I would like to explore the concept: The documentary photographer is always a ‘super tourist’ in the world of others. This statement is premised on the understanding that within the medium of documentary photography, a photographer and the image he is capturing is composed of dual and opposite positions, an inside and outside.
The word ‘tourist’ defines an outsider visiting a foreign place away from home, usually traveling for pleasure. Therefore in this statement, a ‘tourist’ identifies the photographer’s role as an outsider whilst the ‘image captured’ exists as the local or embodied insider. This concept is applicable, although the phraseology in the statement, ‘always a super tourist’ marginalizes the stance that a photographer’s identity may also exist from within the inside position and not ‘always’ situated on the outside.
The art theorist and historian, Abigail Solomon-Godeau characterizes the insider photographer position as being: “engaging, participating, and having privileged knowledge and is the ‘good’ position” and the outsider position as: “producing an alienated and voyeuristic relationship that heightens the distance between subject and object.”1
Susan Sontag is the late author, literary theorist, and political activist who termed the photographer as a ‘super tourist’ in her book, On Photography. She reiterates the theme that a photographer’s attempt to mirror reality is merely an interpretation of the world as in a painting or drawing. She adds to this the notion that: “The whole point of photographing people is that you are not intervening in their lives, only visiting them.” She acutely believes that a photographer is an outsider-‘tourist’, similar to an “anthropologist [–] colonizing new experiences from familiar subjects.”2
‘Tourism’ can be seen as the extension of the post-colonial concern for compromising ‘the other’ through colonial discourse and domination. In effect, the tourist who is presumably in search of the ‘new’ even in the Newcastle Airport Parking structure is actually seeking the already ‘known packaged holiday product’. The desire for the exotic is most often found in underdeveloped countries made dependant on the tourist trade of external industries and multinational companies.
This relationship between the binary colonizer and colonized is of similar nature to Sontag claims that, “To photograph is to appropriate the thing photographed. It means putting oneself into a certain relation to the world that feels like knowledge-and, therefore, like power.”3
She seems to be insinuating that this imperialistic nature to a photographer and the subject matter photographed, renders the image as an objectification, an over-simplification of what is complex and as a result disavows it’s social reality. In effect, Susan Sontag’s concerns lie with what is ‘ethical, truthful and real’ in documentary photography, and this fundamental question bears much consideration.
While the result of photography work may simultaneously engage the viewer towards deeper inspection through various classifications of voyeurism or by presenting an exotic ‘otherness’, it does not necessarily indicate a given representation depicting the outside ‘world of others’ within the photographer’s reality.
If a ‘super tourist’-outsider were an exaggerated definition of a photographer who visits places away from home, would he remain an outsider to his work if it were: documenting his everyday life as a personal narrative within his own culture? The art of observing the everyday within any medium was recognized and encouraged by the French philosopher Henri Lefebvre who proclaimed, “–that most insignificant of categories, the everyday, to be worthy of theoretical attention” and “Wasn’t it in the nature of theoretical thought to investigate the trivial?”4
I suggest that ‘always a super tourist’ applied to an artist may exclude a set of insider positions that as a whole allows documentary photography of the everyday to be a legitimate multidimensional art form. Gregory Muir illustrates in his article Documentary Style, the outcome of artists defying the total outside status of a ‘tourist’ by observing and recording their everyday lives through their work.
– artists who seek to engage with reality through their own highly personalized line of inquiry [–] set against the stolid documentary format can lead to a blurring of the boundaries between fiction and non fiction, real and unreal, ordinary and extraordinary. In short, the documentary style slides somewhere between straight documentary film making (sic) and contemporary art.5
- Godeau, S. A. (1994), Inside Out in Public Information, desire, Disaster, Document, Exhibition Catalogue, p.49
- Sontag, S., (1977). On Photography. 10, 2002. Penguin Classics, pp. 41-42
- Sontag, S., (1977), p.4
- Ross, K., (1997). ‘French Quotidian’ in L. Gumpert (ed) The Art of the Everyday, The Quotidian in Postwar French Culture, New York University Press. (short extract)
- Muir, G., (Jan/Feb 2003). Documentary Style, Flash Art.