Photography, an Interpretation in Sites of Dark tourism
Death, suffering, visitation and tourism have been interrelated for many centuries but the phenomena of Dark Tourism was identified as such and categorised by Lennon and Foley (1996, 2000). For many years humans have been attracted to sites and events that are associated with death, disaster, suffering, violence and killing. From ancient Rome and Gladiatorial combat to attendance at public executions in London and other major cities of the world death has held an appeal. The site of the American Civil War battle; Manassas, was sold as a potential tourist site the day following the battle (Lennon and Foley 2000) and the viewing of the battlefield of Waterloo by non-combatants was recorded in 1816 (Seaton, 1996). Sites associated with death and disaster appear to exert a dark fascination for visitors they include :
- death sites and disaster scenes
- sites of mass or individual death
- sites of incarceration
- representations or simulations associated with death
- re-enactments and human interpretation of death
This paper aims to consider a sample of dark tourism locations and to examine their pivotal role as; evidential sites, their educational role and the use of visual imagery, most particularly photography in such sites.
This fascination we have as humans with our ability to do evil, witness the evidence of horror and stare fixedly at photographic, filmic or heritage artefacts connected with death is at the heart of these phenomena known as ‘Dark Tourism’. In a range of locations, these tourism sites offer evidential narrative, providing historical context and photographic and filmic evidence; see for example discussion by Ashworth (2002) and the photographic imagery of Tezenas, (2015). The experience is photographed, filmed and trailed through visitor photography that is ubiquitous, mobile-based and almost unlimited. It allows and provides visual record and offers self-imagery options that can be uploaded online and globally circulated on a range of social and digital media channels. Sontag (1977) argued that to collect photographs was to collect the world. In dark sites, images are connected with emotions of fascination and horror, which are in turn frequently recorded and photographed. These tourist sites are inherently enmeshed in complex relationships with texts, histories and imagery. This author has argued in a range of contexts elsewhere that importance of these sites as physical records of atrocity, crime and tragic events merit interpretation and understanding that is unambiguous, neutral and derived from historical record (Lennon and Foley, 2000; Lennon, 2009).
Tourist interpretation is complicated by the limitations of language which when measured against visual imagery is often inadequate. The multiplicity of possible meanings in interpretation is a concern in any attempt at ‘understanding’ dark episodes. Decoding visual content in dark sites to understand their contexts and expose the dominant ways of thinking about the tragedy, the pain and capacities of humans to do evil has resonance here.
For the purposes of this paper interpretation is examined in Cambodian sites related to the Khmer Rouge genocide and also the Czech sites associated with the Roma and Sinti extermination.
Interpretation within dark sites seeks to work in a more subtle way to demonstrate the historical reality of location. The present form is contrasted with the past as the visitor considers documentary photographs. In this way, the photographic image “resurrects” the past (Barthes, 1993). Such photographic imagery confirms that objects and sites do not exist in isolation and are imbued with meaning. The interpretation for tourists and visitors of objects, buildings and locations allows us to attempt to understand and comprehend elements of our history which may at first glance be irreconcilable with our current existence. This is where dark sites and photography confront the irreconcilable; how we connect what Wiesel (1967) entitled “…a different planet” with our current existence. Recounting something as enormous as the massacres of Rwanda in narrative form is fraught with difficulties. To abridge and to simplify to sentences is where the limitation of language and ‘interpretation’ is reached.