Zooming and Cropping Ancient Ruins
Tourists arrive in pairs and packs via air-conditioned buses, private taxis, rickshaws or rented bicycles. They shuffle toward the rope that separates them from three gigantic Buddhas carved from a single boulder. One is standing, the other meditating and the last is reclining—the Buddhas that is, not the tourists. They’re consumed by their cameras, desperately trying to get the perfect picture.
I find myself too preoccupied by the people admiring the Buddhas to actually admire the Buddhas.
A huge mob from Korea arrives: clean white socks, running shoes and knapsacks at their waists. They take turns snapping frantically with smart-phones and striking poses before the holy carving. A local Sri Lankan guide, apparently fluent in Korean, addresses them in their mother tongue, pointing at the ancient Buddha and providing them with details I’ll most likely never learn.
A group of stony faced men in fatigues, members of the Sri Lankan Army, stand solemnly before the figure. With patient order they take turns to clasp their palms together and salute the rock. After the ritual they slip crisp, hundred rupee bills into the collection box. Of all the onlookers, they appear the most pious and I feel that I should probably let them worship in peace but the clash of symbols consumes me and can’t help but try to snap some inconspicuous photos of them. I zoom in so that the photo contains only the soldiers and the Buddha.
The whiteys, mostly Europeans, are trying to play it cool. Some are adorned with DSLRs, staring seriously through viewfinders and fiddling importantly with lenses. The rest are cloistered in the shade of an adjacent boulder, quietly contemplating the sheer size of the colossal mannequin.
I’m perplexed by the behaviour of the tourists; all of us seem so preoccupied with photography and nobody really looks like they’re living in the moment.
“That structure surrounding it is horrible, it completely ruins any photo,” says a young, camera-clad English girl to an Australian guy with a blonde moustache.
She is referring to a huge, corrugated iron roof, held up by a series of steel pillars that looms over the Buddhas. It must be fifty metres across and twenty metres wide with no walls, just a covering apparatus, purpose built to conserve and protect the ancient relic from the elements. The Aussie guy doesn’t seem particularly interested but her assertion is semi-valid: the structure is ugly and it makes for a shitty photo. (Apparently so ugly that I could only find one very low-res picture of it online.)
But our disapproval of the protective structure reveals something more about us—we think it is ugly because it exposes the commercialisation of the attraction. While the carved Buddha inspires religious pride, speculation about history or an appreciation of the craftsmanship, the protective structure sort of reduces it to a cliché tourist attraction. Along with the donation boxes, the bins, the rope dividers and the signs that say DO NOT FEED THE MONKEYS, it represents the exact opposite of what travellers have been conditioned to crave: authenticity.
Authenticity equates to the obscure, the exotic, the highly preserved artefact of history/culture/art. Travellers want that ancient rock carving to be pristine, surrounded by nothing but nature. In order to remedy the disjuncture between obscure and commercial, between authentic and contrived, we frame our photographs in a way that presents only what we want to see. We zoom in on the Buddha itself and crop out the unsightly elements—other tourists, bins, signs, ropes, protective coverings—and by cropping our photographs we crop our conceptions of reality into something neat and untainted.
The thing is though, cropping these things out of a photo doesn’t make our experiences any more or less authentic. It just makes the photos nicer to look at. Then we can saturate the fuck out of them and attach a filter. But does this kind of photography depict reality or censor it?
Framing our photographs this way may partly be a kind of inadvertent protest against the feeling that millions of other people have come here and done exactly this, and, more pointedly, that tourism is an industry and this relic is a commodity. While the tourism industry thrives, authenticity becomes an increasingly difficult goal.
Which raises another question: does authenticity even exist?
Anthropologist Dean MacCannell claimed in The Tourist (1976) that to seek a truly authentic travel experience is futile because the tourism industry constantly creates and trades in “staged authenticity”. This is when an event or attraction is contrived for the benefit of the tourist.
Or maybe it’s all authentic. This whole thing: the carved Buddhas, the sweaty tourists, the frantic photography, the rope dividers, the signs and the ugly roof. It’s real tourism in 2015 in all it’s commercial glory and call it weird or contrived or grotesque, but it’s a pretty interesting package.
It’s all authentic, it’s just our photos that aren’t.