We don’t understand why these foreigners take photographs

In Culture and Authenticity (2008), discussing the semiotics of tourism and authenticity, Charles Lindholm talks about the sexual tourist who ventures “seeking out forbidden pleasures in foreign locales”, hoping to “discover his or her own natural uncivilized being” (p. 42). As Lindholm suggests, that sexual tourists who goes to Thailand, for instances, looking to have sex with minors, is not that different from a tourist who, choosing the same destiny, opts to venture through nature. For Lindholm, they are both looking for a regressive experience, an experience that is so raw and unmediated that, in a sense, hurts, awakening the child within, i.e., a part of our being that is mostly repressed throughout our lives.

Alluding to “the whole adrenaline thing” that drives such a big part of the tourism market, Lindholm notes the importance of the “powerful bodily sensations” for a strategy that sells the transgression of bodily limits as a fast lane to reach an interior truth (p. 48). But what really interests us is to question the way in which that sense of freedom and communion is promoted in areas of tourism that explore what is obscene, i.e., what is considered morally repugnant. For instances, why is dark tourism promoting the idea of “authentic experience” if what it sells is, in fact, journeys to places where one can find traces of death or the macabre? In what sense is the rhetoric of authenticity related to death?

Amrboise Tezenas 7© Ambroise Tézenas, Old Hanwang Zhen, an industry town where 3,000 people were killed in the earthquake, from the series I was here / Tourisme de le Désolation, 2008-2014. More of Ambroise’s work here.

Amrboise Tezenas 5© Ambroise Tézenas, The fairground in Oradour-sur-Glane, the martyr village, from the series I was here / Tourisme de le Désolation, 2008-2014. More of Ambroise’s work here.

Amrboise Tezenas 1© Ambroise Tézenas, On May 12, 2008, a large earthquake hit Wenchuan, Sichuan Province. Houses were destroyed, and many people were killed. There are tours here now, which offer a look at the aftermath of the tremendous earthquake, from the series I was here / Tourisme de le Désolation, 2008-2014. More of Ambroise’s work here.

Amrboise Tezenas 3© Ambroise Tézenas, Rwanda Murambi Genocide memorial site, from the series I was here / Tourisme de le Désolation, 2008-2014. More of Ambroise’s work here.

In one of South Africa’s biggest cities, Bloemfontein, there’s a luxury hotel called Emoya Luxury Hotel & Spa, that promises the client the experience of a lifetime: to be able to recreate a shanty town, so that the client could, for a couple of nights, experience living like the poor. Funny enough, when I first heard about this, back in 2013, the site was promoting the experience like we’re telling it here, like a chance to step on the shoes of the desperately poor, but now it looks like the shanty town has been transformed into African Village Chalets. It seems like reality and good sense have caught up with them.

A night in the shanty town costed about 70$ per night. The all experienced alluded to the concept of “reality tourism” but, in fact, it was “a fake slum for luxury tourists who don’t want to see real poverty“, for the clients had heated floors and access to wireless.

untitled-1-copyA woman’s review of the time spent at shanty town, in Tripadvisor. Notice the one star rating, but how the description suggest the time of their lives.

But what are these tourists looking for? What do they hope to gain when they decide to trade a luxury bed for a fake slum one? As I see it, although I’m sure these tourists are looking for a good story, they might also be looking for recognition, because, in a sense, trading high comfort for a rawer experience can be considered a sacrificial act and the rhetoric of sacrifice legitimates, validates, authenticates

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In an amazing documentary entitled Cannibal Tours (1998), Dennis O’Rourke portrays the relation between the Papua New Guinean and the tourists who began visiting the country, after the process of decolonization started, in 1975. During the documentary, O’Rourke takes us inside a touristic cruise traveling through the Sepik river, registering some discussions between Italians, Americans, Germans and the natives, who throughout the years have learned to take advantage of these tourists, letting them take photographs and, in return, receiving money which they can use to buy clothes and some other basic (and not so basic) things, as one native explains.

At one point, inside the cruise, three Italians discuss their points of view regarding what they consider to be a “primitive way of living”. While one expresses his opinion, stating that they are not really living, only vegetating in their environment, another points out the apparent happiness with which they do their daily tasks and asks if it is possible that their way of living is better than ours, as if the capitalist contract which guarantees the boat’s journey wasn’t in fact conditioning the encounter between “them” and “I”. The river that separates those shores – of the “they” and the “ours” – dries fast and the two shores are then reunited through the magic of simulation: the natives exhibited (and sell) what “the others” consider to be the most exotic side of their culture – rituals, dances, crafts, body painting, etc. -, while the foreigners, fulfilling their role as outsiders, watch (and buy).

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On their way back home, one American tourist, accounting for her passion about “primitive art” and her long time interest for Papua New Guinea, reveals her satisfaction for “being able to find what she was looking for”, alluding to the idea that she could still buy the “authentic stuff” and that it would be “too bad” if the natives would deviate from their way of doing and started to “work for tourism as such”, as if that wasn’t exactly the situation she was in.

While O’Rourke keeps portraying the tourists on their journey inside the boat, we wonder about the exchanges at work. At one point, an Italian man, with a pious countenance, states that although there is little one can do for “these people”, “we must try to help them advance in the world”, bring “them” some “values and convictions” and, like missionaries, “teach them something” and “stimulate them to behave differently”. There’s nothing surprising about this neo-colonizer discourse, but while the Papua New Guinean exhibit their embellished bodies and dance, the tourists keep hiding behind their cameras.  It’s the confrontation with the Other, either European or Guinean, that legitimates the construction of the Other. Ones are authentically primitive, other are authentically civilized. Or are they?

When asked about the way he lives, one Guinean responds: With regard to the way we live… I think the tourists read about us in books, and come… ‘Do we still live like our forefathers?’; ‘Are we civilized or not?’ They come to find out. That’s what I think. And what do they find? Behind me is the spirit-house of our ancestors. The spirit-house which we use. Is this what they come for? I cannot understand. I’m confused.

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