It was a sense mixed with both disgust and fascination that propelled me to find a piece of scrap paper and copy down fanatically paragraph after paragraph of the text by Simon Winchester. Before giving a summary of Winchester's noble argument against mass tourism, it is worth quoting his biography in full:
"Simon Winchester spends his life wandering the world and writing books, as well as articles for publications in Britain and the United States. He is Asia-Pacific correspondent for Conde Nast Traveler and writes regularly for The Spectator, Harper's and Atlantic Monthly amongst others. He has made a number of films from foreign parts for the BBC and Channel Four and broadcasts regularly. Among the subjects of his books are the surviving remnants of the British Empire, a walk along the length of Korea and the diary he kept while in prison in southern Argentina during the Falklands War."
It would not be unfair to think Winchester considers himself a traveller - a phrase and idea he prefers to tourist, which he abhors. Winchester's text is not so much about Martin Parr's photographs, which I consider the raison d'être for the text. It is more probable that Winchester uses Parr's photographs as a pretext for him to lament the demise of the ideal traveller. First and foremost, Winchester does not so much hint as picture his ideal traveller as an educated White Western gentleman well-established in property, estate and family. For Winchester, the spirit of travelling lies in exploring and the history of exploration comes in many forms: trade, learning different cultures, scientific research, religious mission, or war, conquest and colonisation. Winchester differentiates the unfortunate outcomes from the benign ones but it is unclear where he actually draws the line.
Winchester believes that the act of travelling should not be associated with pleasure; for real travel should be an act of courage, risk-taking and venturing into the unknown. What a different world Parr's photographs portray: the mass swarm into the once sacred land, purchasing cheap and tacky souvenirs, dumbing the milieu along the way. Regarding this trend as 'contagious', Winchester writes "we wish, often vehemently, that every ugly tourist would stay at home in his living room by his wretched fire, and leave such noble places to their emptiness - or at least, to us."
I paused when I copied this sentence for I was uncertain to which group Winchester would assign me: am I the Beautiful Traveller standing with him in revulsion facing the I that was the Ugly Tourist gazing mindlessly within Parr's photos? Who are 'We'? Do 'We' have to be one thing or the other? Does such a distinction actually exist? Or, is it merely necessary for Winchester's argument?
However, thanks to WInchester's 'mind-opening' comments, I re-focus on Parr's photos and wonder, in equal fascination, what Parr might wish to evoke from 'us' (as per Winchester) or you/me/him/her, etc. I do not know if Parr endorses Winchester's view but one thing seems to be certain: while I believe most of us would have our 'Parr moment' (it is only a matter of luck that he happened to capture others), very few people would identify themselves as belonging to that petty, silly, ugly crowd trapped in Parr's photos. That, for me, is one of the powerful features of his photos: the ability to evoke the imaged superiority from the viewers and here Winchester best exemplifies this inclination.
To do justice to Winchester's argument, he does take note of the insensibility of applying an 'us'. Unfortunately his way of stomaching this glut of ugly tourists is to nominate yet another 'them', the authoritarian Third Reich or the communist North Korea which strip their citizen's freedom of movement. In WInchester's mind, democracy means putting up with your sorry-looking brother. At the end, WInchester suggests, the market economy might drive out those distasteful crowds. No wonder so many people are willing to pay a high price for anything described as 'authentic experience' these days....Continua