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On the art of travel and photography

As some linguists have observed: The one who has the army, the military and the aviation, has the language. Everything else is a dialect. Piff paff!

The tragedy is that so many people, including those with the “dialect” subscribe to the violence inherent in the relations of “standard” and “marginal” and ofthe constant evaluation that is being made about the quality and level of “civilisedness” of people and things.

Needless to say, the one who has thearmy “names”, “knows”, “studies” and “trips”. Think of the service that travellers have rendered to anthropology and imperialism or, in livelier images, think of the army inscriptionads: Want to get an education? See the world? Join the Army!

Of course, what happens to education and what remains of the world after these tourists have come by, is yet another sorry sorry tale. And don’t be fooled by the “we’re helping them make peace” language. Remember, the language belongs to those who’ve got the army and they are more effective at making one find eternal peace somewhere else but not on earth. So, it turns out to be same-same-but-different, to use the language of the Thai.

Speaking of Thai, I once took a hike with a bunch of tourists in the north of Thailand in February 1995. Stomp stomp stomp. We make it through what’s left of the forest andinto the first village. It’s evening. The locals are going about their preparations for dinner and the night. Some return from the fields, others from the woods, the children are running about – some helping, others, mostly the little ones, playing. I approach agroup of lively girls about 10-12 years of age cleaning up after their weaving. They smile at me.

“Hello,” I say.

They giggle.

I point to my camera and ask if I could take a picture. They shake their heads, no. I double check: “Do you mind? Picture?”

“Yes, we do. No picture”.

I put my camera away and suddenly from what seems like nowhere, red of hair and face but much more agile than orang-outangs, descend upon the group the two Dutch women who have stomped over with the tourist gang and efficiently begin to snapand zoom right and left: faces, bodies, limbs, clothes, work. Nothing has a chance to survive their determination in photography and devotion to tourism. They have even followed the girls’ mother’s vain attempt to sneak inside her home. Clearly, there is no escape from European efficiency. They get her inside her bedroom all the while performing that “professional photographer’s” dance: this angle, and that angle, and now angle, and what an angle….

The violence of the act that, this time, wasn’t even directed at me, remains with me to this day. I’d be exaggerating, of course, if I were to tell you that I wake up in the middle of the night in cold sweat from a nightmare in which I am surrounded by red-haired or whatever tourists and their cameras. But I probably would have been doing it had I been one of those villagers. Perhaps, the tragedy is that when a person lives in a place that is considered free zone for invasion by those who can “afford” to invade at their convenience, where a person does not have a right for privacy because that person is judged as “poor”,as “primitive”, as “backward” as “needing MY money and therefore I can do what I WANT and when I WANT” – when a person is perceived as a rightful tourist attraction, an object for the tourist’s gaze on whom the tourist has squandered a few of its “rightfully” and “deservedly”-earned pennies, this person has been shot by the tourist, over and over again, so many times, that the horror leaves the stench of cold death.

And the killing continues every time someone looks at the picture and says: “geee man! Aren’t we glad have our country! Aren’t we LUCKY to have our home! Just look at that!”

Tourism is terrorism. And shooting pictures can be fatal.

Hakim Bey has a beautiful essay on Overcoming Tourism

However, I believe that there is a moment of redemption in all of this, otherwise, I wouldn’t be participating in this project. This moment comes in travel as an exchange, equal and valued. It is an act of giving, of love. It is the attempt to see the other as he or she is and to reach her through adeep, personal understanding – not of what it means to be sleek, sophisticated, civilised, good. We reach the other through our understanding of what it means to be alive. In that moment, and only through empathy can we see who we and the other are. In that balance of humility and of not invading with our values yet being generous with what we have (what we have of knowledge, feeling, thoughts, or possessions), we can reach a dimension of mutual respect and compassion. And not to forget, gratitude for what others, humans or beasts, do for us and for what they can teach.

Liouba – being a child and not schooled in the social construction of violence – approaches everything and everyone without the fatality of judgement. She draws, photographs and lives with this world. In spite of Sasha’s disagreement, since he “specialises” in post-social issues, I decided to share pictures of people as well as of places because to me an environment comes with everything that dwells in it. I hope that you will view these glimpses with due respect for the generous invitation into the privacy that they offer.

Welcome and bon voyage!

Layla, 2006


  1. dedidi says:

    Yo! Just, exactly. Brilliant, as always! Wow, ok, even more eloquent. You’ve been making good use of your time I can see!!

    August 15, 2007 @ 1:51 pm

  2. Introduction to Z | Layla.Miltsov.org says:

    […] lives, which are still useful to us, for we can come and look at them or study and observe them, or they can entertain us when we go on our touristic vacations like when we visit the remnants of the animal populations we made extinct in the few areas that we […]

    June 16, 2008 @ 2:31 pm

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