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Big brag theory: no, those holiday photos don't make you a Travel God

Getting to know Lisa.

Getting to know Lisa.

During a three-month sojourn in Paris some years ago, I visited the Louvre Museum many times and on each occasion was left amused by the crowd packed around the Mona Lisa, tourists jockeying to get a photo of the famous Da Vinci painting.

People would muscle through the crush of bodies and push in close enough so they could hold up their phone and - SNAP! - take a picture. Then, they'd often walk away staring down at the image captured on the screen without having actually looked at the work!

(Meanwhile, the Code of Hammurabi, a stone stele carved with 4000-year-old Babylonian law and one of the oldest pieces of deciphered writing in the world had tumble weeds blowing past it.)

A tourist has her picture taken with an Indonesian army commando after a security exercise at a hotel in Bali.

A tourist has her picture taken with an Indonesian army commando after a security exercise at a hotel in Bali. Photo: AFP

You could argue this impulse to show people your picture of the Mona Lisa or Taj Mahal is the polite, nerdy cousin of the drive so many tourists have nowadays to be photographed in "extreme" situations or locations.

There's John diving with great white sharks, and Dave standing next to a street sign that says Chernobyl! Look, Jessica's only metres away from that active volcano!! Is that Abdul doing the 'hang loose' signal on Death Road in Bolivia next to 15 crucifixes?

The subtext here, of course, is the person has risked life and limb for the photograph and made it back to the 'burbs intact, a God of Travel.

Facebook and Twitter have obviously amplified this ostentation but Instagram has taken it to a whole 'nother level, where some people seemingly spend half their holiday framing perfect, cool or outrageous photographs to illustrate how much fun they're having. It's the photo album designed to make their friends jealous.

Whereas to me, you know you've had fun - be it at a party or on holiday - when not a single photo exists because you actually were too busy enjoying yourself to stop, pose, take shot, crop it, add hip filter, upload to social media and write an oh-so-nonchalant caption.

On the weekend, Fairfax's Traveller section labelled this the "big brag theory", quoting Richard Munro, chief executive of the Accommodation Association of Australia. He speculates our appetite for extreme travel has increased because it gives people something to big note about on social media.

"Australians in particular, because we're so well travelled, are often looking for bragging rights when it comes to travel," he said. "It's all about, 'take a picture of me next to that', especially now with social media."

Munro's comment reminded me just how many people you see overseas who seem to be travelling in a bubble; where poverty and suffering, cultural wonders and natural spectacle are all a backdrop to the "movie of me" going on in their heads.

I sometimes wonder if this is because it's now so easy to get almost anywhere in the world, people fall into the "I can always visit again" syndrome and don't pay enough attention first time around. One hundred years ago people knew their 'Grand Tour' would probably be their one and only chance to experience a distant country, so they drank it all in.

The striking contradiction of the current need to be photographed in "extreme" or "authentic" situations is the way many people then use said image to construct a completely inauthentic identity online.

Once the shot is taken, they toddle off back to their air-conditioned hotel room, eat hamburgers and spend more time on Facebook than they do the mean streets of the city they've supposedly conquered.

One of the more odious examples I've read about is the Emoya Hotel fake shanty town in Bloemfontein, South Africa. Tourists pay $90 a night to stay in watertight, wi-fi equipped shacks disguised by corrugated iron and distressed fittings to make them look like the real thing. Slumming it, I think not.

That sort of fakery has been dubbed "poverty tourism" but it still encapsulates what bothers me about the whole concept of extreme travel; people want to do something different but they still demand limits and safeguards be in place.

It's reflected by the fact young travellers aged under 25 are the most demanding of consular help from the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade when they get into trouble, having ignored travel advice not to go to countries that are dangerous, ie things got a bit too extreme.

And there's the rub.

If these travel experiences were truly about getting "extreme" - ie there's a very good chance you could die doing it - Homs and Fallujah would be more crowded with visitors than the Louvre.

I hear Syria's pretty "intense" at the moment.

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63 comments

  • I hear that Kings Cross is a pretty extreme tourist spot at the moment.

    Commenter
    allrite
    Date and time
    January 15, 2014, 12:05PM
    • i think the article is being a bit pretensious about who is and who isn't a real traveller. let them enjoy themselves. I do feel sad for the younger generation who now because of social media do not really feel that great and sometimes awful feeling of separation from your family, friends and normal environment.

      My future wife of south american background use to find it weird that with the fortnightly reverse phone call home from europe i would only talk cricket with my father. The things you miss

      Commenter
      kellybellyfonte
      Date and time
      January 15, 2014, 12:46PM
  • There has been research recently that suggested that people who take some number of photos while on a holiday or at some other event have trouble remembering what happened.

    Commenter
    Steve T
    Location
    Sydney
    Date and time
    January 15, 2014, 12:16PM
    • I have trouble remembering what happened whether or not I take a photo but if I have a photo it might remind me.

      Commenter
      alto
      Date and time
      January 15, 2014, 2:04PM
    • i usually find if i've taken a photo of something i remember the moment better than i would of if i didn't take a photo...

      Commenter
      foolsparadise
      Date and time
      January 15, 2014, 3:15PM
    • I'd barely remember things at all if I didn't have photos. In fact many of my "memories" of trips - as in the mental pictures I form in my mind of the trip - are the photos I took. I'd have to really sit down and try and think and make a mental schedule of what I did to bring everything back otherwise. And memories are unreliable. They compress and merge with one another to save space like zipping up files to put on a thumb drive. Photos are links to where the related memories reside in the brain, like desktop shortcuts. I take hundreds of photos but no one has ever seen any of them. It's a running joke that if I take a photo it'll never been seen by anyone. The thing is I actually enjoy taking photos. I like to have a little photo assay of a place. Lots of little things you'd never remember.. eg vignettes of the plants and seeds in an area. It's not narcissistic or to share.. it's just to document my experience for my own personal enjoyment. It's also stupid to think you can't enjoy an experience because you've additionally spent an extra 2% of time taking photos. You think the ten seconds it takes to snap a photo or two ruins the other couple of minutes of "soaking up the scene.. man" like anyone else? Ridiculous.

      Commenter
      andrew
      Date and time
      January 16, 2014, 10:20AM
  • The modern attitude seems to be that if you aren't photographed doing something then it didnt happen.

    I wonder if this is going to lead to a dumbing down of the average punter's command of English, no longer able to describe an experience without the aid of pictures.

    Commenter
    mont_y
    Date and time
    January 15, 2014, 12:16PM
    • I think so. I was on the road most of last year and as you do, occasionally I bumped into the odd fellow Aussie. Some them when responding to how was x, "Oh roolly good aye, it was beautiful, just ah-may-zing, you should go." but they couldn't elaborate more beyond that.

      The more they liked a place the less words they employed to describe it. It was rooolly frustrating aye.

      Commenter
      jim
      Location
      bne
      Date and time
      January 15, 2014, 4:37PM
  • It's definitely a Facebook-et-al phase people are going through.

    I used to take hundreds of photos on holiday and photoshop them and post them online. Now I barely take any.

    It's also an ease thing. From having 24 photos in a roll and having them developed after you came back from holiday to snapping in the spot with your mobile phone and uploading it there and then.

    I don't think it's necessarily a negative thing - it's a form of societal connection in an era eroding it.

    Just because some annoy with what they post, it's hardly a burden. And poverty tourism isn't necessarily bad - depends on how it's done, involving a previously cut off section of society is a benefit.

    Commenter
    The brown note
    Date and time
    January 15, 2014, 12:18PM
    • You're serious?

      Commenter
      MN
      Date and time
      January 15, 2014, 12:39PM

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