Vivid Sydney 2012

Vivid is back, bigger and brighter than ever. It’s amazing to see so many visitors to the city in winter, and so many toting cameras and tripods. The phenomenon of the snap-happy travellers is one that interests me – I’m one myself sometimes, after all; it’s on Martin Parr‘s radar as well. In a post called ‘Too much photography‘, he recently shared a few thoughts on the matter, and I’d like to respond, taking Vivid as an example.


Shooting tourists at Vivid Sydney

Vivid lights Filmstrip Customs House

Pink Contact


When I first read Martin’s blog post (found via @theclick), I found myself agreeing with much of it but wishing he’d gone on to say more. A couple of quotes from the article‘…

“…I am under the impression that no-one is really paying attention to the splendours and beauties of the site, as the urge to photograph is so overwhelming. The photographic record of the visit has almost destroyed the very notion of actually looking”

“The urge to buy souvenirs seems second only to the compulsion to take photographs.”

He concludes with the following:

“My theory is that the act of photographing ourselves at tourist sites becomes so important because it makes us feel reassured that we are a part of the recognisable world.”

I agree that this is an existential phenomenon, to a large extent. I’m talking about the tourists, and I don’t wish to be disparaging. Let’s exclude the photographers amongst the crowd whatever their level, i.e. the people out there conscious of the workings of their cameras, and focus on the snapping majority: I think it’s about a way of being in the world. Where once the urge to photograph could have been an impulse to mark ‘I wuz here’, or collect memories of a special event or place, now our world is much more mediated by technology. Travel and technology are increasingly affordable to more and more people, and our cultural environment is supersaturated with imagery (what Martin terms ‘propaganda’). These aren’t all changes for the better when it comes to how we simply ‘are’ in the world. It’s wonderful that so many people can travel widely (environmental impacts aside), but what we make of that opportunity is the concern.

I worry that this modern confluence, of more affordable technology and travel, of supersaturation by advertising and news media, brings about a paucity of those very things. We can travel more, but when we do we take too many photos rather than enjoy the place and the people there. We can afford fantastic cameras (modern cameras are marvels of usability and power), but we put the lens between us and the thing we’re ostensibly there to enjoy. We want to participate in the media maelstrom, but do so increasingly at the expense of enjoying ourselves. I think tourism has become more about owning the places we visit, and this is a primary urge to ‘take’ pictures. The sharing of the photographs is secondary to ‘capturing’ the object of our travel.

Perhaps I psychologise too much; it’s not easy to talk sensibly about mass movements. But I suspect that a big part of the “recognisable world” that Martin refers to is the market, and that we’re expected to participate by buying, by consuming, by endorsing products, places, experiences to our social networks, and that photography is a primary way we do this as tourists.


For more images of tourists in situ, check out my group on flickr: Shooting Tourists.

For a sense of the photos being taken at the festival, check out the Vivid Sydney 2012 group.


By way of a postscript, I’d like to draw attention to the disregard that the festival has paid to artists by failing to acknowledge their work (the ‘illuminations’ around Sydney, lit up from 6pm each night during the event) in programs of the festival or online. I agree with Kent Johnson, who says “No Artists No Art – No Art – No Vivid Sydney!“. Even the program map (PDF, 2 Mb) just marks the sites of the installations, but doesn’t credit the creators of the work. There is no mention either in the terms and conditions about ownership and copyright of images submitted to the website, a further indication that organisers seem to have little regard for the artwork they should be showcasing.

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Posted on June 10, 2012

One Response to “Vivid Sydney 2012”

  1. Drew says:

    A nice take on the ‘tourist stare’ from Clay Lipsky via Wired: Atomic Overlook

    “Tourists will line up for anything and I always found humor in vacation destinations that are nothing but a bunch of people looking into a great abyss,” he says. “I understand the allure of a beautiful landscape, but as the world’s population grows so do the lines to view the ‘nothingness.’ Atomic Overlook flips the script on that and gives new purpose to those suntanned masses.”

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