I was sitting by the docks of Thessaloniki, Greece, the other day and watched 4 men walk up, stand by the water with the mountains behind them, take a photo and then walk off, passing the camera between them to commemorate yet another place where they were for about 15 seconds.
I miss the old days. Once upon a time taking a photo was an event in your day. You had only so many shots to take on each roll of film and you prowled around like a hunter, waiting for the right moment to capture an experience for ever.
Now taking a photo has become the experience. Travellers walk around with a camera between them and the location, documenting, sharing and commenting on the photos they take but wholly disconnected from the moment they’re in. Seeing the world through a lens, they spend more time looking at the little screen than at the scenery. Taking a photo becomes the experience. If it wasn’t recorded and uploaded then it didn’t happen. As photographer of tourists, Martin Parr, puts it:
‘The photographic record of the visit has almost destroyed the very notion of actually looking.’
At the extreme end of the spectrum are all the tourists who stand in front of the Leaning Tower of Pisa or the Taj Mahal to have their photo taken. Why do they do it? Is it to prove to doubting strangers that they have actually been to those places? Although come to think of it it’s even worse if they’re not in the picture because then what on earth is their snap worth? The most famous places in the world have all been thoroughly documented by photographers with talent and all you can really say is that your photo is, well, a little bit different.
Ok, if you’re a professional photographer or it’s your main passion in life, then I get it Travel photography is a beautiful art form and your images make the world a better place. Or maybe you take photos for your mother who worries about you on the road and it’s a way for her to see that you’re not actually risking kidnapping and malaria every day, you’re out there having fun. And yes, once in a while you might see something truly unique and a photo can be a great way to share that.
But mostly photography turns the traveller into a tourist.
A photo is a way to turn the moment you’re experiencing into a commodity. If you were actually going to sell the image it would be different but of course all you’re really going to do is upload it to Facebook where to boosts the image of your digital self as a world traveller. You might say the photos help you remember the moments on your trip but they don’t really because photography encourages a kind of selective nostalgia where you forget about all the bad stuff and caramelise the good. Who ever saw a photo of the Pyramids that captured how annoying is was to be offered a camel ride for the hundredth time that day while you were trying to be awestruck by the ancient architecture? What photo of the lakes in Finland made your arms itch with mosquito bites? Can you smell the streets of Delhi on Instagram?
Maybe you think I’m trying to hit a small nail with a very large hammer. Criticizing people for taking too many photos is like criticizing people for having pets that they treat like humans. You’re just not allowed to say anything about it. It’s personal to the point of being a fetish but it’s one shared by so many that you risk lynching for making the observation. Am I sneering? Yes! But you’ll only read this article once and I have to suffer tourists taking photos wherever I go.
And if you think I’m exaggerating just take a trip to the Greek island of Santorini, a place the guide books declared to be blessed with the most beautiful sunset in the world. Head along to the hallowed viewing spot as the sun is going down and what do you see? A blazing sky illuminated with…the flash of cameras. Crowds of tourists nudge and hustle themselves into position to get that iconic shot of something they never would have bothered looking at had they not been told it was beautiful.
Image captured, job done they turn around and go off to take photos of the dinner they will eat that night.