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PopAnth — Hot Buttered Humanity
Popular anthropology for everyone.

Happy snaps

A photo essay on photography

by on

The Salar de Uyuni tour in Bolivia is one of the obligatory stops in the South American tourist trail. A trip through a series of deserts, surreal rock formations, geysers, bright pink lakes with flocks of flamingos, culminating in a journey through the world's largest salt flats, it is certainly one of the most bizarre, psychedelic landscapes on earth. Of course, given its visual advantages it's also a potential smorgasbord of perspective-trick photos, where you can shoot yourself balancing on an orange, or standing on someone's shoulder, whispering into their ear, or crushing someone under your foot. Think of it as the South American equivalent of the Leaning Tower of Pisa, with everyone trying to keep the tower up with their hands. In the salt flats you step out of your 4×4 and the next hour is race to think of the most creative photo you can make from the sea of white and blue.

Ometepe Island, Nicaragua. Photo by David Thompson

Of course, as in Pisa, you shoot the scene even a few centimetres off, and suddenly the photo makes no sense. In fact, the image represents the view of no-one. It's a memory you never actually experienced. Going through Uyuni made me start thinking about how we make these images. No matter whether in a salt flat or a city, a beach or a cemetery, we are inseparable from our cameras, yet the images are always removed from our own experience. It's easy to dismiss it all as part of the fake, superficial nature of tourism itself, which is what most backpackers do. But it's very easy for me to criticise backpackers, since we spend so much time criticising each other. So instead, I am going to try thinking more constructively about the whole thing.

Mexico City, Mexico. Photo by David Thompson

Everyone travels with cameras. Why? This is not a particularly recent phenomenon; the idea of taking a holiday without snapping photos has seemed unthinkable for many decades, and anthropologists and other social scientists have been studying the relationship between tourism and photography since the late seventies [1]. Photography has been with us for over a century, transforming our relationship with images — as Stewart Ewen argues, during the twentieth century we have become saturated with images which have become crucial in how we build our own identities, often becoming more important than the objects they are supposed to represent [2]. But technology also changes rapidly. The idea of travelling around with rolls of film, developing them only once you've returned home, and dutifully arranging them in albums to share with friends and family has rapidly become extinct. Not only digital photography but also Facebook (and more recently Instagram) have transformed how we take photos. It is a more instantly social activity, allowing people from all around the world to see our journeys and comment on them. It's a way we can share our journeys and maintain a conversation with the world back home.

But this means that travel photos are also losing their power as mementos of past journeys. That lapse in time, that break between taking a shot and viewing it or sharing it with the world no longer exists. Instead, today photos are developed, seen, shown around and discussed right now, in the moment. As a result, they now help us to create stories, for ourselves and others, that help us to turn what is really a jarring series of sights, sounds and experiences into something coherent. On the face of it, there's no reason to keep taking photos when we're flooded with images of tourist destinations before we even get there. You could easily make an album of an entire trip before you even leave your home [3].

Pedra da Gavea, Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. Photo by David Thompson

But it's not just the final images that give our travels definition – it's the series of decisions we make in our minds about who and what to shoot, how we construct the image and why. The photos I take mean something to me because of the ideas and experiences that lead me to capture them, despite the fact that they might be visually identical with thousands of other images floating around online.

Pacaya volcano, Guatemala. Photo by David Thompson

As backpackers, particularly in a region such as Latin America where most travel for at least a few months, we are determined to go through some sort of life-changing experience, making this construction crucial. I, for one, have photos of myself freezing to death on top of a mountain in Patagonia, swimming with whale sharks in Mexico, and camping inside Incan ruins in Lake Titicaca as well as in the centre of Rio de Janeiro. As a general rule, if I have met a body of water, there's a photo of me jumping into it. All of these suggest motion, constant novelty and some form of self-realization. Because that's how I choose to understand my journey, and I use photography to help carve this meaning out of my experience, even if I could have shot a completely different story – one of cultural immersion, for example, or even just a series of non-stop parties. When I share these photos, I'm also establishing an ideal image of what travel should be, as well as to demonstrate how I am living up to it.

Merida Mexico. Photo by David Thompson

The foil of the authentic, rugged backpacker (like myself) is, of course, the Japanese tourist. Japanese are useful arch-nemeses for a few reasons. First, given our insecurity about whether our experiences are really authentic, it's comforting to point out a fairly conspicuous group as more disconnected than ourselves. Second, we don't have much contact with them (Japanese backpackers are few and far between), so they really don't have much opportunity to answer for themselves. Most importantly, though, because their happy-snapping habits are so iconic, they allow us to understand ourselves as different, helping us ignore the fact that we do essentially the same thing, crafting stories through images to work out how we should feel or understand what we are going through.

Christ the Redeemer, Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. Photo by David Thompson

There's a lot of fantasy to travel photography. We spend a lot of time constructing 'spontaneous' shots. We poke lenses through fences and grates to get clear landscape photos we could never see with our own eyes. We lie down or thrust our cameras high up in the air to get impossible angles, or play with perspective to shrink or expand ourselves and our environment. And of course, our photos generally don't include the swarms of photographers that constantly surround us. But it's this fantasy we build that helps us to make sense of the bizarre hodge-podge of experiences that we go through. Photos don't just reflect our experiences, they help us to bring some sort of sense out of travel. It's through the lens of the camera, often more than our own eyes, that we try to understand a foreign world and our passage through it.

Christ the Redeemer, Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. Photo by David Thompson

In the Salar de Uyuni I decided to start a series of photos of photographers themselves. Beginning as a critique of the fake nature of photography, it ultimately forced me to think about how vital these photos are to our own identities and to making meaning out of our haphazard touristy lives. I hope this selection shows the beauty and importance as well as the conceit of how we shoot the world.


Happy Snaps by David Thompson

It's through the lens of the camera, often more than our own eyes, that we try to understand a foreign world and our passage through it.

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Photographing tourists taking photos at Salar de Uyuni, Bolivia. Photo by David Thompson.
Photographing tourists taking photos at Salar de Uyuni, Bolivia. Photo by David Thompson.

  • Pacaya Volcano, Guatemala. Photo by David Thompson
    Pacaya Volcano, Guatemala. Photo by David Thompson
  • Christ the Redeemer, Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. Photo by David Thompson
    Christ the Redeemer, Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. Photo by David Thompson
  • Salar de Uyuni, Bolivia. Photo by David Thompson
    Salar de Uyuni, Bolivia. Photo by David Thompson
  • Morumbi State Park, Brazil. Photo by David Thompson
    Morumbi State Park, Brazil. Photo by David Thompson
  • Pedra da Gavea, Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. Photo by David Thompson
    Pedra da Gavea, Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. Photo by David Thompson