Tourist Photography’s Fictional Conquest

by | Dec 25, 2002

Recently, while walking across the Harvard campus, I was stopped by two tourists with a camera. They asked me if I would take a picture of them beside the words “HARVARD LAW SCHOOL,” engraved on a stone block in front of Pound Hall. As I did so, one of them expressed relief at having found the sign after a long search of the campus for any official and photographable declaration that this place was, in fact, Harvard. On another occasion, a camera-toting tourist asked me to direct them to a gate or a doorway with the name of the university spelled out above it.

These anecdotes suggest that to function properly a set of tourist photographs ought to include at least one in which a place somehow utters its own name. A single photograph bearing a clear announcement can introduce and geographically anchor one or more album pages, obviating the need for a caption, and thus reinforcing the myth that photographs speak for themselves. Moreover, by arranging for a photograph of themselves beside the sign in front of Pound Hall, the two tourists I encountered were a rebus of sorts that explicitly recorded their geographical presence at Harvard in bold terms. Pondering these implications got me thinking about the social functions of tourist photographs more generally. What follows are some very broad but perhaps nonetheless helpful speculations about the work that tourist photographs do. As Susan Sontag has noted, the tourist photographer is acquisitive. The snapshot and the postcard proclaim and confirm the tourist’s acquisition of experience and facilitate its integration into personal and familial histories. While the tourist is abroad, the sending of postcards announces to friends and family that the process of acquisition is under way. The writing of postcards is itself a sign of leisure (who has time to write postcards?), so that both card and message flaunt an exceptional and enviable state of being. The standard finish, “wish you were here,” is less an expression of actual regret or desire than a gloss of graciousness on a boast of enjoyment.

Upon returning home, the tourist shares an album of photographs of the trip much as a hunter would show off a room of trophies. The analogy runs deep in the nomenclature of photography: tourists talk of shooting pictures and capturing images, and long ago the word snapshot meant a shot fired from a gun hurriedly and without careful aim. Photography has largely replaced taxidermy as a way to preserve and display evidence of triumphant excursions to distant lands. The photograph of a vegetable market, like the stuffed head of a bear, not only signifies travel and conquest, but also provides a node of conversation. Tourists expect their photographs to tell a story, but also to facilitate the telling of others.

Tourist photographs are commonly thought to record experiences, but experiences of what? Many of us have witnessed tourists taking photographs of a building or view that they otherwise ignore. In other words, tourists often look at things only to determine whether and how to photograph them. The analogy between hunting and photography may help us understand this behavior. Just as the trophy head above the mantel is evidence that the proprietor shot (not otherwise experienced or knew) the animal in question, the tourist photograph of a thing serves primarily as evidence of the tourist’s act of photographing it. The photograph proclaims that the photographer was present at such and such a place and took a photograph. This argument helps explain why tourists often take photographs of things even if they already have superior pictures of them in glossy books at home.

But what, then, is the social value of the tourist’s photographic trophies? Travelling to distant places may itself be regarded as an achievement that the photograph memorializes. In addition, the practice of tourist photography presupposes that the identity of the photographer has a cumulative aspect that can be assessed according to the quantity and quality of experiences. The tourist identity apparently swells and improves with experienced sites. Once a tourist has photographed a building or waterfall, it belongs, in some sense, to him or her. This cumulative form of identity fosters a checklist approach to the acquisition of experience (“been there, done that”), whereby each tick takes the form of a photograph that both announces and confirms the experience acquired. If all this sounds imperial or colonial, it should: in many respects, tourist photography is a Victorian invention. Sontag has also pointed out the mundane fact that photography gives tourists something to do. One of the problems of leisure is that it is defined negatively as an absence of work. During a vacation, photography fills this gap; it gives the tourist an endless task of locate, point, and shoot. Tourist photography is a fantasy arcade game, a holiday inversion of work, in which conquest could hardly be easier. In some tourist photographs, of course, the photographer or members of the photographer’s party appear. Such photographs not only confirm that the photographer and company were in a particular place taking photographs, but also evince the state of pleasure that this activity entailed. Smiling for the camera is a way of signifying this happy state to future viewers; it constitutes a claim or reassurance about the experiences acquired. There is, after all, a great deal at stake in tourism: it is the supposed payoff of months of often dreary labor. Tourist photography ensures that a vacation can be recorded and declared as emotionally successful, regardless of the actual emotions experienced.

The selection of evidence for the act of shooting with either a camera or a gun follows certain conventions. One reason that a hunter will preserve and display the antlers (and not the tail or leg) of a downed moose is that the antlers are both immediately recognizable to many as a sign of moose-ness and as a measure of the excellence of the kill. The tourist also wants evidence of acquisition that plainly speaks of its character and quality, often relying on stereotypes or familiar images to do so. This is why tourists who come to Cambridge want to photograph something that declares Harvard to be Harvard. Such declarations need not be verbal. Tourists from the U.S. in Mexico, for example, often want their photographs to include what they regard as conventional signs of Mexican-ness, such as sombreros, ponchos, palm trees, and certain textiles and decorative motifs. Photographs may signify the value of experience in various ways, such as by representing sights that are particularly famous (“it’s the Pyramid of the Sun!”) or spectacular (“can you believe the color of the water?”).

The social power of tourist photography rests in part on the dubious assumption that the photograph represents what a person standing where the photographer stood, at the time the photograph was taken, would have witnessed. The routine use of telephoto and wide-angle lenses by tourist photographers is only one of many sources of discrepancy between photograph and vision that belie this assumption. The social fantasy of photography is so strong, however, that even knowing that the tourist used a very powerful telephoto lens generally fails to dispel the sense that the image was available to the tourist as an unmediated experience of place. Viewing tourist photographs often involves a suspension of disbelief.

On a gun safari, the acquisition of a trophy requires the death of the subject shot. Tourist photography allows for the subject of the picture to survive the shooting, but nonetheless the practice of photography has profound impacts upon tourist destinations and their inhabitants. Harassment is only the most obvious of these. Tourist photography also motivates certain interests in destination communities to provide opportunities for the taking of photographs that tourists might prize. This means proffering to the camera signs of exoticism, novelty, authenticity, and geographic identity, so that photographs will confirm the acquisition of identifiable experiences (“that’s Mexico, all right”) outside the scope of the tourist’s quotidian world. Because photography is so integral to tourism generally, communities that prohibit tourist photography greatly reduce the presence of tourists. For example, Pierre Van den Berghe has found that the flow of tourists through the Mexican village of Zinacantán, where a prohibition against photography has been strictly enforced, is only a small fraction of that through San Juan Chamula, even though both villages are easily accessible from San Cristóbal.

As many have acknowledged, tourist photography informs relations of power. It divides the social world into those who photograph and those who are photographed. Some persons shift from one position to the other (I sometimes serve as a tweedy local for tourists on the Harvard campus, but I also travel abroad with camera in hand). A great many people, of course, only experience the role of the photographed subject, which is generally dehumanizing. A tourist often photographs local people because they display signs of geographical identity in much the same way as do local plants, local topography, and local architecture. The personality, volitions, and history of the individuals photographed are often of no interest to the tourist. For many who live in destination communities, the routines of daily life have become, willy-nilly, a performance of geography for the album of another. What many of these remarks suggest is that tourist photography entails the making of a fiction. The photograph album of the tourist is a picture book. The photographs within it are not representative of the places visited (industry, tourism, and ugliness are all suppressed), nor of the tourist’s activities (waiting in line and sitting on buses go unrepresented) or expressions (nothing but smiles). Like a movie, the photograph album of the tourist is a carefully produced and (largely pre-) scripted narrative. The album is, in a sense, the product toward which all efforts at touring point. Those on the tour play the lead roles, while the locals serve as unpaid and often unwilling extras. When the album takes its place alongside others on a shelf, it adds a pictorial chapter to the fictionalization of a life.

I have been discussing tourist photography as a uniform social practice. But of course practices of tourist photography vary from one cultural domain to the next, as well as over time. For example, recent decades have added the video camera to the tourist’s equipage and largely subtracted the tourist slide show. The video camera has enabled the visual record of the tourist to reach new heights of production, narrative illusion, and spectacle. Nonetheless, some of the salient properties of the social practice of tourist photography, at least in my experience, persist.

Winter 2002Volume I, Number 2
Robin Kelsey, Assistant Professor in the History of Art and Architecture Department at Harvard, teaches courses in the history of photography. His parents, who are anthropologists, initiated his education in tourism when he was nine years old, during a family summer in Pátzcuaro, Mexico.

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