The Problem with Travel Photographers
I suppose there could be a certain catharsis in standing in the well-worn imprints of those that have come before, enacting a repeated gesture, and capturing that recreation in an image, as travel photographers often do. These re-enactments, while on their own are generally harmless, numbingly retread, and disinteresting – become much more compelling when transformed into typological grids – which can be viewed on the Instagram page “insta_repeat”. Feverish, nauseating in scale, yet undeniably comedic (in a twisted sense), travel photographers often attempt to present an ideology that fosters mindful living and a connection to nature, but ironically, as David Campany points out on the subject, “if the poser is at one with anything, it’s their own camera-ready narcissism, which is passed off as cosmic union.”
Although it is unlikely that a modicum of self-awareness is present, the images of photographers aligning polaroid images of places to their real-world counterparts directly speaks to the very process of repetition that they actively contribute to. In grids of lone figures standing at the summits of mountains above seas of clouds, parallels can easily be drawn between the images and Caspar David Friedrich’s Wanderer above the Sea of Fog. One person comments, on a grid of images depicting views from the inside of tents: “After a while, I begin to wonder if someone is selling tent hole overlays for photoshop.” – which, actually, is an interesting notion that pinpoints the modularity and interchangeability of the works. After scrolling through enough of these grids, with nothing to distinguish themselves from one another, the images begin to bleed into one large amalgamation – a terror of images.
About 1.8 billion pictures are taken every day. I would suggest that a great deal of which – as much as we may want to believe our images are unique – are unified, capturing shared commonalities such as pets, food, family members, events, etc. Photographing is always a curatorial act – a subject is selected, certain aspects are intentionally included or left out, lighting is deployed – but great photographs also include intentionality and purpose. Intentionality is generally of an affective nature, but purpose, in surface level photographs (such as those created by travel photographers) is sorely lacking – generally in travel photographs, as previously mentioned, it is to promote mindful living and a connection to nature. Those that actually actively look at these images will see that such claims are laughably brittle, and what lies beneath is, well, not much. In grids, these images become representative of a kind of matrix, a photo copier simulacrum steeped in irony.
“Okay, sure, but can’t a photograph just be a photograph?” Well, sure it can. I’m not going to suggest that we should all stop taking casual images, but I will suggest that photographers on Instagram taking these repeated images create a space that feels corporate, simulated and uninspired – and that they superimpose empty ideological gestures onto landscapes in a harmful manner. one could look to Stephen Shore’s U.S 97 (21 July 1973), South of Klamath Falls, Oregon, USA as eerily foreboding, and telling of this process.
Let me clarify.
I think it is easy for most to underestimate the power of a photograph. They are deeply entwined with our collective memories. They are often indexical. They function as third order abstractions, and it could be argued that the photographic camera is the single most important invention in recent human history. Photographs also have the ability to physically move people topographically, which is the most useful for our thinking here. The travel photographer images clearly do not call for the adoption of an ideology, but rather for replication – for others to come to these locations and to recreate their photographs, to relive an experience. This becomes problematic when the scale of reproduction approaches the nauseating mass in which we are currently faced with. For an example, let us examine a grid of figures posed looking over a cliff in Iceland. We’ve all probably seen this image more than a few times. What is left out of the frame is the fact that, in order to get this image, the photographers all breached a boundary into an area intended to protect nesting birds. On a larger scale, photographical repercussions can be seen in the overpopulation of Everest – where so many people have been drawn to the mountain, largely through photographical representation, that some die on the Hillary Step, waiting in a line for their turn to reach the summit, to snap a photograph. Images become imprinted and tangible in the landscape, just as the billboard in Shore’s U.S 97 suggests. At the intersectional, chronotopic meeting point between images and the landscape, culture and time (photography, after all, is a collection of time), the implications embolden and multiply.
Martin Hagglund, in conversation with Wolfgang Tillmans, talks about photography’s attempts to “both seize a moment that is fragile and fleeting, and to preserve it or trace it in some way. Not to make it eternal, but so that it can live on for the future and be taken up again. The whole desire is animated from within by the fleeting sense of the moment as you try to capture it. But it’s not about eternity. It’s about connecting across time and space.” Perhaps this notion can be helpful here, when thought of within the context of the chronotope. As these imprints into the natural world are repeated, replicated, and disseminated, it is of dire importance that care is put into how exactly we are imprinting, for the implications are very real, and the impacts can and will manifest. If photographs are to connect us across time and space, what do travel photographs communicate within this relationship?