When I began working on Picture Yourself Here in my second year of university, it was simply a response to an assignment like any other, but I had no idea that a year later, I would make it the focal point of my third. In its beginnings, it was entirely about using the photographs from the Toronto Reference Library photo collection (which was the assignment requirement) and finding a way to fit them together to make a new piece of artwork. It was almost entirely an aesthetic endeavour, and much of each photograph’s individual craft remains this way. During this time, its inspiration was my own trip to Italy and Greece years before, and how I had felt cheated of my memories because my camera had broken during the trip.
“In its beginnings… It was almost entirely an aesthetic endeavour.”
In its second conception, I made something that could be more universally understood, and rather than focusing on those sites that I had personally visited, I decided to bring my craft to those which are most visited by everyone. To be exact, I decided to focus on the ten most visited countries in Europe – currently – and some of the most well known places within them. Why Europe? Various reasons, the most notable of which being: one, the prestige and status Europe holds among our continents;and two, it is the most visited continent in the world.
With time, of course, the concept of the project evolved. I was stricken with uncertainty, wondering what it really was about. It had first been about memory, about the human desire to embalm time despite not necessarily needing to – after all, we know exactly what most of these places look like without even searching for them. It then became a commentary on our touristic habits, and how the significance of the site itself is often lost on people who wish only to take “the picture” – that ultimate image that is the most like all others of that same place, and thus form a collection of these sites. Finally, it reached a point where I had to start thinking about just the sites themselves, rather than the people, and how, despite all our pilgrimages and photographs, unlike us, they remain virtually unchanged for lifetimes, their histories forever recorded for those rare people who actually care.
When time came around to present the series, I thought I had explored all the possibilities of the project, but I found that everyone saw in it something new. In fact, the photograph which seemed to strike everyone the most – Mont St. Michel – was certainly visually striking, but it was not made with any more thought than all the rest, and I had not myself seen all that it could mean. I’ll be honest and say I did not see anything special about it, except for my choice of photo and painting, which happened to be visually striking. Yet there was much more to it. One of my professors, Hilary Roche, said that it was almost as though the people had gone to that place specifically to photograph the painting of the site, rather than the site itself. And it often is this way. We go to a place, take the same iconic image as everyone else, and then leave. It was in that single photograph, which I approached in the same way as all the others, that a magical happy accident happened, whereby a new meaning was obtained, which I had never intended to give, but aligned perfectly with everything else I had thought of.
The sites… despite all our pilgrimages and photographs, unlike us… remain virtually unchanged for lifetimes, their histories forever recorded for those rare people who actually care.
There then came a conflict for me. How to show the work, giving the reasons that I had crafted it, without influencing the thoughts of those who saw it. I wanted to explore the themes that others saw further, without cutting out the things I saw before. I decided that this statement should come separate from the images, so that you, my viewer, could form your own opinion before seeing mine. And here they are:
As I mentioned, when I first started the project, it was about embalming time. The images have the power to show, not only the passage of time, but also the human desire to capture beauty, again and again. There is really no need to photograph these places anymore; there are so many photos, from past and present, that any photo one takes, unless one is in it, is bound to have an equal, as is proven by the almost perfect fittings of one image into another within the series. And yet we continue to take them, we embalm that one instant, the moment that we ourselves were there, and keep it forever.
During the series’ second conception I began to consider things beyond the simple capturing of memory, which is what the original project was about. I believe that many people go to these places not only to see them, but to be able to say that they saw them. There’s a certain status that comes with knowing you’ve seen more than others, a certain pride.
But the more people that see the same places, the less special these people become. The first people who did things, who discovered and saw things were regarded as adventurous explorers, who had not only the wealth, but the courage to travel to places unknown. They were special. Now, when people go see these sites, they are tourists. A person becomes one among millions. They lose the prestige they would have gained if they were the only one to see something, or one among very few.
How do people remedy this? By seeing more. People have always felt the need to create a difference between them and others, in order to feel better about themselves. Now that the world has become so small, and many people have seen many places, it becomes about how much someone has seen, not what they have seen; a collection of memories rather than a preservation. The photographs are just as much the proof that you’ve been somewhere as they are a memory of it, there’s that duality to it.
It is important to know the numerous motivations one has when traveling, and to remember that beyond simply adding an entry to one’s travel-log, there is a greater purpose to travelling
These were my ideas as I thought about constructing these images, and what they could mean. But there was no thought beyond the beauty and the needs of each individual image when I was in the process of crafting it.
By no means with this series am I trying to criticize tourism. I would travel non-stop if I had the means. But I think it is important to know the numerous motivations one has when traveling, and to remember that beyond simply adding an entry to one’s travel-log, there is a greater purpose to travelling. Such as becoming a worldly and cultured person, one who is able to understand the histories, peoples, and religions that have shaped our world, one who is aware of the way the past has affected the present and of how they can use that to improve the future, the kind of person that I hope one day to become.