I have just returned from a two week family holiday to Croatia, and whilst there I took a walk through the Paklenica National Park – hiking with just my thoughts and my camera in a beautiful setting is my idea of a good morning. I had no fixed intention, I shot what I wanted, operating solely as a tourist and not as a photography student. However, two things were undoubtedly in my mind: my current assignment on viewpoints, and a book I was reading called “The Tourist Gaze 3.0” (1).
As I walked I found myself drawn to shade and to water – trickling streams, waterfalls, and areas of woodland. I started wondering whether there is a component of need in our conception of beauty: up a mountain on a hot day I was instinctively drawn to shade and hydration. This ties with the idea that photography is about “capturing” and commoditising what we see; my desire to photograph these spots was really a desire for what they represented.
Another thing I pondered was my status as a tourist. I was there to view nature, but I was fully aware that this was not a truly “natural” landscape. Quite apart from the gravelled footpaths, information boards, and the very postmodernist concept of the “interpretation centre”, I was also informed on one such board that the trees I was admiring were planted in the 1960s! This was a landscape shaped by tourism for tourists. yet this didn’t lessen my enjoyment of the experience. I thought back to my final assignment for I&P, photographing woodland paths (which were a focus of much of this walk as well) – when I walk in this way I am physically inhabiting the space but my mind is inhabiting a different space, one which is triggered by the landscape around me but is in fact made up of a wealth of experiences, imagined and real. This wasn’t a tourist experience for me as such; it wasn’t about “I woz here”, or about sharing in any socially desirable experience, it was about “me time”. Yet my conception of the places I want to spend my time is very much shaped by society and culture and tourism plays a large part of that.
Towards the end of my walk I noticed a sign for an “historic viewpoint”; in light of my current assignment this was too tempting to miss. A 20 minute hike up sheer screed in the midday sun was repaid by wide ranging vistas (sadly no bench to mirror my assignment images!). The sense of what constitutes a viewpoint in Croatia is no different to the UK, though the fundamentals of the landscape differ. It is the ability to gaze; to survey one’s landscape in a way that allows appreciation of the vastness of the land whilst simultaneously having a sense of being in control of all one sees.
One other interesting thing emerged whilst on my holidays. For the first time we gave my 4 year old son his own camera. A couple of nights in he asked to take it out to take pictures of the “beautiful sunset”. Off he went, and on showing me his images he said “mummy, I took them for you because I thought you would love pictures of the beautiful sunset”. I can’t think where he has picked up this idea, I don’t particularly focus on sunsets in my images, but I must have unconsciously passed on the idea that sunsets are both beautiful and worthy of photographing (or the former leads inevitably to the latter). It is slightly scary that this is so ingrained in society that at the age of 4 he already has a socially conditioned sense of what is beautiful. It seems that he was drawn to the sunset more through a desire to please than because he particularly wanted to take that image – I suspect he has no sense yet of a need to “capture” or possess the sunset, instead his world revolves around mimicking and pleasing me. This makes me wonder how much of what we individually consider beautiful is passed on from our parents, stemming from a desire to conform and please them. How can society possibly break free of such a strong stifling influence – it is near impossible to conceive of a way in which we can avoid passing on our visual preferences to our children. This may not be a problem, but I am certainly more aware now of encouraging his freedom to determine his own visual and artistic instincts.
(1) Urry , J & Larsen, J. (2012) Los Angeles, Sage Publications Ltd