A bittersweet laugh

Last week via a posting on their instagram channel, Magnum Photos shared a series of photos made by Martin Parr. They came from his work on tourism. That post came very timely for me. I’m just back from a holiday, and witnessed the tourist in full action again. After the long period of travel bans, work from home and so on, seeing this animal again in the wild was nice.

The series of Martin Parr are, in my view, excellent work. Please do follow that link and enjoy! I really love those photos. There is a lot of humour in them, in my view. It manages to be light-hearted as well as rather sarcastic. They make me smile or laugh, and simultaneously uncomfortable. It’s fair to say the tourist, as animal species, is a rather curious thing.

The quote on the above linked webpage puts it nicely:

We then take photos of ourselves in front of the visited sight. This proves we have been there and are part of the world as we know it. Visiting sites is a modern form of pilgrimage and the resulting photos the ultimate prize.

Surely I am by no means above this. I take plenty photos during my holidays – and plenty meaning seriously plenty. Except I just dislike being in the photo. My prize cupboard of tourism pilgrimage is made up from photos of the visited sights, as clean and pure as I can manage.

In overdrive

There is nothing new about this hunt for photos during holidays. Ever since photography became accessible to a wider and wider audience, this has been an increasingly normal thing.

Photography nowadays is hyper-accessible to the widest of audiences. And the reflex to take a photo of oneself has become increasingly normal too. Where before, you had to ask strangers to take your photo, today you do so yourself.

It makes those photos of Martin Parr all the more actual and relevant. The part sarcasm in those photos just seems to take more weight than the light-heartedness. Perhaps there are more influencers in this world than I’d care to know, but the amount of selfie-shooters that seem to do a complete and elaborate photoshoot with and of themselves is astonishing.

I probably said it before, but honestly people should do what they like as long as they don’t harm others. So shoot all the selfies you want. But the level of self-obsession that speaks from them… it’s not wrong to worry about that. It just comes across very egocentric. Not the best of qualities to possess.

The tourist at work

That said, most tourist-selfies are not that indulgent at all, and fall squarely into the ‘evidence of having been there’-category.

Got anything against tourism?

No, really not. This whole subject was just a matter of coincidence. I just had a really nice trip (the photos don’t make it hard to guess where I went), and Martin Parr’s images crossed my path. That’s all.

I have nothing against tourism, as long as it doesn’t harm anything or anyone. For a number of years, I lived in a city where tourism was a significant contributor to the economy – and that was very welcome. It can help areas with vulnerable economies grow, and in doing so can also give a stimulus to zero kilometer economies, promote local food, wine etc. It can be a very positive chain.

Looks old enough, let’s take a photo to be sure

So…. ?

In a way, I enjoyed tourism again after a long wait. I was just as much a tourist, albeit one who also likes to observe the crowd. In fact, I hardly visited any of the famous sites inside – part because queues moved slower than usual (covid vaccination validations and all that), part because I just wanted to be out there, enjoying the scenery and the people moving in that scenery. Be there, rather than see things.

Important historical site seen: check

Perhaps the one tricky area is that mass tourism tends to be superficial. It is seeing things, and then next seeing more things. Admire them, move on. And especially when we hide behind the camera, it becomes even more a matter of just framing an image.

It’s also hardly original, and hard to escape the conditioned beaten path. A checklist of things to see, stick to that. Not enough time to slow down too much, got to keep moving and check the boxes.

Slow down. Dive into a place, experience it, get a feel for its vibe, sense it. It probably takes too long for the average trip, or you come back “not having seen it all”. And that’s a pity, because it adds a lot of dimensions. Especially in a city as Rome. But it’s equally true for the shortest of citytrips. It makes sense we want to see as much as possible in the short time we have during a holiday, but it tends to go at the cost of actually experiencing the place.

Yes, it was his g/f, no worries

To the point….

There is no point. At least, not one I’d like to make. 

I call it bittersweet because I find tourists pretty funny creatures. A herd, with predictable behaviours and a lacklustre individualism. I don’t really mind going up in that herd, but observing it from the sidelines can be as much fun too.

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