As a longtime photojournalist, Paris-based Ambroise Tézenas believes his role is to bear witness and not make judgments — even when confronted with an industry that has thrived on showcasing the worst evils and disasters of mankind as a sideline of tourism. The genesis of his “Dark Tourism” series (I Was Here and Tourisme de la Désolation) came about in 2004 when he was on holiday in Sri Lanka and a tsunami struck, derailing a train and causing the deaths of over 2,000 people. Four years later, he learned that tourists were now making pilgrimages to the site where he had encountered the tragic event and “the smell of death” — taking snapshots and having lunch. He wanted to understand the motivation, the fascination with real-life horror. So for the next five years he photographed the memorials to inhumanity and catastrophe, spurred as well by a book on the subject, Dark Tourism: The Attraction of Death and Disaster, by a Scottish professor named John Lennon (!).
“In France we are obsessed with memorial tourism,” says Tézenas. So it was natural for him to choose to make his macabre trajectory as a tourist rather than as a press person with special access. He sought to experience these sites — including Auschwitz, Chernobyl, the Killing Fields of Cambodia, Rwanda, a decommissioned prison in Latvia, and earthquake ruins in Sichuan, China — as the recreational diversion of ordinary travelers, in the unmodified packaging of tour operators. Mass death as consumable, and usually profitable, excursion offer. Survivors of any of these calamities, or their relatives, might feel a profound disconnect between the unfathomable human suffering that occurred there and the calm order that is imposed by the tour program itself. Tézenas’s fairly straightforward pictures capture some of the eeriness and dissociation, along with the ambivalence of those who see the value of remembrance yet question the sightseer nonchalance that these grim shrines seem to induce.
Perhaps to avoid any semblance of complicity, Tézenas shied away from making photographs that were in any way seductive, in fact discarding several he felt were “too beautiful.” Though they are clearly the work of a professional eye, the photographs keep a safe distance from aestheticizing hell on earth. Much of Tézenas’s past work has to do with capturing a sense of place (such as Beijing, Cuba, Morocco), and he brings these instincts to the task of recreating his journeys within the haunted testaments. His mission is always to ask questions about what this phenomenon might say about us, without condemnation. He remains as mesmerized by it as the rest of the visitors, and becomes one of them for the integrity of his project.
The fascination with evil, atrocity, and violent death is not a new thing, admits Tézenas. Romans throwing Christians to the lions, public executions, the Paris catacombs filled with thousands of skulls, not to mention the horror genre in literature that goes back centuries, and memento mori in Renaissance art … mortals have always stared unblinkingly at signs of grave mortality. But contemporary culture may have accelerated the appeal of such venues, by virtue of its instant-access global awareness, overriding bad taste, blood-soaked entertainment, and social media’s voracious appetite for newness, strangeness, and hard-core look-at-me experiences. “Extreme” is now a common pursuit, and a Nazi concentration camp or some other icon of unholy slaughter might be no more than a selfie-stick interlude to some. History as cabinet of curiosities for the leisure class, nothing sacred or taboo. The sheer absurdity of marketing sites of terror and abomination emerges in Tézenas’s images even as he keeps his documentary cool.
Ambroise Tézenas’s monographs on Dark Tourism, I Was Here and Tourisme de la Désolation, are published by Actes Sud (Paris). His series is on view at Rencontres d’Arles through September 20.
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