On Tourism, 2012

(images taken in India in 1989)

Online, I came across the work of an artist in a flurry of net surfing and I didn’t bookmark the page and later I couldn’t remember his name and find his artworks again. He authored numerous videos, but one in particular got my attention. The camera was pointed at a group of animals in a safari setting somewhere in Africa. We see the animals, and intermittently we see a flash of light register, and we realize that his camera is situated forward of the other hired Jeeps that are poised before this scene and that what we are seeing are flashes from the cameras of the tourists in those other Jeeps. The work is a simple and elegant “critique” of tourism. And yet, despite the elegance and effectiveness of the video, I found myself deeply annoyed by it. In the summer of 2007, I went to Tanzania with my daughter, a close friend and her daughter. Together we went on a six–day safari from Arusha, through the Serengeti, to Ngorongoro Crater and back to Arusha. We were among the people his video work was meant to “critique,” because the implication of his work is that my subject position along with all of the other tourists snapping pictures, is less authentic than his. This got me thinking about how his intellectual discourse created a frame in which his “meta” tourism was “authentic” experience when the tourists 20 feet away from him were doing something barely distinguishable from what he was doing.

Around the same time, going through some old files, I came across a set of photographs shot in India in 1989. The images were over 20 years old. And yet to me they had the look of images shot at the turn of the century, especially those shot in black & white; they looked so remote and far away. First I thought that this feeling must be engendered by the fact that the images were taken 1/3 of my lifetime ago. The other possibility was that it was inherent to the images themselves; something to do with representation. And they not only looked as if they had been taken very long ago—they spoke the language of Imperialism, of Orientalism, and yet I had taken them as a tourist who was then mostly conscious of documenting personal experience.

When I travelled to India I used The Lonely Planet India published in June of 1987 as a guide book. In that edition, in a short aside, white women were advised that traveling alone in India was relatively safe but if they found themselves in a situation that felt threatening or unruly to just put on their best “memsahib.” In 1989, this struck me as a pretty surprising thing to say and it stuck with me and cast a certain suspicion over my activities; one I chose to ignore in favor of going. There didn’t seem to be any self-consciousness on the part of the writer about this comment—it was presented as straightforward and helpful advice. I had some vague idea what this meant; I had seen the broadcast of Paul Scott’s magnificent Jewel in the Crown on television in 1985—I can still hear the theme music in my head. In the Caluctta train station, waiting on line while my boyfriend went off to make an inquiry, Indian men began cutting ahead of me in the line. What finally angered me was not that they acted as if they were getting over on me but that they didn’t appear to see me at all; I was completely invisible to them and so in a shameful moment I raised my voice and addressing them as if I were their superior, I told them in no uncertain terms to get back behind me on the line where they belonged and to my astonishment, after a moments hesitation, they all obeyed.

Looking back on these photographs the question becomes how to navigate between belief in my own authentic experience and the contrary evidence I now detect in my own images; my subjective understanding and memory against the “documentary proof” my images reveal; that perhaps tourism can’t help itself and is always a form of imperialism or “deadly sin” as Werner Herzog would call it, masquerading about as something else, no less benign than the quest of a missionary, whose subjective experience saving souls feels as genuine to him as that of the current day American soldier who believes he is defending his country from terrorism, inadvertently causing great suffering to himself and to others, and who can’t see that he is totally expendable to his own government. “Father forgive them, for they know not what they do.”

The friend I travelled with to Africa had been to Ngorongoro Crater when she was in her early twenties and she told me that when she arrived there she had the deep sensation of being home, of feeling that she belonged there because all human beings had emanated from there; that she had arrived at the center of mankind’s universe. In John Berger’s beautiful essay written in 1977 entitled Why Look at Animals?, he says that consumer societies broke down the traditions that existed between man and nature, traditions that recognized that “animals were with man at the center of his world.” And in Ngorongoro Crater one can almost imagine this past. Certainly I could see remnants in the attitudes of our driver Abdul’s relationship to his environment; in the breadth of his knowledge and in his respect for the animals we encountered. Berger traces a shift in man’s relationship to animals, one in which the exchange of the gaze between them disappears. “In the accompanying ideology, animals are always the observed. The fact that they can observe us has lost all significance. They are objects of our ever-extending knowledge. What we know about them is an index of our power and thus an index of what separates us from them. The more we know, the further away they are.” Berger describes the public zoos that sprang up in Europe, the Jardin des Plantes opened in 1793, the London Zoo in 1828 and the Berlin Zoo in 1844. These zoos, he tells us, were “an endorsement of modern colonial power.” They caged and framed the distant conquests of all three imperial nations and allowed the public to share in the pride of conquest.

In an interview available on YouTube, Edward Said says nearly the same thing about the relationship between the West and the “Orient” when describing Napoleon’s invasion of Egypt in 1798, which he refers to as “the first real modern imperial expedition.” Napoleon comes with “an enormous army of soldiers but also scientists: botanists, architects, philologists, biologists, historians, whose job it is to record Egypt in every conceivable way and produce a kind of scientific survey of Egypt which was designed not for the Egyptians but for the European…There is no comparable Egyptian survey of France.” And the intertwined relationship between the man to animal dichotomy and the West to “Orient” dichotomy becomes more and more difficult to tease apart because they are in a sense part of the same phenomenon. The relationship between the colonial attitude, which seeks to administer and control a people often described as savage and the taming of their “animals” in our zoos is a mirroring in which we obstinately refuse to see ourselves reflected. And as multiculturalism and greater consciousness of the other have increased, so our zoos have become more “humane,” yet the exploitation of the East persists, if by more subtle means, and the exotic animals in our zoos are still restricted and watched even if they can roam a bit further in their more “natural” habitats.

Edward Said talks about the framework that evolved to describe the Orient: the East as mysterious, the sensual woman, the peoples as dangerous and threatening, and how difficult it is to think past these old stereotypes because “there is no knowledge that isn’t codified in this way about that part of the world.” The Polish journalist Ryszard Kapuściński, who reported in his lifetime from all over the world, and whose books reveal both humor and incredible attention to detail, spent the end of his life lecturing to audiences about the relationship of the Eurocentric West to the other. His reflections were published in 2008 in a book entitled The Other. He talks of the need to recognize that to the other we are other too. We need to accept the gaze of the other because that exchange of gazes permits the other to be embodied; accepts his or her right to define his or her own will. The need for this gaze to be reciprocal is precisely the duality that Berger claims has been lost between man and animals.

Berger talks about the ways in which our treatment of animals can prefigure the treatment of man. By way of example he mentions how animals became a form of “raw material. Animals required for food are processed like manufactured commodities.” So men too can be reduced to consuming and producing units. Once one analysed the mechanical capabilities of animal labor, that knowledge could be just as easily applied to workers, most notably in the ideas of F.W. Taylor, father of the monotonous and repetitive assembly line. If we are able to see the truth in Berger’s observation that the way in which we treat animals is but a harbinger of how we will treat each other, then we might be taken aback thinking about the scene presented in the video by the artist whose name I have forgotten; the scene of all the tourists photographing the animals that remain in “the wild.” A scene whose meaning is derived from the power to observe while believing oneself unnoticed. And our concern need not be about the authenticity of experience. This last stronghold of free roaming animals, which is anyhow a deeply controlled and administered for-profit industry in countries that are poor and all suffered a colonial past and whose tourists are the putative children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren of their previous “masters” acting out the last fantasies of exoticism may just be a quaint model for a world in which all of own futures will be lived under complete surveillance. For the most part they already are.

Each era brings with it a prevalent consciousness that children are born into and reared under, a lens through which they first see the world. How malleable those formative constructs are is open to debate. In 1989, I brought to India a Canon AT-1 camera, a 50mm lens, many rolls of Kodak Tri-X and Plus-X film and numerous rolls of Kodak Ektacolor slide film. Looking back at those images, I can see the degree to which the tools and the choices of film created a language constrained by those very choices, and that those choices had long ago become synonymous with a way of seeing, such that the black and white images in particular carried within them a representation of the imperial past that my subjective reality could not entirely evade, in part because I was complicit in it even though I was already self-conscious enough not to point my camera directly in peoples’s faces, and in part because the tools were inclined to produce that affect anyway. There is ample discourse, especially in cinema, about the scopophilic nature of the camera’s gaze and the way in which it objectifies its subjects, particularly women. The still photograph functions somewhat differently, in part because it freezes a moment in time with such clarity and contains within it a death; an irrecoverable moment of past time. Looking at the image of the children gathered in front of my camera in Samode in 1989, I can’t help but wonder what became of them or how many are still alive now.

I believe we have choices about how we navigate the world. Kapuściński observed that modern technologies will bring us all in contact with many “Others” from all over the world at a rate that would have been impossible and unimaginable previously. How we behave to one another in this new and smaller world will determine a great deal about how the future unfolds. Tourism may have a bad name that is well deserved, and granted, journalism is not the same activity as tourism, but there may be good reason for both forms of activity to continue. Early in his book Kapuściński quotes the well known anthropologist Bronislaw Malinowski, “To judge something, you have to be there.” Judgement too, has a Eurocentric import. Maybe the real reason we have to travel is in order to exchange gazes because that is the only way in which, as Said hopes, “difference might be understood without coercion.” And is the reason that the photograph, while revealing so much, carries within it an imperial seed, because it is by definition a one-way gaze.