, while an actual living person, is presented by the Osmanns in a way that evokes a certain stereotype of the rural Third Worlder, steeped in tradition, who is so isolated from civilization that he doesn’t have Instagram, and therefore they cannot “tag” him (or link to his account, ostensibly to cross-promote him the way they do with Samsung and other brands).
Nataly and Murad’s travels fit the definition of tourism provided by anthropologist Dennison Nash in his essay “Tourism as an Anthropological Subject”: “One becomes a tourist when one leaves home while free of primary obligations […] Because the tourist must be transported, lodged, entertained, fed, etc., others (nontourists) may be implicated in his or her activities.” Discussing the “asymmetry” of the tourist-local relationship in his 1984 article “The Sociology of Tourism,” sociologist Erik Cohen (quoting W. A. Sutton), categorized tourism as “a series of encounters [between] visitors who are on the move to enjoy themselves […] and hosts who are relatively stationary and who have the function of catering to these visitors’ needs and wishes.”
The #FollowMeTo photo taken January 6, 2016, illustrates these dynamics. In the image, Nataly poses in front of a busy street in New Delhi, with a bemused-looking Indian driver and his small car directly before her. The accompanying caption reads: “#FollowMeTo New Delhi with @natalyosmann. You wouldn’t believe how many people are actually surrounding us during this shot. The driver was then almost fined by police because we blocked the whole road. Had to persuade them to let him go :).” Here, the Osmanns have directly impacted this unnamed driver’s livelihood for the worse — and almost gotten him in trouble with local authorities — in the name of getting a great photo. One hopes they gave this driver a generous tip.
Murad Osmann’s photographs are not for the people who live in the places he and Nataly visit as tourists; instead, they are for the people with access to social media to admire and envy, for the brands they hope will sponsor further trips, and for tourists (or tourist-wannabes) who will follow in the couple’s footsteps. These images serve as modern-day Gauguin paintings, about which Jean-François Staszak has aptly written, “The many paintings of paradise [referring to the Tahitian paintings] do not inform us about the landscapes of the place but on the expectations of a society and on its view of Eden. Thus Gauguin did not paint Tahiti, but his Tahitian dream […] His work was never intended for Tahitians.” The aspirational nature of #FollowMeTo cannot be denied: it is explicitly evoked in an image/advertisement from February 14, 2017, which entails a sweepstakes for a lucky fan to “join us on a trip to the most romantic place on Earth!” The now-famous composition of the #FollowMeTo images has also seen emulators in sincere photographic and video-based forms, as well as parody.
Ultimately, Murad and Nataly’s images have since ceased to be about the places to which they travel, despite the occasional inclusion of captions like that of “August 4, 2017” that provide a nugget of local context to justify the existence of the photograph. As we can see over the course of the #FollowMeTo project, the Osmanns have instead established a global brand based on the desirability of their lifestyle (and Nataly’s Western-style photogenic beauty) and predicated on advertising preferred products such as Samsung watches. In their travels to non-Western countries, we see that the standardized composition of the #FollowMeTo photos replicates the dynamics of Orientalist imagery and colonial relations in a similar manner to recent advertising and fashion photography. As Instagram becomes more and more prominent as a form of aspirational self-advertising as well as actual product-based advertising, it is crucial that we take seriously its images as cultural objects and examine how they repeat problematic patterns of the past.
This essay was first presented at the 41st Annual New Jersey College English Association Conference at Seton Hall University, New Jersey, March 24, 2018.
Deborah Krieger is the curatorial assistant at the Delaware Art Museum and an arts and culture writer. She is glad to be writing for LARB, where she was a summer publishing course intern in 2013.