Posing against a backdrop of white sand and sparkling blue sea, Zilla van den Born looks every inch the gap-year backpacker. For weeks, her friends and family have followed her social media updates with envy, watching as she lives out every traveler’s dream. But is Zilla’s adventure really what it seems?
In this day and age, traveling is big news. While previous generations had to content themselves with holidays in their own countries – and perhaps the occasional trip abroad – today’s explorers are spoiled for choice. And now, it’s common for many young people to visit far-flung corners of the globe before settling into their chosen careers.
As a result, visiting backpacker hotspots such as South-East Asia and India has become more and more popular in recent decades. But in an era of Facebook and Instagram, these experiences are often reduced to filter-heavy snapshots of tropical beaches, exotic meals and grinning locals. Obviously, though, these don’t represent the full reality of the traveling experience – so where should we draw the line?
Zilla grew up in Amsterdam in the Netherlands, a city that has spawned its own fair share of envy-inducing tourist photo opportunities. And when she was just 16, she entered the world of modelling, where she grew fascinated with the techniques that editors would use to modify her appearance.
As a young woman, Zilla began to carve out a career for herself in the creative industries, beginning a course in graphic design at the Art Academy of Utrecht in the Netherlands. But like many people her age, the 25-year-old was also drawn to the idea of travel. So, that year, she informed her family and friends that she’d decided to take a five-week sojourn around South-East Asia.
In April 2014 Zilla arrived at the airport and waved goodbye to her family. Then, she posted a photograph on Facebook showing her weighed down with heavy bags, about to set off on the adventure of a lifetime. And soon, her page was filled with friends praising her for living the dream.
Over the next five weeks, Zilla continued to post updates to social media showing off the sights of Thailand, Laos and Cambodia – all popular destinations for young people looking to expand their horizons through travel. And to Zilla’s hundreds of Facebook friends, hers really was the journey of a lifetime.
In one set of photographs, captioned “Thailand, the land of smiles,” Zilla showed off the cultural side of her trip. As well as posing with a Buddhist monk, she shared snapshots of temples, statues and the skyline of Bangkok. And in the same post, she also hinted at the palm-tree fringed sandy beaches that would make her the envy of all her friends.
In another Facebook update shared in May 2014 Zilla posted photographs of an underwater adventure on the Thai island of Phuket. Decked out in a snorkeling mask, she could be seen posing in crystal-clear waters while surrounded by colorful marine life. In the comments, a friend jokingly warned her to be careful of the dangerous fish.
Over the course of Zilla’s trip, the envy-inducing updates just kept coming. One moment she was grinning at the camera while standing knee-deep in the sparkling ocean, the next she was posing for snaps with local children in the ruins of an ancient temple. And typical of many social media users, she shared images of the native cuisine.
Despite Zilla’s busy schedule, however, she still managed to keep in touch with her family in Holland. From a room filled with exotic decor, she Skyped her parents with updates on her exciting adventure. And when she finally returned home, they were keen to see the travel photographs that she’d promised to reveal.
But when Zilla’s family and friends gathered to view the photographs and hear stories about her adventure, they were in for a shock. Because in a video, she revealed that the entire thing had been a ruse. And instead of sunning herself on exotic beaches, she had in fact spent 42 days confined to her home in Amsterdam.
After leaving her family at the airport, in reality Zilla had donned a disguise and caught a train straight back to Amsterdam. There, she spent weeks creating an elaborate hoax in order to convince people that she was indeed traveling the world. And by using Photoshop and various props to transform her mundane surroundings, she was able to pull the illusion off.
Perpetuating the hoax was a long and complicated process, however, with only Zilla’s boyfriend in on the secret. Apparently, she spent most of her time indoors, using photo editing software to place images of herself against backdrops of exotic locations in South-East Asia. Not only that, but she also even used her own kitchen to whip up the Asian dishes seen in her snaps.
When it came to the snorkeling shots, Zilla adopted an impressively creative approach. By taking a dip in her own pool in Amsterdam, she was able to snap underwater photographs without leaving home. Then, she used her editing skills to add images of friendly marine life. And for her Skype sessions, she simply used decorations and an umbrella to create the ambience of a hotel room somewhere in Thailand.
Interestingly, not all of Zilla’s experiences were totally faked. Apparently, when she wanted to show herself exploring a Buddhist temple, she simply tracked one down in her local neighborhood. There, she posed with a real monk – making it the most authentic photograph posted during the entire five-week hoax.
Amazingly, Zilla even created fake friendships in order to perpetuate the idea that she was meeting new people from around the world. By stealing the photographs of a female travel blogger and giving her a new identity, Zilla was able to stage Facebook conversations with this new, fictional acquaintance.
But why did Zilla go to such lengths to convince her family and friends that she was traveling the world? Well, she embarked on the endeavor as part of her university course, hoping to show how easy it is to present a distorted image of our lives when we portray ourselves through social media.
“I did this to show people that we filter and manipulate what we show on social media – we create an ideal world online, which reality can no longer meet,” Zilla told the Daily Mail. “My goal was to prove how common and easy it is for people to distort reality. Everyone knows that pictures of models are manipulated, but we often overlook the fact that we manipulate reality also in our own lives.”
Perhaps unsurprisingly, reaction to Zilla’s experiment has been mixed. While online commenters have praised the skill with which she pulled off the elaborate hoax, some of her loved ones were less than thrilled at being deceived. “If I had the chance to do it again, I don’t think I would,” Zilla confessed to BuzzFeed in 2014. “I really underestimated the impact of the project on myself and the people around me.”