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  • Writer's pictureSophie Lou Wilson

We wanted to be the sky

On documentation versus content creation

I still take a lot of photos of the sky. When I was younger, I would share them on Instagram captioned with Lorde lyrics about growing up in the suburbs or a sentence about my day. One reads, ‘summer nights in the suburbs.’ Another, taken when I went home for Christmas after my first term at uni says, ‘Walking to a Christmas party listening to Pure Heroine. It feels like forever again.’ These posts are all archived now. 

They were blurry photos of barely visible streetlights against the black night sky, or pale pink sunsets over the roofs of houses. I would print out these blurry iPhone photos and stick them in my journal next to my writing about shitty house parties or sneaking out at night to walk around town with my best friend and talk about exams and the moon. My Instagram archive feels like a graveyard of all these formative moments.

In April, Joanie WhatsApped me an iPhone photo of the pink sky as she walked up from the beach accompanied by a voice note. ‘Every single one of us is taking a photo of this sunset to remember it, but we’ve seen so many and we will see so many and what happens to those photos? They just sit in our camera roll until we get a new phone, but we just feel it’s so important to remember it. We snap a pic and that thing feels special maybe, but the sun doesn’t care. It’s just going down past the horizon.’ 

She explained how if she were younger she would have posted the photo to Instagram with a poetic caption, but Instagram’s not like that anymore so she was sharing it with me instead.

Instagram is no longer for documenting. It’s for content creation. Everyone is supposed to be a creator now, churning out content to feed the insatiable beast of social media, almost always making more money for the platform than they make for themselves. Sometimes I still post photos of the sky on my story, but they usually just sit on my phone because most people don’t care about other people’s photos of the sky. 

I have always shared my life online, but lately, I’ve been sharing less and less. Sometimes I feel like I got left behind. I often wonder if I was a teenager now whether I would start out by making TikToks about fashion instead of blogging about it. Or perhaps I wouldn’t create content at all because the landscape now feels less hospitable to teenage experimentation and the video format would not have appealed to me. 

I started listening to The Death of the Artist by William Deresiewicsz but I can only listen to it in short bursts before it makes me depressed. In it, Deresiewicz suggests that the birth of the creative entrepreneur in the age of billionaires and big tech could mean the end of art as we know it. We all know by now that, more often than not, success as any kind of artist usually has more to do with your following and how you market yourself online than with the quality of the work. Influencers and nepo babies dominate bestseller lists and trending TikTok sounds. 

I think that’s what felt so disingenuous about Taylor Swift’s Tortured Poets campaign. While anyone who sincerely refers to themselves as a ‘tortured poet’ is cringe, there are real, material reasons why poets and other artists may be tortured; one of the main ones being that it is fucking hard to make any money as an artist, so when a billionaire aestheticises that to make even more money it leaves a sour taste. Artists experience tight deadlines, high expectations, fierce criticism (and self-criticism), low or no pay and regular rejection. Being tortured as an artist is a sad reality rather than something to romanticise or aspire to. 

I know people who, instead of trying to fight their way to the top in this bleak and toxic landscape, have decided to opt out altogether, deleting their social media accounts so they can focus on their art itself. Now that social media is my job, my desire to spend time on it in my downtime has depleted massively. I would rather direct my energy to other places. Yet there is always a voice in the back of my head telling me that if I posted on social media more and focused on building a platform there then it would be good for my career in the long run. It can be hard to know whether focusing on your art or focusing on your social media is a better use of time.

It didn’t always feel like a tradeoff to me. Art, life and social media used to be more tightly enmeshed. My blog, Instagram, journals and creative writing all shared a symbiotic relationship, inspiring and feeding into each other. I wasn’t consciously trying to build a brand, but it felt natural and safe to be my authentic self online. I used to escape from real life into the internet, but now I escape from the internet into real life. This is probably healthier and I’m glad I’ve built a life where I can be my authentic self offline too, but sometimes I miss the internet being a place of sanctuary and community. 

Authenticity online looks very different today. We are all aware of creating a brand for ourselves. I might post a picture of Cookie Mueller’s Walking Through Clear Water in a Pool Painted Black on my Instagram story, but not the Emily Henry romance I read on the beach in Turkey. I don’t post singular blurry pictures of the sky on the grid anymore. I would never post multiple times a day or use that medium to share specific details about what I got up to. While writing this, I thought it might be nice to start a new Instagram page just for sharing blurry pics of the sky with poetic captions, but then I thought that might already exist and it goes against my goal to spend more time documenting offline anyway. 

Instead, I want to start scrapbooking pictures of the sky alongside photos of friends and family and anything else I want to remember. Phone photos so easily get sucked into the void of screenshots and five years worth of memories and there’s always a lingering fear that they might get lost forever. Recently I visited my grandma in a care home. She has dementia so my mum made her a photo album with photos of her life from the 1950s up until now. It was fascinating to flip through it with her and see photos of her travelling the world with my grandad in her twenties or holding my mum as a baby. I came away knowing that I needed to make a similar scrapbook for myself this summer and I’ve been making an album on my phone to print off.

I have always felt a feverish desire to document everything. It started with Rookie mag and wanting to romanticise my teenage years to make them more bearable. Now I’m fuelled by nostalgia and a fear of forgetting. Dementia runs on both sides of my family so one day I might be looking through an album of photos I only half remember or don’t remember at all. 

The people will be more important than the sky, but I want the sky in there too because sometimes the sky feels like growing up or falling in love or the day it was so bright pink that everyone you know posted it on their story. You could be walking to a party while it’s still light outside and it feels like the first summer party you ever went to. Or it could be blue with potential like when we had school summer holidays stretching endlessly ahead. Or the sun could be coming up and instead of feeling anxious you’re thinking about how you don’t stay up until sunrise as often anymore so you appreciate it more when you do. The clouds encase our memories. Every sky lives inside skies that came before. We photograph to document and we document to remember, not to create content.

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