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Distance and distraction

A personal reflection on photography, travel and the future

Matthew Pontin


I find myself at Waterloo train station. Sitting comfortably inside coach one, on seat fifty-one, I notice through the train window a young couple approach a solitary traveller and ask if he will take their photograph. He slowly lowers his bag onto the platform, accepts the camera handed to him and frames the image capturing the couple, smiling and facing forward, with the scene that is the 9.04am Eurostar to Paris as the backdrop. Having just witnessed the birth of this photograph I begin to imagine the journey it will make, contemplating the eyes that may one-day view it and considering what value will it hold in the future. Like the engraved confirmations of presence left behind in Bruges, the image of the young couple announces ‘I was Here’. Which leaves me wondering what kind of photograph allows us to separate the idea of memory from the idea of permanence.

Marc Augé expressed the impossibility of describing and seeing everything in a place, a sensation which often results in the feeling of disorientation and the need to take photographs; “this is me in front of the Parthenon, you will say later, forgetting that when the photo was taken you were wondering what on earth you were doing there” (Augé, 1995, 84). The photograph facilitates memory, frees it from the moment that was interrupted by the uncertainties of actual experience, providing the future with a past. The archiving and cataloguing of our own personal histories is stimulated by the photograph; Augé positions this desire for constant documentation within an era where “history is on our heels, following us like our shadows, like death” (Augé, 1995, 26).

I recently found myself revisiting a website offering digital prints and other photographic services. On arriving at this site I was greeted with a bold message, placed over an image of a couple obscuring the faces of the individuals, warning “Memories at Risk! A real photo will keep them forever. Click here for more info...” (Snappy Snaps, 2005) In a world mediated for expedient consumption, are memories not rather at risk from real photographs? Within our already overloaded visual environment, the greater risk is conceivably that photography is passively providing yet more representations of reality, even more distractions. Why photograph travel experiences? I am questioning travel and photography as contemporary means of signifying existence and begin to understand an illusory relationship that contributes to the atrophy of actual experience.

“For the twentieth-century tourist, the world has become one large department store of countrysides and cities” (Schivelbusch, 1986, 197). Distance becomes the essential component in justifying a travel experience, a trend of modern exploration assisted by inexpensive air-travel. “If there was a top ten list featuring the ‘perks’ of twenty-first century living, the no-frills-low-cost flight would be a strong contender for the top spot” (Siegle, 2005). This new hypermobility (Adams, 1999) has environmental consequences that shouldn’t be ignored as they presently appear to be, take one example; there are 300,000 passengers in flight over the US at any given moment, the equivalent of a significant sized city, and the most basic of Newton’s theories would simply reveal that keeping a city airborne continuously may be adding to a carbon emissions problem.

Some social-theorists have argued for carbon rationing, in the form of travel credits, to curb our individual footprint upon climate change, once you have used your credits up then you have no option other than to walk. Although such strategies are not looking like being implemented soon, recently analysts have projected a tripling of world car usage between 1990 and 2050. During the past thirty-five years where place became available for physical consumption “the tourism ethic seems to have spread like one of the new sexual diseases. It now infects every aspect of daily life. People carry back packs to work and out on dates. People dress like tourists at the office, the theatre and church. People are as rude to their fellow countrymen as ever they are to foreigners. Maybe the right thing to do is stay home in a comfy armchair and read about travel as it should be – in Samuel Clemens’s Huckleberry Finn” (O’Rourke, 1989, 21).  If eventually we reach a critical point where travel has to become a restricted pleasure, hypermobile humans may have to recline back into their (virtual reality) chairs and accept the possibilities of non-travel experiences.

This idea of non-travel became a focus of my research after reading Joris-Karl Huysmans’ Against Nature, an extravagant account based around the misanthropic Duc des Esseintes, who elaborately employs illusions to stimulate the imagination into taking flight and disappearing on a journey. “Travel, indeed, struck him as being a waste of time, since he believed that the imagination could provide a more-than-adequate substitute for the vulgar reality of actual experience.” (Huysmans, 1959, 35) His simulation of the real becomes increasingly complex in satisfying all of his senses, the authenticity of each simulation conducive to fantasising and indicative to his rejection of reality. Huysmans’ text led me to spend several months researching the condition Agoraphobia and from this began a personal journey into the nature of travel experiences. To what extent does place have to be visited to be experienced? The Elizabeth Bishop poem Questions of Travel addresses a similar notion, “is it lack of imagination that makes us come to imagined places, not just to stay at home?”  (Bishop, 1991) The idea that we are external to the experience, on the outside, observers, potentially leaving us with a sense of inadequacy that makes one consider “why bother” (Bishop, 1991).

Why bother indeed, if the traveller’s way of seeing is now so securely attached to the photograph what need is there to actually visit a place for real. “The camera provided an infallible vantage point on the world. Sensory evidence that depended in any way on the body was rejected in favour of the representation of this mechanical and monocular apparatus, whose authenticity was placed beyond doubt.” (Crary, 1988, 32) Paul Virilio discussed this waning reality and asked, “what kinds of travel and travel photography are possible when the traveller’s old certainties concerning self, art and old qualities and purposes of journeys are being lost?” (cited in Osbourne, 2000, 184) Real, actual lived experience, does provide countless occasions to examine whether experiential authenticity exists. If it does not then the photograph may have the potential to enter the world and be both more and less authentic than actual experiences.

One afternoon during Spring I turned to look back, before crossing a street, and glanced up at a bus passing by adorned with a large-scale advert for a holiday destination. The side of this vehicle revealing the seductive image of a deserted sandy beach, photographed to ensure that in the foreground were several chairs and tables resting on a balcony, encouraging my imagination to enter into the scene and to sit back and relax in the glowing sunshine with the fresh sea-breeze cooling my face… until the sound of a car horn, implemented by a driver frustrated with the stationary bus, startled me back to concentrating on crossing the road. Alain de Botton realised this problem with modern travel, one where eyes can browse through holiday brochures and stimulate the desire of the location yet provide “no reminders that those eyes [are] intimately tied to a body and mind” (De Botton 2002, 20). Jonathan Crary also observed how vision is increasingly being severed from the human observer, a juncture where images are now relayed to us through; television, computers, holography, simulators, animations, virtual environments, medical imaging and other sensory forms of scientific image-making.

This disembodied vision leads in the direction of simulation, numerous organisations are developing technology that can provide experiences that are wholly visual and wholly convincing, such emergent technologies within image making are becoming principal frameworks for visualization. Vision that no longer relies upon the observing subject affects the modes of representation we reference and as technology departs its analogue phase new mechanisms appear to potentially awaken emotion and reverie. “Virtual travel draws imagery from and flexibly incorporates all of the fore going strategies of containment of the tourist imagination: decoys, ‘rides’, screen memories and total fabrication. Thus tourism opens the way for the complete incorporation of itself, and whatever residual connection it may have had to ordinary experience, into Virtual Reality.” (MacCannell, 1997, 19)

Harry Pearson, recently published, Around the World by Mouse in which he writes about his journeys across cyberspace, perhaps a contemporary Situationist exploit, he virtually circumnavigated the globe, travelling 600 miles a day, from the safety of his office; “I experienced the sights and sounds of the countries I visited through the images on tourist websites, streaming local radio stations, downloading indigenous music, birdsong, animal calls and video clips from Philippines soap operas; through live cams, the weblogs of US Peace Crops volunteers and the homepages of retired school teachers from Kansas who have not let severe lactic acid intolerance prevent them from cycling all the way to Samarkand, [and continues] you may wonder if the virtual traveller gains a realistic impression of the country this way. Probably not. Then again, does the actual traveller?” (Pearson, 2005, 12) The actual traveller does enter into a form of co-presence integral to the experience even if this does result in returning with countless photographs to ensure that physical presence is not forgotten. “Virtual travel and separation of the body and information results from the array of technical and instrumental means of communications being combined with humans. They have partially at least replaced the spatiality of ‘co-present sociality’ with new modes of objectified stranger-ness […] virtual travel produces a kind of strange and uncanny life on the screen, a life that is near and far, present and absent, live and dead. The kinds of travel and presencing involved will change the character and experience of ‘co-presence’, since people can feel proximate while still distant.” (Urry, 2005, 7)

Virtual travel may provide the distance and distraction to stimulate sensations of actual travel yet digital satisfaction surely resides in virtual travel’s ability to successfully accommodate the human desire for retrospection; producing all the retrospective sensations of a real experience. Dean MacCannell points out that virtual reality is only able to provide a backdrop and is always limited by a program, such experiences “are given meaning, they are not free to mean on their own” (MacCannell, 1997) and it is this reduces the ‘realness’ of the simulation. There is also a fear for the mortality of subject and traveller within this mode of exploration, since “if I can arrive without ever having set out, that self-same ‘I’ ceases to exist.” (Pinney, 1994, 424) On this understanding corporeal travel probably won’t disappear altogether, global tourism depends upon physical consumption of place and digital photography has, even more than analogue achieved, given a definitive shape to travel. As we exist now, the eye must have been present, even if trapped behind a viewfinder, for the experience to be deemed significant in real life. Actual travel and “co-presence affords access to the eyes. Eye contact enables the establishment of intimacy and trust, as well as insincerity and fear, power and control. Simmel considers that the eye is a unique ‘sociological achievement’ since looking at one another is what effects the connections and interactions of individuals.” (Frisby & Featherstone, 1997, 111)

The photographs I currently make are about journeys, revealing a personal vision exploring the medium though resurrecting existing imagery. How the world travel to me is integral in re-evaluating and exploring a means of detaching memory from the frustrations of permanence. Enlivened by everyday visual occurrence and with a spirit of rephotography I rejuvenate the imagery that already invades my presence and produce ephemeral narratives that reduce visual pressures attached to the goal of reaching and witnessing a destination. Photographs that are about a potential of forgetting rather than the hope of remembering, politely informing the audience that seeing can delve far beyond the reach of the snapshot gaze. I am still thinking about what happened to the photograph of the couple stood before the Eurostar. I cannot help but imagine this image lying dormant inside the hard-drive of a computer, probably still answering to the name dsc_0176.jpg that it was given by the camera on that morning. But it is in good company, for it also waits with numerous other images, in a folder titled Paris_2005, for its chance to appear once more to the world in some form other than in my imagination.


 This is an abridged version of the full essay

Matt's own website is at He is also a member of CAN (Cornwall Artists Network - see links page)