Heritage sites like Machu Picchu in Peru, architectural marvels such as the Great Wall or the Taj Mahal have always attracted tourists, seeking pleasure in the ancient human past, the reminders and remainders of civilisational achievements. Photographs, postcards and souvenirs from these places circulate as motifs of consumption and aspiration.
There exists, however, a wholly different order of ‘touristy’ materials, one formed by ruins and sites of disaster, remnants of industrial, ecological and other catastrophes, sites where the human grinds up against the inhuman. We might think of the constantly circulating images of the Two Towers as a recent instance of such an order. These are memorials, commemorating a dark event in human history.
A photographer who has specialised in memorialising such sites is Ambroise Tezénas (ambroisetezenas.com/serie/i-was-here). Tezénas has collected numerous pieces of his work in a book, I Was Here. The volume opens with the iconic Auschwitz-Birkenau State Museum. The massive iron gates, with its infamous inscription, continue to invoke some of the terror from the Nazi era and reinforce for us the power of symbols.
Tezénas then has views of the village Oradour-sur-Glane – called ‘martyr village’ – which witnessed a complete massacre of its population in 1944, the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum (Cambodia), where one room has ‘I was here’ inscribed on its walls. He devotes an entire section to Chernobyl, under the title ‘ecological/extreme tourism’. This contains images from abandoned/ghost towns such as Pripyat. The Rwandan Genocide Tour follows the Chernobyl section, with its disquieting masses of skulls of the massacred. On his website, he has the Wenchuan earthquake images as well.
Tezénas could well be accused of being unduly morbid, documenting such disasters and death. However, that would be a rather naïve dismissal of his work. Tezénas is an architect of memory. Memorialising is a part of human history. Memorialising and mourning contribute to the sense of belonging in many cases. A community of mourners, or those seeking answers to national disasters – such as the Mothers of the Plaza in Argentina, seeking the ‘disappeared’ – enable the citizenry to recognise a certain kind of history.
Development at a Cost
The empty streets of Pripyat remind us of a town reduced to a ghost-space, of lives lost or worse, permanently damaged. The rusted E 610 in the Union Carbide site – Bhopal does not figure in Tezénas’ work, incidentally, but let us not blame him for what he did not do and focus on what he has done – reminds us of a price paid for ‘development’.
Dark tourism of the kind Tezénas engages in is integral to the process by which we memorialise: what is it that we choose to remember? Victims of the Holocaust, and other genocides, have always declared ‘never again’ (but to no avail). For this slogan to acquire some affective and political purchase, it must accrue symbols that retain the horror for later generations. The ruin forces us to ‘walk the line between sentimental lament over a loss and the critical reclaiming of a past for the purposes of constructing alternative futures’, in the words of critic Andreas Huyssen who works on memory cultures in urban spaces.
Dark tourism recalls the horrific past not merely as a sentimental strategy but one calculated to force a debate on how else should we live, and how do we treat our less-fortunate, or our racial and cultural others?
Dark tourism, now a global phenomenon, is instrumental in the making of a new order of the public sphere as well. They produce compassionate publics, however temporary that may be. If the task of art is to generate awareness, consciousness and sentiment, then dark tourism does instil the chilling fear of a war, disaster, genocide and leads us to ask: do we see such signs around us now? Thus, dark tourism can generate public anxiety through these cultural memory sites.
Cultural memories, even as an industry, especially those around mourning and suffering, are sources of a historical past that do not figure in textbooks. A chapter on India’s modernisation or development is unlikely to educate anybody on Bhopal, which is precisely what a project like dark tourism offers – unofficial, vernacular, unsettling. Nations, we now know, are made of memories: it is the selection of which memories to retain and which to erase that is the centre of contention, and dark tourism offers us a set of alternatives to official memory.
These sites are palimpsests on and over which modernity, nationalism, consumer culture inscribe new stories, as attempts are made to erase the uncomfortable pasts. In cases where the post-industrial ruins are preserved (old mills in Bombay, factories around the country), these are shunned as haunted spaces. Tezénas revives an interest in them and calls us to pay attention to a necessary memory via the aesthetic of disaster.
There is, of course, the risk that this packaging of disaster as tourism runs the risk of commodifying suffering, mixing past and present into a consumer product (as Tim Edensor who has published extensively on industrial ruins argues), but that should not stop us from documenting these horrors, for the simple reason that to participate in forgetting the crime is to be complicit with the crime.
(The author is Professor, Department of English, University of Hyderabad)