The 35mm Kodak Retina 1 and its equivalents in Germany were all rendered obsolete with the popularization of pentaprism SLRs (Contax S being the first of its kind to be marketed) of the 1940s and 1950s. It is no coincidence that the decades that traced the progress of the camera had also seen an unstoppable upswing in the growing popularity of the National Geographic Society and its tourism magazine outlet. NatGeo’s attainment of its cult status is inseparable from the establishment’s reputation for its photography: even beyond its cultural context, it laid down and sustained the standards of photography. This is a crown they still bear today, as the approval of NatGeo elevates any photographer’s reputation beyond all other accolades.
The fact that NatGeo, a magazine about geography, tourism, popular architecture, and world culture is the stalwart paradigm for photo-journalism and photography at large already tells us about the relationship between photography and tourism. They are almost always, and that is a very slight almost, a continuation of the same thread of cultural presentation and re-presentation. As David Horne would comment in his The Great Museum, Photography makes the tourist’s experience more real – a monument becomes the real deal in the photograph for the tourist, rather than merely a two-dimensional representation. This gives the tourist, to put it in Horne’s words, “the joys of possession”.
The Rise of Travel Photography
It is not only that the two are intrinsically related, but also that Photography reshapes tourism itself. The foremost example to think this over would be the huge emergent niche of framed travel art photography – and its critical currency in contemporary journalism. Not to mention that with youtube and vlogging, this phenomenon is more intensified by the internet culture. However, albeit these undercurrents are on the same fold, we will exclude the notion of vlogging altogether from this.
Internet culture or no, cultural representation throughout the ages have wavered many ways to ultimately fixate on and clutch visual representation – and photography, it should be no wonder, also perpetuates this trope. Broadly speaking, travel photography is defined as a school of photography that focuses on capturing the spirit, culture, life, customs, and/or history of a subject landscape, monument, locale, or community. Though as far as travel photography goes, the definition is only a rough estimation, there are no watertight guidelines, and the idea of a subject is open. A travel photographer can take up the documentary mindset to go take a series of images of the same visual under different conditions – a Burmese pagoda at dawn, dusk, and noon, for example. Or rather than a comparative shot, it can work on making a narrative through one selfsome moment – an approach influenced by much of the work of Steve McCurry, shooting a wide variety of subjects under ever-changing and unpredictable conditions – low-light indoor photography, monuments under ambient lighting, the interplay of clouds and shadows on wide landscapes like a tea garden, and of course, the human element in these landscapes. Another way to capture a moment is by the sheer depth of its political context and consequences – like a hostile situation, e.g. a street under a coup.
North Korea – Framing a Nation
A great example of the politics of photography and photography in politics would be a recent and contemporary one – that of Eric Lafforgue, the French photographer famous for documenting the Guna people of San Blas isles, and his (mis)adventures in North Korea. The country, of course, is infamous for its extreme and cruel political regime, and the outrageous military dictator, Kim Jung Un, whose staying in power was the threat of nuclear warfare until very recently. It is well-known that government censorship on media and journalism is heavy in North Korea, and whatever little internet access they have is strictly regulated by the government. This means that scarcely any authentic representation of life in North Korea goes in or out through its guarded borders. After his 6th trip to North Korea in 2012, Lafforgue was permanently banned from entering the country again because he shared photographs unregulated by the NK government. Photography as such is banned in most of North Korea, and any foreigner who attempts and gets caught is deported right away after his camera is confiscated.
Save for photos from Lafforgue’s clandestine ventures with his 300mm zoom lens and other similar secret accounts, there are no visual representations of North Korea, so we know the country for what it is in the photos – a ridiculous place riddled with an irresponsible government and widespread malnutrition (which is strictly banned from any kind of documents, and even mentioning). Photography is the filter that colors our perception of this nation and therefore informs its tourism opportunities. On the other hand, tourism in North Korea (if such a thing exists) is therefore in part formed by the discreet charm of taking photos that would be banned otherwise – the very taboo nature becomes part and parcel of the attraction.
Photography and Tourism
The real reason that tourism is a liquid and reactive concept that is affected by photography has to do with two factors: one, tourism on the internet, and two, mobilization. The first thing you do before even settling on a place or plan for travel is scoured information on the internet – it has overtaken travel magazines and to some extent, even TV. As internet usage in South-East Asia alone supersedes the active users of both Americas taken together, the target audience is the orient, and thereby, the occident becomes all the more elusive and sought for. At any rate, not to digress, the point is that wherever the destination, the primary source and basis of making a judgment call is its value on often independent media outlets, and because this is the internet, these representations are done visually more often than not. Both amateur and professional photo blogs and travel journalism webzines abound and thrive on these grounds, which brings us to the second factor: mobilization. As websites like Flickr and 500px continue to take the internet over by a storm, these amateur travel photography outlets outnumber the viewership of NatGeo precisely because both traveling and a market-standard heavy-duty digital camera along with basic equipment have become affordable and accessible enough for the general populace – even in the less developed Asian countries.
With this abundance in visual representation comes the fitting base of consumption for this content. Photographers produce, potential travelers imbibe imitate while traveling themselves, producing more visual representation – and this cycle is what makes or breaks the tourism of a country today.
Another façade of adventure photography is travel agencies. While the government directly profits from the tourism industry and runs ad campaigns with the inclusion of additional points of attraction – branding, for instance. An example would be Bollywood star Amitabh Bachhan’s endorsement of Incredible India (a government-sponsored tourism campaign that is being run since 2002). But the traveling agencies, the foremost individual units of the tourism industry, use photography as a substitute for this brand value. This field is dependent on more a post-production component than photography proper – tone mapping and color correction. Like a plaque recording the history and heritage of a monument give it significance, the color-toning of what is purely a visual representation gives it a unique personality. A more thoroughgoing part of this is consumer behavior, and more specifically, how a certain color tone inspires a certain state of mind in the willing traveler – the orange tint of a beach gives it a warm and cozy look that inspires a craving for pleasant beauty, while a colder and blue-oriented palette can inspire the experience of the sublime and the thrill of adventure. Seeing how merely post-production and tone map polarization of a photograph alone can change the perception of a place, it is no wonder that photography has become a primary foundation for tourism.