Read the first chapter of ‘The Tourist Gaze’ by John Urry and write a reflective commentary about its relevance to documentary photography.
Along with the accompanying text by Larsen, I found this reading extremely interesting and relevant to many thoughts I have about documentary photography. The paper is far reaching and something I believe I will come back to in the future, I am restricting myself here however to the specific question and the ideas expressed by Urry that have particular relevance to documentary photography.
Larsen explores the relationships between cameras, images, places and tourists and how these are portrayed. He asks “How does photography mediate tourists’ experience of places and produce tourist geographies?” This question is the crux of Urry’s notion of the tourist gaze: an image-mediated nature of seeing in which tourist landscapes are shown as ‘imaginative geographies’. Tourist photography is on a superficial level a very pure form of documentation – the tourist makes images that are documents/evidence of where they have been and what they have seen. While this is a truism, the idea that these images represent reality is naïve – they are constructs which are better understood as a social, or even ritual, practice. Quoting Sontag, Larsen argues that photography has the ability to objectify the world as an exhibition, but more than this, the act of photographing is a compulsion that seeks to turn experience itself into a way of seeing: “Today everything exists to end in a photograph.” With the proliferation of smart phones this need to mediate and share experience is an even more prevalent and self perpetuating cycle.
Photographic conventions and their influence on tourist photography
Tourist photography is an interesting example of the intersection between amateur and professional photography. Urry states that overtime, via advertising and the media, the images of the tourist gazes come to constitute a “closed self-perpetuating system of illusions.” The tourist chooses the places to visit from images presented in the media and then attempts to recreate these in their own photographs during the trip which, when shown to their audience of family and friends on their return act as proof of taste, status and adventure. The initial media images however are fantasy constructs with the aim of creating anticipation of places to be gazed upon and despite being based in the real world, have no aims to the depiction of reality.
The ‘real’ and the ‘authentic’
Urry argues that tourism is a prime example of a ‘pseudo-event’, that is, the idea that reality cannot be experienced directly and that pleasure is found in inauthentic, contrived attractions. The tourist may believe they are travelling in order to experience different societies and ways of living but the reality is that they are little more than a gullible observer, confined in an ‘environmental bubble’ which keeps them removed from a genuine experience. For example,
hotels are mainly familiar territories that protect the tourist from the host environment, travel agents act as surrogate parents that protect the tourist from harsh realities and restrict the gaze to approved objects/areas such as landmarks and the beach.
Tourism is the constructed and commodified experience of travel and closely associated with relationships of power. The ‘other’ is experienced, and photographed, as exotic – an example being the opportunity to have images taken with indigenous people in traditional dress.
Martin Parr: Small World (1995)
Reading these papers made me think of Martin Parr‘s ‘Small World’ series I which Parr humorously pokes fun at mass tourism. The images that show tourists taking photographs particularly resonate. For example, this picture of the leaning tower of Pisa perfectly encapsulates Urry’s arguments about the need of tourists to capture a particular view. The visitors here copy each other in creating images that through a particular camera angle make it appear they are holding up the tower. Parr wittily shows both the ridiculousness of this and the fact that this is an extremely unoriginal idea by photographing the whole scene, each tourist shown in an awkward pose that now makes no sense because of his angle of view.
Bull, S. (2010) Photography. London: Routledge Taylor & Francis Group.
Larsen, J. (2006) Geographies of Tourist Photography: Choreographies and Performances. Available at: https://www.oca-student.com/resource-type/larsengeographies [accessed 12th February 2018]
Urry, J. (2011) The Tourist Gaze. Available at: https://www.oca-student.com/resource-type/urrytouristgaze [accessed 12th February 2018]
Wells, L. (2009) Photography: A Critical Introduction (4th ed). Abingdon: Routledge.