7: In Defence of Tourist Photographs


Ralf Potts wrote a beautiful essay, Tourist Snapshots, which describes the author's relationship with travel and photography. In fact, if you're short of time, you should read that essay rather than this post as it's full of interesting quotes and idea. My favourite bit is the observation from an Anangu guide in Australia who told Potts, "When [the Angaru people] first encountered tourists, they assumed there were people in the world whose job was to travel around in groups and take pictures of everything."

Photography has become intrinsically linked to tourism, both positively and negatively. It's difficult to balance the desire to record an experience with the feeling that photography gets in the way of truly experiencing the moment. Susan Sontag, quoted by Potts, describes tourist photography as a defense mechanism: “Most tourists feel compelled to put the camera between themselves and whatever is remarkable that they encounter. Unsure of other responses, they take a picture.” Potts also recounts Paul Fussell's observation about anti-tourists, who ostentatiously don't carry camera in the hope they will be asked about it and can explain their superiority to other travellers. As Jarvis Cocker pointed out, "Everybody hates a tourist".

I wrote a little about this sort of thing in relation to my visit to the Taj Mahal in 2010. The datacard containing the photographs I took was accidentally erased by an Internet cafe. I wasn't too sad about this. Since I was alone in Agra, there was little linking these photos with me and The Taj Mahal is one of the most photographed buildings in the world (which reminded me of the Most Photographed Barn in the World in Don DeLillo's White Noise, which is also quoted by Potts).

I returned to Agra earlier this year, this time visiting the Fatehpur Sikri. Of course I took many photographs of the sights and found myself thinking again about tourist photography. The tourist experience is already mediated. When you visit old palaces, you don't see the sewage or the servants, only a series of settings designed to show the place off to modern visitors. Your residence in a hotel has little relationship to the daily life of the people living in the country. Indeed, the writers of the Rebel Sell, a critique of anti-consumerism, claim that "the only 'authentic' form of tourism is business travel". It is not taking photographs that reduces tourism to something inauthentic.

As I walked around the main palace, framing scenes with my camera, I thought about Claude Glasses. These were tinted mirrors used by 18th century tourists to frame a landscape and give it a tinge more like a painting. It is easy to mock this idea of making the landscape to look more artificial but, once you surrender the possibility one can ever authentically experience a tourist site, this becomes fascinating. The view-screen of a digital camera gives us a way to subtract elements from scenes, focusing attention on detail and becoming mindful of the environment. Even if one doesn't save the digital photographs, the digital camera offers a creative means of experiencing an environment.

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