Saturday, March 1, 2008

Tourists of reality: reframing travel photography

Following on from some of the comments I received from my last post, I thought I'd shed more light on Susan Sontag's concept of 'tourists of reality'. That is, through the proliferation of photographic images we unwittingly become 'customers' of a 'recorded' reality. In the case of travel photography it is a reality that is formulated, packaged and sold, in the form of glossy travel brochures and postcards, by slick marketing companies and tourism bodies keen to tempt us with the scopophilic pleasures of a holiday in their country. Thus, while Africa has become a continent of wild animals, exotic peoples and vast savannahs, Australia is represented by a monolithic red rock, endless deserts and a coathanger bridge.

Lara Dunston recently touched on this subject on her Cool Travel Guide blog with a post on Blue Chairs: imagining Greece, the perception & reality where she questioned the authenticity of the blue cafe chairs in Greece, which are an omnipresent feature in all brochures and postcards produced by the Greek National Tourism Board. I have to admit I was totally sold on this image and went snap happy for the cute Mediterranean blue chairs while I was in Greece!

Yet so effective has this form of photographic marketing been that we invariably end up spending much of our vacation time searching out so called 'sights' in order to capture these touristic images for ourselves. Because without capturing them we'd have no proof that we did in fact visit that particular place, town, city or country. After all, if you travel to Paris the only way you could possibly prove you'd been there is with a smiling snap of you standing in front of the Eiffel Tower; right?

A few years ago I explored the same theme in an article published by itch magazine in Cape Town in which I studied the city's visual representation in postcards. While postcards of the city showed all the iconic sights such as Table Mountain and the Victoria & Alfred Waterfront, what they in fact presented was a piece of a puzzle that forms only a minor part of the mosaic that is Cape Town. So I purchased several of the most popular postcards of the city and set out to discover what had been left outside the focus of the touristic lens.

The most overdetermined of all Cape Town's touristic sights is the omnipresent Table Mountain. Its monolithic form graces almost every postcard, travel brochure and coffee table book produced on the city. While the mountain has been captured from almost every possible angle, the most dramatic and most photographed view of Table Mountain is easily the view from Bloubergstrand on the opposite side of Table Bay. It gives you a panoramic wide-screen view of the whole mountain with the city nestled cosily at its base.

With the postcard as I my guide I made my way to Bloubergstrand to view and capture the 'touristic reality' (see the image above). Once I arrived at the sight I discovered that there were numerous 'view points' from which to obtain the picture-perfect rendition of the 'touristic reality'. I quickly snapped a couple of pictures then plonked myself down on the sand and sat back to await inspiration for my 'alternative realities'. As if on cue another tourist/photographer, armed with an expensive camera and heavy tripod, walked casually up the beach. Stopping directly in front of me, he turned towards the ocean and carefully surveyed the scene before him. Then having decided he had found the perfect 'viewing position' he quickly set up his tripod to capture his own version of Table Mountain's 'touristic reality'.

Immediately inspired, I jumped to my feet and hastily rolled-off a couple of shots of the same scene, though this time reframing my viewfinder to include the tourist/photographer (see above). Then suddenly sensing that my unwitting subject had become aware of my presence (and not wanting to be exposed as a crazy photographer with a peculiar fetish for taking pictures of strangers) I quickly turned around and randomly pointed my camera skyward. But as the lens slowly came into focus I was pleasantly surprised by the new 'alternative reality' that filled my viewfinder. All the time I had been facing forward and focusing my camera on the 'realities' that lay within the usual touristic view of Table Mountain I had been unaware that as the sun was slowly setting the sky behind me had been staging its own magnificent display. Through my viewfinder I now watched mesmerised as the clouds stretched endlessly across the late afternoon sky. Fascinated by their elongated forms, I snapped at my camera again (see below).

The sad thing is, if I hadn’t been doing this project at the time I more than likely would not have seen this amazing sight let alone have captured what has turned out to be one of my favourite and most requested photographs. While photography will always be an integral part of the travel experience, as will the predetermined touristic sights, what I learned from this project is that as travellers we need to open ourselves up to the possibility of life outside of the viewfinder. So the next time you are in Paris and confronted with the Eiffel Tower, I challenge you to buck the trend and discover what is not within the touristic frame. Turn around and take a picture of what is behind you – after all you never know what you might capture!


Anonymous said...

Great post, Kim! I agree with you entirely - we so often miss the beautiful reality outside of the tourist snapshots. For me, the most touching photo moments happen out of the blue, once we find a release from the 'must-photograph this'.

Anonymous said...

Very interesting and so true! Great posts, keep up the great work!

Monna said...

What a beautifully written post. This idea of shifting our perspectives also applies to all manner of aspects of travel... food, for example. I was amazed to learn just how many things are called "tapas" in Barcelona.
I have also been writing about postcards in series called "Postcards I Wish I Had Sent"... these are small intimate photo moments from my own travels that tell a more complete story about the destination, and about me as a person and traveller. Thank you for your intelligent writing.