A New Look at … Ambroise Tézenas, I was here (2014)

In Holidays in the Danger Zone: Entanglements of War and Tourism (2016), Debbie Lisle analyzes “dark” or “political tourism,” i.e. tourism encountering the aftermath of violent conflict. Lisle’s book elucidates what encounters of war and tourism looked like indifferent historical constellations (for example, the British Empire, post-World War II, bipolarity, and the “War on Terror”). It shows that these encounters are historically contingent, differing across space and over time, and that very often “counterconducts” can be found – social practices ignoring or challenging the hierarchical order within which they operate and which they are supposed to confirm.

Ambroise Tézenas’ I was here perfectly accompanies and illustrates Lisle’s book. Tézenas, a Paris-based photographer, visited several dark tourism places (for example, the Auschwitz-Birkenau State Museum, the village of Oradour-sur-Glane, and the Kigali Memorial Center in Rwanda but also sites of industrial and natural disasters), visually interrogating such questions as: How does “the need for awareness” often articulated in connection with memorials relate to mass tourism? Have we “simply become consumers in a market of human barbarity?” How does the “thrill” of being there, on location where horrible things happened, influence and perhaps even undermine the purpose of ethical and civic education these locations often embody?

Tézenas’ emphasizes the tourist aspect by also documenting tour operators’ activities (for example, in Chernobyl) and reproducing texts from their brochures (in addition to other publicity material and material from websites; save for a one-page introduction, he does not offer his own interpretations). In these brochures, for example, visitors are said to meet “with the peace and quiet of the ghost town Prypyat” when visiting its former amusement park in close vicinity to the Chernobyl nuclear power plant. It is not only an encounter with quiet and peace – whatever “peace” is meant to indicate in this context; it is also an encounter with the visitors’ own mortality as the place is highly contaminated.

How does Tézenas’ work relate to Walter Benjamin’s suspicion that photography can transform “even abject poverty … into an object of enjoyment”? Is there enjoyment involved not only in visiting these places but also in regarding these photographs? Bertold Brecht argued that a photograph of a factory reveals “next to nothing” about this factory. What, then, do photographs of sites of dark tourism reveal about these sites (in addition to documenting that they have indeed been turned into sites of tourism as in some images tourists can be seen walking around and taking pictures)? Is it their main purpose to reveal something about the sites they document or, as J. J. Lennon suggests in the book’s essay, do they primarily show “the wider fascination we appear to have with our own mortality and the fate of others”? Do they merely document dark tourism or do they, as counterconducts, challenge, disrupt or resist the very practices they show?

Ambroise Tézenas, I was here (Stockport: Dewi Lewis Publishing, 2014).