Sunday, 6 April 2014

A Tourist from Mars

It was once suggested that, in the end, there are only two stories:  A Person Goes on a Journey, and A Stranger Comes to Town.  As an analytical tool, this is pretty feeble.  You might as well further reduce those two to their lowest common denominator, and say there is only one story:  When People Get Around Stuff Happens.  True enough, but even more useless.  So what about stories where people turn into giant beetles? Or lament the impossibility of even travelling to the next village?

But there is a truth there.  Far down in the archaeological layers of the human spirit, there's an urge to move on, to see what lies over those hills.  Much of civilization comes down to ways of persuading the young that this might not be such a good idea.  Why not stick around and do something useful, instead? That washing up won't do itself!  But the gene pool urges a different, deeper story: listen, why not go and see if the girls in the next village are as pretty as they say?  Hmm? Otherwise we'll probably all end up as giant beetles.  Hey, is it your turn to feed Ugly Franz, or mine?

Over on another blog I occasionally frequent, the topic of travel vs. tourism often comes up.  You know, proper travel: running out of cash after six months -- ideally somewhere that doesn't have running water, electricity, or use the roman alphabet -- and trusting to your native wit and the kindness of strangers (plus a supersized, western-style helping of luck) to avoid ending up robbed, raped, and dead in a ditch.  It's scary stuff, independent travel, at least in retrospect. Travellers' tales so often seem to be hymns to blissful ignorance, near-miss horror stories that usually hinge on the tolerance and forbearance of the resident population.

The great paradox of travel is that, as temporary, uninvited and marginal guests -- often in tradition-bound, dictatorial and corrupt societies from which the locals themselves would dearly like to escape -- we act as ambassadors for the hard-won comforts of our liberal, technological democracies back home, advantages dismissed by most hardcore western drifters as inauthentic.  Like players in some global game of trust, the abandon with which we cast ourselves adrift is seen as a measure of personal integrity.  The bragging rights of travel are earned, not by wisdom ("I decided not to wade into the crocodile-infested waters"), but by dumb luck ("As luck would have it, the crocodile that swallowed the bag containing all my cash and documents was caught downstream, and I was able to buy my passport back from the local police, three months later, with the cash I earned by [censored]".

Much-despised tourists, by contrast, are welcome guests everywhere.  They spend lots more money, and are perfectly happy to be corralled, herded and milked as a seasonal resource, risking nothing more irksome than a room with a view blocked by the hotel next door.  The local businessmen must beam upon those glistening hides, as they bake in the sun, like farmers admiring a prime dairy herd.

I am unusually stirred by this subject at the moment, because I have a little adventure of my own coming up.  In June, I will be having another exhibition at the Fotoforum in Innsbruck, Austria (thanks to Rupert Larl).  This time, I have agreed to attend and give an opening night presentation, and have been asked to stay on and do a short photo-project in the Tyrol (double thanks, Rupert!).  As you can imagine, this is both exciting and terrifying, partly because I am prone to attacks of Impostor Syndrome, partly because my spoken German is pretty rusty, but also because of the tourist / traveller thing.

Although I have travelled in the past, I am, at heart, a native.  It has taken something in the order of a decade of constantly photographing a very few, very local beats to emerge as a photographer with some small degree of originality, preceded by another decade in which the clichés and false steps were worked out of my system, not by avoiding them but by making them.  I cringe when I look back at my contact sheets from, say, 1995. But that's just how it works -- the 10,000 hours, and all that.

Now, if anything worthwhile (photographically) is to come of my time in the Tyrol, I need to compress that 10-year process into about 10 days.  I think I can probably bypass the worst clichés -- we all know what they look like, whether perpetrated by tourists or landscape-porn professionals -- but the Austrian Alps are hardly photographic terra incognita; it's ground that has been thoroughly worked over since the invention of photography. Heard of Heinrich Kuehn, the pioneer of autochrome in the 1900s?  He was an Innsbruck resident.  There is also no shortage of contemporary Austrian photographers: wherever you look, wherever you go, it will be someone's well-trodden personal turf.  That is not even to mention the thousands of tourist snaps that must be taken every year.

Heinrich Kuehn, 1912

The hope, and the challenge, of course, is that dropping a keen-eyed stranger into such thoroughly pre-visualized territory (one is tempted to call it a hyperreal space) will deliver a fresh perspective.  Well, let's hope so.  I intend to be a tourist from Mars, combining the curiosity of a traveller with the voracity of a tourist, and avoiding the crocodiles wherever possible.

It may even be -- and this is just a thought -- that the best subject may not be the magnificent landscape, or the "real" Austria, but the tourists themselves, and the industry that surrounds them.  I have, after all, been there, done that.  But not for a very long time.

Near Tarrenz, Tyrol, summer 1966


Zouk Delors said...

A stranger comes to town:

Mike C. said...


I'm sure I've heard him perform that somewhere -- maybe he was on "Loose Ends" or one of those shows?

Do you ever listen to Loudon Wainright? I think he writes the wittiest, if maybe not the LOL funniest, songs. That one reminds me of his "Cardboard Boxes", which also uses the Ghost Riders in the Sky approach.


Zouk Delors said...

Yes, he was on Loose Ends; in fact, though I'm not a regular listener, that's where I first heard it too.

He actually skips a verse on the YouTube. As you may recall (SPOILER ALERT!), after the two Men With No Names "make friends" with each other, they spend a lot of time in the corner of the saloon, talking and laughing and .... drawing diagrams - which doesn't in itself get a laugh (maybe why he dropped it?), but makes "didn't see it coming" even funnier.

An old smoking partner is a big fan of LWIII, so I've heard quite a bit of it (and rather too much when covered by my pal). I don't recognize that title though, so I'll check it out.

Mike C. said...

"I'm gonna go to the supermarket,
I'm gonna go to the liquor store.
I'm gonna get me some cardboard boxes,
You know what them boxes are for.

I'm gonna rent me a U-Haul trailer,
Hook it on the back of my old car,
Call up some of my stronger buddies,
That's what strong buddies are for.

We're gonna move...
Yeah, move!"

Zouk Delors said...

Some things are just too serious to joke about - like moving. The very thought....

Mike C. said...

Good point. I keep meaning to simplify my life down to the point where everything would fit into a couple of trunks, but...

"You can't take it with you", they say, but you can definitely give it to Oxfam.