This piece by Lilly Lampe of the New Yorker got me thinking about travel from an entirely different perspective. I went to Thailand some time after the ’04 tsunami and the devastation it had caused was still evident. Although I took lots of pictures, it really didn’t occur to me to take any of the aftermath of the destruction, and I have to say I wonder how some people can bring themselves to be so fascinated in others’ misfortune. Guess that’s human nature for you…
The French photographer Ambroise Tézenas was travelling in Sri Lanka when the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami struck, killing more than thirty thousand people on the island within minutes. Four years later, he came across a newspaper article explaining that a train from the disaster, still sitting where the waves had deposited it in the Sri Lankan jungle, had become a tourist attraction. Tézenas was perplexed that anyone could casually visit the remnants of the horror that he had witnessed first-hand. From this disconnect, he found inspiration: he travelled around the world to sites of historic calamity—from Rwanda and Auschwitz to Chernobyl and Dealey Plaza—to document their afterlives as destinations of so-called “dark tourism.”
Rather than take advantage of press access, Tézenas set strict rules limiting himself to the average visitor’s experience. He took paid tours, spent limited time at each location, and shot only what members of the public could see. The resulting images, which are collected in the new book “I Was Here,” are complex interrogations—of how countries reckon with their past crimes, of the commodification of tragedy, and of the human impulse to look upon death and disaster. Amid the wreckage of the Wenchuan earthquake, a tour group gathers for a photo op. In the former Soviet border zone, young people play “escape from the U.S.S.R.” spy games. At Karostas Cietums, a military prison in Latvia, children over twelve years of age can stay overnight and “live the part of a prisoner.” “At the end,” Tézenas told me, these sites “leave the individual with not much to understand history.”
Still, Tézenas’s images belie the simple moralizing that’s often wielded against disaster tourism. He said that he “couldn’t help being moved” by many of the locations he visited, and his empathy extended to his fellow-sightseers. Through his lens, they come across not as callous voyeurs but as poignant foils to the macabre memorials. In a commemorative park in the border town of Maroun al-Ras, the site of a major battle in the 2006 Lebanon war, children play on a brightly painted jungle gym. In the ghost town of Chernobyl, saplings grow.
Born in Paris, Ambroise Tézenas gained international recognition through his first book, Beijing, Theatre of the People, which won the European Publisher’s Award for Photography in 2006. Shortlisted for the Prix de Académie des Beaux-Arts and the Prix Pictet Prize, his work has been exhibited widely in Europe and features regularly in major international publications, including the New York Times Magazine and The New Yorker. His work is held in the Bibliothèque Nationale de France public collection. Ambroise Tézenas is represented by Galerie Mélanie Rio in France.