I just spent the last week (along with my wife, who is also a grad student in anthropology) driving across the country—it was a bit more eventful than either of us had expected (thunderstorms in Kansas and Missouri, brake problems at 11,00 feet in Colorado, sand storms in northeast Arizona, and ridiculously dense 3 a.m. fog at the Cajon pass in Los Angeles). The trip reminded me, once again, that geography does matter—despite the arguments of technophiles who seem to think that the magic of the internet and other globalizing technologies have rendered silly impediments like massive mountain ranges irrelevant. Ya, that’s not the case. Mountains matter, and the battle between inclement weather and a 2000 GMC Jimmy is no contest, period.
Of course, we did have the chance to be tourists on this cross-country trek, and both of us had our camera equipment stuffed into the truck with the rest of our necessary graduate student detritus. Sure, we’re social science grad students—but make no mistake: we’re tourists just like anyone else out there who wields maps, guidebooks, and the desire to “see some cool stuff along the way.” So I feel like I have the appropriate experience (personal and observational) to make a few comments about the co-evolved relationship that exists between tourist behavior and photography. And yes, this does have something to do with anthropology.
Thanks to the comments to my first post here*, I had Susan Sontag’s argument that photography is “essentially an act of non-intervention” somewhat stuck in my head throughout the entire road trip. I read her book On Photography years ago before I switched to studying anthropology, and I think I ingested a certain amount of her argument about the passivity and alienation that making photographs can engender. Maybe a little too much. I have always had a strange relationship with photography: there were times when I found myself taking trips (to places like Death Valley or some other suitably photographic location) solely for the purpose of making photographs. It’s a little disconcerting when you realize that your behaviors are geared toward spending an exorbitant amount of time and effort in order to make two-dimensional recreations of places on colorless little pieces of paper.
Photography can become a very abstract, distanced way of interacting with the world around you, that’s for sure. And that’s also the reason why I had to step back and reassess what I was doing with photography after about eight solid years of being completely immersed in the photographic process. I used to carry my Leica M6 almost everywhere I went, and I was constantly looking—everywhere—for “good” images. Suddenly I started asking myself why I was spending so much time making little flat representations of anything and everything around me. What, I started wondering, was I really doing with photography—what was the point of it all? Considering the sheer volume of imagery that pervades our daily lives, not bad set of questions to ask.
Sontag makes two key arguments about photography that I want to briefly explore. First of all, she says that photographing is “essentially an act of non-intervention” that engenders a kind of detached, abstract, distanced relationship with the world (Sontag 1977:11). Sontag explicitly separates photography and action/intervention in her discussion: “The person who intervenes cannot record; the person who is recording cannot intervene” (1977:12). Cameras, for Sontag, are like social and political shields that detach photographers from experiences, whether good or bad. They force people to interact with the world around them through indirect means (taking photographs), rather than through more direct processes. She expands her argument so far as to say that the act of photographing actually serves to impede social change: “To take a picture is to have an interest in things as they are, in the status quo remaining unchanged…to be in complicity with whatever makes a subject interesting, worth photographing—including, when that is the interest, another person’s pain or misfortune” (1977:12). This is, admittedly, a pretty cynical view of photography. While I do think that Sontag is right in many ways, I also think that her book is less about writing a unified theory of photography than it is about presenting certain meditations and thoughts about the impacts of photography on contemporary social and political culture.
When it comes to tourists, Sontag compares calls them predators: “The predatory side of photography is at the heart of the alliance, evident earlier in the United States than anywhere else, between photography and tourism” (1977:64). Again, I think she is on the mark about tourists in some ways—throngs of people armed with cameras can be invasive, overwhelming, and obsessively predatory in their search for “authentic” images, places, and experiences. But I think her argument about photography—and tourism—gets a little over-generalized at times. Sure, the act of photographing can be a detached, abstracting process, and tourists can be predators that only seek to “turn the past into a consumable object” (Sontag 1977:68), but that’s by no means the limit of what tourism—or photography—can be.
It’s easy to start thinking about tourists as a large, like-minded mass of image producers and consumers who blaze their way through destination after destination. But, following the work of anthropologists such as Edward Bruner, I think it makes sense to look closely at what tourists actually do, how they behave, and how they use their cameras when they’re out traveling the world. It’s interesting how we are, at times, more comfortable allowing stereotypes about some groups to stand, for some reason or another. Tourists are often a favorite target for condescension and over-generalizations. I wonder why.
So all of this was on my mind when we passed through southwest Colorado and finally got the chance to visit Mesa Verde National Park. We went on one of the guided tours to the Cliff Palace site. Yes, plenty of people had their cameras with them, and there were lots and they were certainly taking plenty of pictures. But they were hardly glued behind their cameras the entire time, as Sontag’s argument would suggest. Photography is not simply a way of detaching oneself from experiences and events—it can in fact be one part of a wider set of behaviors and interactions that take place. If you take Sontag’s argument to heart, it might be reasonable to assume that tourists simply flock to sites like Mesa Verde, hidden behind their zoom lenses, with the sole purpose of producing a mass of images rather than actually seeing or experiencing the site itself. But people often use cameras intermittently, and they produce images with thoughts of future social uses in mind (posting on Facebook, Flickr, etc).
One of the most interesting aspects of this tour was the evidence of the physical presence of the tourists themselves. Thousands of tourists pass through these kinds of archaeological tourist sites each year, and they certainly leave their marks. One of the most difficult parts of managing tourism in these places is the mitigation of the impacts on archaeological structures/sites (this is the case in Chichen Itza just as much as Mesa Verde). There is one part of the tour where the guide allows tourists to peek inside one of the structures through small window in order to look at some of the plaster that has managed to survive all of these centuries. Thousands of people have placed their hands on the edges of this window, and their hands have left undeniable marks (look at the edges of the window):
Now, I know that preservation is critical, and that people aren’t supposed to touch anything at these sites. But I also think—from an anthropological perspective—that the evidence of all of these people passing through sites like this is fascinating. Places like Mesa Verde served certain social, political, ritual, and domestic purposes hundreds of years ago, and today they serve some very different purposes. The marks of these tourists, while problematic for park officials and others who are in charge of preservation, also illustrate the fact that tourists are not simply hiding behind cameras—the tours to these places are quite tactile and social, and photography is just one part of a suite of behaviors that take place at these destinations. I don’t really think it would be fair—let alone accurate—to simply characterize all tourists as detached predators who only want to fire away thousands of images and move on to the next commodified location. People asked questions, wandered through the site, and talked a lot among themselves throughout the tour.
I do think that the act of photographing can foster a certain detachment, and that people sometimes end up treating cameras as predatory devices that can grab an unlimited number of representational slices of the world. But this isn’t always the case—whether we are talking about tourism photography or ethnographic photography. Yes, there are certain limitations with photography, and there are certain effects of putting an electronic device in front of your face in order to make reproductions of the world. But cameras and images do not completely determine behaviors or possibilities. While Sontag argues that photography is a detached way of avoiding intervention in the world, I disagree. It can be, of course, but it all depends on how people put cameras (and the resulting images) to use.
This is a relatively minor example, but I think it gets the point across. The tourists at Mesa Verde certainly took their share of pictures, but they were not simply hidden behind their cameras the entire time—to assume so is a serious mischaracterization. Ultimately, Sontag makes the mistake of separating the act of making photographs from the rest of the social behaviors that surround human experience. When people take pictures—whether they are tourists, photojournalists, or ethnographers, they do so in the context of a range of other behaviors. It makes sense, then, to avoid making too many assumptions about the limitations of photography, and instead pay attention to how people make images and then actually use them in their daily lives—whether they post them on Facebook or publish them in formal ethnographies. Photographing can be an alienating process that perpetuates consumerist, abstract interactions with the world. But that’s not all it can be about. The production of images (i.e. photography) exists within wider networks of social behavior, that’s for sure. Therefore, the exploration of the actual uses and meanings of photography continues to be some pretty fertile ground for anthropologists and ethnographers. After all, moving past assumptions about human behavior is what anthropology is all about, right?
*That’s you John M. and MT Bradley. Thanks for the discussion.