Millennial Man: Your Instagram Superhero
It would be an understatement to say that I had low expectations of Instagram when I started my account three years ago. Like many users of the app, I initially viewed it as a mere tool of distraction. Something I whipped out to amuse myself while I was in a queue or in need of a short respite from reality. But as I grew more and more comfortable with my life abroad, its use in my life change. Instead of being my app of choice when I was in the bathroom, I began to see it as a the ultimate instrument of exploration.
The explore page itself was like a portal offering up all things “new.” New locations to visit, new foods to try, new indie bands and new ethical brands to support. Somehow, this little application seemed to exist solely to open my eyes to experiences that I would have otherwise counted out. I learned this first hand in my first solo trip to Milan. Never before had I believed that I was the type of person to climb onto the rooftop of a cathedral (in the end of December, no less.) But in the weeks prior to my trip, Instagram had convinced me that the view from Il Duomo at sunset was well worth the price of admission.
In the end it became one of my primary sources of inspiration. Over time, I began to rabidly seek out more and more purveyors of it. And chief among them, was of them was Matthias Hauser. Or as he is known on the ‘gram “where_is_mat.”
His was one of the very first accounts that I followed back in 2015 when I was killing time in a pueblo on the outskirts of Madrid. How I ended up there was a long story, but all you need to know is that due to a series of quintessentially Spanish events, I was left effectively homeless. The old adage goes that beggars can’t be choosers. However, nobody said that we can’t be complainers.
And so I’ll say it: that place was so remote and uninspiring that even the Spaniards in the nearby pueblos snubbed their noses at it. Aside from olive trees and rocks, there was nothing to see. But seeing as I had nothing else to do, I picked up my phone and started taking pictures. And since I knew no one there, I decided to share them with the only source of community I had—the internet.
Back then, the travel niche of Instagram was small and the number of black travelers was even smaller. But we all supported each other and traded “likes” via the #blacktraveller and other similar hashtags. And through this simple form of solidarity, I crossed virtual paths with where_is_mat.
Suffice it to say, when I scrolled through his feed, I was immediately blown away. Parting the sea of duck-faced selfies were photographs that looked as though they had been scanned from back copies of National Geographic.
With their gorgeous composition and almost cinematic quality, his photos read more like movie stills from a Hollywood epic rather than mere snaps from a recent vacay. As years went by, his photos grew ever more impressive—and I grew ever more inspired. So much so, that a few months ago I plucked up the courage to ask him about his journeys abroad and the photos he’s taken along the way. Luckily for both of us, he obliged.
Sitting outside of New York City with the typical city noises blazing in the background, he surprised me by telling me that he wasn’t in fact travel photographer. Photography was just a hobby that he picked up while globetrotting. His aim initially was to keep his family abreast of his whereabouts and the joy that he was experiencing while criss-crossing the globe. Becoming internet famous was not one of his goals.
In fact, it wasn’t until 2015 that he decided to take his talents to Instagram and share his journeys with the rest of us. Which is something that I’m sure his 17,000 followers, myself included, are happy that he did.
The majority of the photos that I asked him to share with me were taken during a sabbatical he took in 2015. One of his many stops was in Vietnam. It was here that he captured this glorious image of the largest cave in the world—Son Doong.
On his Instagram post of this world wonder there are nearly 2,500 likes and comments extolling the beauty of his gallery in general and this image in particular. Many commenters publicly proclaimed that they were adding this cave to their bucket list. While another group was inviting friends to bear witness to the majestic image.
It was clear to see why they were impressed. Unlike the majority of us that were just sharing pictures from the one or two holidays we had taken that year, he had literally been around the world. From the base camp of Everest, to Cape Town, to the Greek Isles, he had been there and had the dazzling evidence to prove it. And if a single photo was worth a thousand words, his photos had written an epic grander than the Odyssey.
Yet, as I spoke to him on the phone he kindly and humbly gave answers to questions that were none of my business. And despite the immensity of his talent, he wasn’t boastful or in any way braggadocios. And when time ran out, he ended our conversation in the most polite way possible, before disappearing back into the cacophony of New York City’s streets.
And it was then that I realized it: he was a transplant from a foreign land (Germany,) he was living a double life (financier by weekday, traveler photographer by weekend) and had a secret identity that was protected from the masses by his username—this guy is a superhero! Sent to rescue his followers from his mortal enemy—basicness.
This revelation also made me flashback to that Spanish pueblo and the night that I’d first downloaded the app. In the three years since, the travel niche of Instagram has consolidated. It has become less centered on community and more focused on virality. As a result, the photos that people post have become even more formulaic and staged. Most travel posts are less about inviting others to experience someone’s else’s life and more about showing off. Gone is the sense of adventure and wanderlust. Now everybody just wants to be seen.
Except on Mat’s account. In this ever deepening sea of self-aggrandizement, his photos stand in beautifully stark contrast. Perhaps because his account is actually dedicated to photography and his preferred style of travel is adventure based. Anybody can take a photo at a beach, but few people are going to trek through the Namibian desert just to stunt.
And if there is one thing our superhero can teach us, it is that there is no need to try and stand out when you don’t fit in in the first place. Scrolling through his imagery it is clear that his superpower is the ability to move beyond superficiality. In so doing, he does what photographer is supposed to do—allow the viewer to see the world through someone else’s eyes.
But this, of course, is not an accident. He told me that the primary source of inspiration for his photography had been drawn from the book Earth Art: Colours of the Earth by geologist and world‐renowned photographer Bernhard Edmaier.
That revelation alone was a clue that this guy wasn’t your average Joe or at least wasn’t American—he’d read a book.
Dedication to craft and aspiration to create something extraordinary aren’t ideals that we commonly associate with social media. But Mat’s journeys combine require immense physical effort—much of which most of us are not willing to do. And the simplicity of their composition actually require a level of skill that most of us aren’t willing to work to attain.
But the results of all this work are stunning. And as many of the commenters mentioned on his Son Doong post, they may be inspired to make the changes necessary for this kind of life. Just as I did when I decided that climbing on top of the roof of that Cathedral was a good idea.
The best thing about social media is that it has opened the doors for expression and given space and voice to those generally marginalized. And while I have been fortunate enough to share space with some incredible people who’ve done amazing things, I’ve never known anyone who was as engaged in exploration as Mat is—especially a Black person. While this may seem insignificant to some, those of us in marginalized groups know that representation matters. And when a person presently themselves as brilliantly as he has, I think that it should be recognized.
But therein lies the rub of social media. Sometimes, the “best” doesn’t always win out. And now it seems that people just want to gain as much attention as possible for the sake of it. And while there is nothing wrong with that per se, there isn’t much right with it either.
Look, life is full of moments where we are simply bidding our time. Let’s face it, none of us choose to scroll through Instagram when we have better things to do. Things that we actually enjoy, that is. We all have our own Spanish pueblo moments when life seems to be working against us. And in those moments, we all need and escape hatch. And there is nothing wrong with using social media to do so.
But the question I think we should ask is whether or not what we are consuming is beneficial to us. And is what we are presenting beneficial to others? Is there a better cure for the daily minutia of life than a peek at the extraordinary? Instead of being merely distracted, wouldn’t we all be better served if we were inspired?
And that for me is the true beauty of Mat’s photos. They can serve as a shock to the system from the same old same old. Instead of feeling bad about yourself for not living a life as cool as your favorite user, while scrolling through his account, you may feel a nudge to look at all areas of your life just a bit differently.
Find beauty in destruction and symmetry in the mundane. Take a greater and longer gaze at the stars. Open a book. And maybe just maybe, you’ll find the courage to buy a camera and book ticket.
So, if you are tired of being inundated by the prosaic, take yourself over to Millennial Man’s page. Take your time as you scroll through his posts and allow yourself to truly see the world through his purview. That is his superpower after all, allowing people to see beyond the surface. So, go on—take a peek.