Zilla van der Born is not a spy, but for five weeks last year, she acted like one: hiding out in her apartment, wearing disguises when she went outside, and telling everyone she knew — even her parents — that she was jetting around Southeast Asia. She was not.

What the 25-year-old Netherlander was undertaking was an epic feat of performance art/Photoshop magicry. Van der Born is a graphic designer: She’s long been fascinated by the possibility, and danger, of manipulated images. So for this project, which was completed in 2013 but recently went viral, she attempted to take that manipulation to the next level: convincingly Photoshopping herself into travel photos, Skyping her parents from a “Thai hotel” set she built in her apartment, and fake-tanning her way to a convincing vacation glow. This, for instance, is how she created an image of her “snorkeling in the ocean”:

And this is how she faked a shot in an Asian temple:

The result is a striking commentary not only on the power of Photoshop — but also on the malleability of truth online.

“What is reality?” Van de Born asks in an artist’s statement on her Web site. “We live in a visual culture in which mediated information and reality are intertwined.”

Van de Born and I recently chatted more about that idea, and her theories on photography and social media, via e-mail. This conversation has been lightly edited for style, space and flow.

The photos you made are basically photo illustrations, which is like a genre of art in and of itself. How did you conceive the ideas for those? What’s your creative process like?

I’ve always been fascinated by Photoshop and before/after pictures — the many possibilities they have. It intrigues me that a photo has an insidious, ambiguous relationship with reality, because there is a constant battle going on between two photographic considerations: making the photographed object as beautiful as possible, and telling the truth. What a picture finally really shows is never the exact situation as it really was, it is a flavored version of the truth!

Some photos were more easy than others, but it took me about half a day per photo. I threw away many photos that weren’t good enough for my liking.

Where did this idea come from?

I combined the two things I love most: photo manipulation and traveling.

Before my graduation project, I traveled to Australia to do research about “the tourist gaze”: how people from abroad look at an environment in a totally different way than locals. Most tourists are experiencing their trip through the lens of their camera, which blocks them from reality. We are always looking for those picture-perfect moments. So that’s why we filter what we show on social media (in this case only the holiday photos of sunny days, spectacular moments) and even put filters over them to make them look more beautiful. Together we create some sort of ideal world online which reality can no longer meet. So I decided I wanted to do this experiment to show the people around me how it feels to believe in a false reality.

Was anybody in on it?

Only my boyfriend was in on it (we live together) and the photographer, Daniel Ashes (although I didn’t know him beforehand). Daniel helped me make photos with the same lightning as the environment I wanted to Photoshop myself into.

What was the reaction from your friends and family, especially your parents, when they found out?

They were shocked at first, confused and angry that they were worried for nothing. But in the end they understand why I did it and I have won their trust back. I wouldn’t have done this if I wasn’t sure my parents would get the point of it and support me.

So is this essentially a commentary on the Internet? On illusion? On photography?

My goal was to prove how easy it is to believe in a distorted reality. I wanted to make people more aware that the images we see are manipulated, and that it’s not only the models in the magazines, but also our friends on social media who contribute to this fake reality. We should be more careful about what we believe, and ask ourselves why a photo is made — how and by whom and with which intention.

Finally — any plans to go to Southeast Asia for *real*?

I actually already went there, right after my graduation! I had to go see for myself. And it was pretty weird at times, because I had moments where I thought I had been there before, because I had done my research so well. I already knew where I wanted to go and how to get there. Actually my project was the perfect holiday preparation!