Unreal Nature

October 31, 2009

Here’s Looking At You

Filed under: Uncategorized — unrealnature @ 7:51 am


When I first saw this picture, I was leafing though an old issue of Aperture and I thought it was just a picture of a bunch of photographers taking a photo of some interesting natural feature (animal or vegetable). But just as the page was turning, I realized that the objects of their attention were children. The suddenness of that recognition, and the “jump back” to include the staring tourists led to a predictable, “nasty, gawking white tourists” reaction. But I looked closer at the tourists. They turn out to be elderly, mostly women and all smiling, their body posture showing affection and care; not the aggressive, lunging stance of the worst kind of tourist. In fact, they look like a bunch of grannies (and one grand-dad) .

I mentally backed up a step and included the maker of this picture in my consideration. What’s his intent? This is a carefully composed shot. The photo’s caption reads “Ed van der Elsken, American Tourists Photographing Children, South Africa, n.d.”. Hmmm … Possibly I am too sensitive, maybe “American” is not always a pejorative qualifier when coming from a European? Maybe he is more bemused than critical? He is staring at the “American tourists” in much the same way as those tourists are looking at the African children. Maybe I should photograph this photograph and title it Dutch Tourist Photographing American Tourists Photographing Children.

Let’s retreat one more step and include you, dear reader. Are you seeing an over-sensitive American photographing (in her mind) a Dutch photographer … Is my relationship to that Dutch photographer any different from that of the Dutch photographer to the American tourists and those tourists to those children? Step back again, and you’ll see yourselves, looking at me …

I look back at you and say, no. This is a good picture; this photographer did a good job.

The photographer might look back at me and say that he intended exactly the complex reaction that I have just described.

The American tourists in the picture might (and maybe did) look back at the photographer with simple unselfconscious affection.

The children look to me like they are enjoying the attention.





  1. The children look to me as if they are malnourished, with kwashiorkor and rickets. The normal response in this situation for children of this age is to move around, not sit like models in the photography studio. Perhaps the elderly American tourists will toss them a penny and watch them scramble for it? Just imagine if it were a group of Zulu photographing the Joads.
    (not meant to be a reflection in any way on author of the blog who brings this to our attention.)

    Comment by Dr. C. — October 31, 2009 @ 3:35 pm

  2. Just imagine if it were a group of Zulu photographing the Joads. — Dr. C

    If Walker Evans, Dorothea Lange and thousands of others can photograph the Joads, why not Zulus?

    Comment by unrealnature — October 31, 2009 @ 4:55 pm

  3. Whatever my reaction or response, it starts from respect and admiration for your intellectual courage in making this post.

    I cannot, of course, speak for Elsken.

    For myself, I will say that the photograph shows the huge gap which exists … not between American tourist and South African child, but between tourist and toured, between have and have not, between visitor and inhabitant – three separate and different relations.

    Tourism always distorts vision and lives. Even (for example) British tourists in the US small town will distort reality. In poor rural Africa (sorry – it’s a personal hobby horse, I spent too much time there) the difference between an American and a European is so vanishingly small as to be not worth mentioning. And most tourists are not bad people: but just by being comparatively risch, and having somewhere to go back to (as did I…) they cannot help being damaging.

    Moving on to American/European … there is, of course, a very real sense in which power shapes us. A Roman in 50 BCE, a Briton in 1900, a USAmerican in 2009, cannot possible avoid the fact and consequences which the dominance of her/his culture has on her/his perception of the world. That’s just a fact of life.

    Had I been born a hundred years earlier, I would have had a whole different set of views, attitudes and ways of thinking – of which I would have been prisoner. Though I can, of course, hope that I would have struggled against them as valiantly as do the many wonderful and courageous Americans who resist the easy certainties of their primacy.

    It’s easy to be humble when you are not on top. It’s harder when you are. Returning to Africa: Europeans and Americans are in the same boat there, because they share a local differential in economic power which swamps the differences between them. I hope that Elskan was simply being factual, not judgemental, in labelling them American tourists; but I cannot know.

    Comment by Felix — November 1, 2009 @ 5:12 am

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