Image Hunting: Travel Photography in Digital Age

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Image Hunting: Travel Photography in Digital Age

Published: Masters of Media, University of Amsterdam

It won’t be a shocking discovery if I say that digital technology dramatically changed the art of photography. Travel photography gained (or lost?) the most, since digital equipment freed this art form from being a domain of experts. Now every traveler becomes an author of potential artworks, and has the means to publish them on social media platforms and photography communities’ websites. Such a transformation from analog to digital photography and its wide accessibility online provides many interesting points for discussion. Spending a few months in South Africa made me wonder about one question in particular: what does digitization of photography mean for the relationship between a traveler and a local community?

Hunting for the exotic

Exotic, faraway places have always been the most tempting ones. Since the beginning of colonization era, or even before that, travelers romanticized discovering places nobody has ever been to. To lift the veil of mystery they brought back local objects, lengthy descriptions in their notebooks, artworks, samples of unusual plants, and even local people. Nowadays we don’t need to bring a suitcase full of rocks (although we sometimes still do) or drag a few local children back with us on a plane. Thousands of photographs piled up on a hard disc are our proof that we’ve been there, and our way of showing the exoticism of those places to those who stayed. Thus, it comes as no surprise that online and offline collections of travel photographs are filled with the photos of African, Hindu and South American locals, often depicting their poverty, suffering, and hunger. For those interested in the topic photography, travelling and images in general, Susan Sontag’s essays are a must-read. Here she provides an explanation for our fascination for images from third-world countries:

The more remote or exotic the place, the more likely we are to have full frontal views of the dead and dying. Thus post-colonial Africa exists in the consciousness of the general public in the rich world- besides through its sexy music- mainly as a succession of unforgettable photographs of large-eyed victims. (Sontag, 2004; 63)

And the locals are not the only focus of those photographs. The internet is filled with pictures of travelers posing with the locals, especially with children. If those pictures are a documentation of a Westerner’s voluntary work in third-world countries, such images fit well into a cliché narrative of a European missionary helping poor, indigenous children.

Image Hunting

Let’s now move on to my own experience with photographing poverty. My hunt for the exotic began the moment I stepped out of the Cape Town International airport, but it wasn’t until my visit to a Kayamandi township that I started feeling uncomfortable with my camera. Poverty, lack of running water, and provisional shacks made a huge impression, even though life conditions in Kayamandi are considered one of the best among all South African townships. Me and my friend were walking the dusty roads with two local, 14 year old girls from the after school program. Even with them we drove much attention because of the color of our skin.

Photo: Sonia Kolasinska
Kayamandi, South Africa

While my friend was taking pictures of everything and everyone around her, I was hiding my camera and taking pictures only by sticking the lens out of my bag just a tiny bit. I wasn’t afraid of it being stolen. I was more concerned that by taking a photo of a woman sitting in front of her shack I would acknowledge that she and her house are merely a tourist attraction for me. That the color of her skin with the shabby surrounding make up a nice, picturesque image that I, the white tourist evidently displaced in this neighborhood, would take home and show proudly to my friends. I would admit that her misery is a perfect subject of my indifferent photographic exploration.

Safe Image Safari

After I came back home, my grandmother, having browsed through my photos from South Africa on facebook (yes, my grandmother on facebook!), asked me “where are all the photos of the locals? And the children?!” Travelling the way she does, in a touristic bus to Egypt or Greece, makes it easy to photograph whatever and whomever she likes. Not only are the locals used to touristic masses looking at them through the lenses of their Canons, but the tourists themselves are also safely hidden behind bus windows. This spacial distance and the clear tourist-local division make it possible to take a picture without feeling guilty. And even if you do, a second later a photographed person will disappear behind a bus anyway.

Photo: Sonia Kolasinska
Kayamandi, South Africa
I feel that in South Africa it is much different. Not only am I not protected by a window of a touristic bus, having to face people directly if I want to steal their souls, but racial issues in South Africa create tension so tangible that I feel embarrassed taking my camera out. The racial inequality and a still very recent history of apartheid adds another, nasty, hierarchical dimension to the relationship between a photographer and the subject. That does not count for children, though. Those still innocent creatures were running happy around us, holding our hands and laughing in front of the cameras. Apparently, seeing their faces on a small LCD screen on the photo camera was a pure joy for them. Only in this case I felt that digital technology has a potential to facilitate non-verbal communication between a traveler and a local, instead of creating a barrier between them.

References: Sontag, Susan (2004). Regarding the pain of others. London: Penguin Books Inc.

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