With a summer of tour guiding behind me, I’ve seen the other side of the tourist experience. And I’m not so sure I liked what I saw.
As months of work made the novelty of my workplace diminish a little, it became more and more evident to me how people experienced their visit.
I had been enthralled by my surroundings at the outset; I was working in Parliament, which was something a political nerd like me found thrilling. But I knew that I would return every day, while the majority of our visitors were at Parliament for a couple hours, perhaps only in Ottawa for a day.
I watched as thousands of people went through the building, day in, day out. And even if they weren’t inside, I saw them roaming around Parliament Hill and its surroundings. But what struck me about these hordes of tourists was how they chose to interact with their setting.
Sure, Parliament is a pretty recognizable building. I understand the instinct to pose in front for memory’s sake, for an entry in the family photo album. But I was surprised that people were inclined to do so while missing the real thing.
Visitors would snap hundreds of photos over the course of a visit. Not just one photo for each new spaces, but photos of every angle, every inch of the place. And yet, in doing so, they lost the opportunity to understand what it was they were seeing. Explanations were offered; guides were always on hand, taking people to all the sights. But the explanations were ignored in favour of composing their shots.
These tourists didn’t actually see what they came to see—they experienced it all through a lens.
I wondered what people were going to do with these photos. I’d imagine them getting home, bringing their memory card full of photos to show to their friends and family. They’d sit down, open the files, and then be at a loss for what it actually was they were looking at.
Maybe my imagination was a little ungenerous. Naturally, not everyone has the same interests, and things that I find fascinating may be boring to someone else. People don’t go on vacation for purely educational purposes. But in seeing how these tourists reacted to Canada’s most recognizable landmark, I had a sinking feeling that mine wasn’t the only experience with the photo-tourism phenomenon.
It’s something I can see upon logging into Facebook, too. The photo albums of friends’ trips around the world prove to me that I’m just as affected from the other side of things. It’s nice to see where my friends travel, and what they noticed while they were there. In seeing their photos, even without context, I can to some degree understand their experiences from a distance. And I’m sure for them it’s nice to be able to relive a little of their travels when they get home as well, be it immediately after or years down the road.
Although I get the gist, the whole thing seems, well, two-dimensional. Photos can’t tell you the stories of the places you went to; the little quirks and interesting details won’t show up on your screen.
I wish I could have taken away those tourists’ cameras this summer. Maybe it would have made them actually see what they were looking at.