Monday, 24 November 2014

The Tourist Gaze

I what appears to be the opening chapter of The Tourist Gaze Urry surveys the development of critical think ing as it applies to the concept of the tourist gaze – what it is that makes something a tourist experience. It develops from the pre-Baudrillard idea that Americans (read westerners) cannot experience reality directly, but instead need pseudo events – contrived simulacrums of their imagination which have more to do with their desires. This leads to increasingly superficial and insulated bubble hotels – perhaps Las Vegas with its mock pyramids etc is the ultimate example. This develops through more sophisticated models involving ideas of “work” tourism and observations that there are more than one kind of tourist (no…really). Particularly amusing is the idea of the “post-tourist” who positively relishes the unreality of the tourist experience – been there, got those scars.
The chapter finishes with a suggestion that the tourist gaze has a number of defining features – which in a nutshell can be explained as something which produces pleasurable experiences and are simultaneously out of the ordinary. This seems sufficiently broad that it incorporates all travel for anything other than business purposes while at the same time potentially excluding the sun, booze and satellite TV tourism which seems to be so commonplace in southern Europe. Fortunately there is a more precise description of the key features in the final section.
One thought which emerges from this text is that it provides a way of analysing poverty tourism – the photography of poverty in the undeveloped world in the name of social conscience – a practice which seems in many cases to be simply patronising and misguided  . A quick check against Urry’s conditions for the tourist gaze seems fairly damning:
  • A unique object – this seems to be missing, but as Urry develops the idea to include pilgrimage to a sacred centre we might include third world slums in this category as no-one ever appears interested in photographing the middle class suburbs.
  • the seeing of particular sights – Urry suggests the typical English village or French Chateau – would it be unreasonable to add slums to this list.
  • unfamiliar aspects of that which were considered familiar – there is always another group of people who are being exploited by the unscrupulous to make something we buy for a pittance – whether shoes, clothing, electronic goods or food.
  • ordinary aspects of social life in unusual circumstances – this is almost self evident, as is
  • familiar tasks in an unfamiliar environment.
The only one missing from the list is seeing things which look ordinary, but actually are not, because sadly the lives of many of the victims are indeed ordinary, in the sense that they are everyday and unchanging.
How does any of this bring pleasure – perhaps by instilling a belief that photographing them will somehow alleviate their suffering.
Lest I be accused of simple cynicism I do think there is a better way – it involves viewing the people as equals not objects – not other. It involves photographing their successes – however small they may seem to us – and our shared humanity. Maybe it involves not photographing them at all but empowering them to photograph themselves so that we see how they see themselves – not how some tourist with fancy clothes, fancy gear and a plane ticket home sees them. The best do this, but the many who do not have much to answer for in the way we see and respond to those less wealthy than ourselves.

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