Tina Enghoff, a photographer from Denmark, has a peculiar practice. She visits houses, in Scandinavia, of people who have recently deceased and takes pictures of their place. Her photo albums, and even one exhibition, is constituted completely of eerie portraits of lives of people who lived until recently, told entirely through their furniture, walls and personal belongings. If you ask her why, Tina will tell you
“because you can tell a lot about a person’s life by seeing where they died.”
This may sound too morbid a pursuit to be of your taste but do not dismiss it as dominion of the artistically eccentric and the hopelessly existentialist. If the numbers on Dark Tourism are to be believed you may very well be a part of this tradition without outright acknowledging it.
To begin, let’s first demystify the nomenclature. The connotations that the term dark tourism comes with can simply be set aside by considering the alternates –thana-tourism (after the Greek Death god Thanos), grief tourism, tragedy tourism, phoenix tourism. It is just a collective term for travelling seeking fascination of death and the dying.
Scholars have been mulling over the reasons why death attracts so many and just as many scholarly-sounding theories abound.
The popular educated view
– Cultural entertainment.
– Repressed sadism.
– Dealing with eventuality of human mortality.
and my favorite coming from the director of Institute of Dark Tourism Research,
“People feel anxious before – and then better when they leave, glad that it’s not them” – Dr. Philip Stone, Director iDTR
We are dealing with the metaphysical conundrum of death with something as modest as travelling. You may have guessed that there is more to it than meets the eye and you would be correct.
This fascination with dead people’s places is not a modern invention. Early examples of dark tourism may be found in the patronage of Roman gladiatorial games and public executions in medieval times. The Roman coliseum has been referred to as the first Dark Tourist attraction while public executions whetted the appetite of an entertainment starved masses.
Sample a few Indian Dark Tourism Sites
– JallianwalaBagh massacre site
– TajMahal – the tomb of MumtazMahal
– 26/11 attack sites in South Mumbai – Taj hotel, Gateway of India, Nariman House
– The UCIL plant – Bhopal gas Tragedy site
– Bhangarh Fort, Rajasthan
The ethical and moral dilemma of Memorization v/s Commercialization
Turning a place of disaster into a tourist attraction overtly has a tone of beneficence – informing people on the plight of the affected and keeping the memory alive; maybe even avoid a future disaster. But the line between consciousness raising and raising capital soon begins to blur and becomes just another victim of disaster at the place.
Add to that the media attention and the glamorizing that comes with it. Very often we see the plot getting out of hand. Not always is the story about tour operators making obscene amounts of money out of tragedy. Sometimes it’s a tragedy of its own.
Take the case of Alicia Esteve Head (aka Tania Head) who claimed to be a survivor of 9/11 attacks. Investigation later showed she had only witnessed those events on television in her native Spain. She travelled to New York and attended survivor’s meetings in Manhattan. Eventually she even became their very prominent spokesperson. All the while, lying about herself.
What motivated her? Was it attention? Was it need to be part of the tragedy?If only she could answer the question of commercialization v/s memorialisation.
Tourist destinations like any location of history are subject to the shortcomings of history – written by the victors.
Unsuspecting visitors who are willing to accept the text on the memorial plank as canon, partake in more than just being misinformed on the number of soldiers who lost their lives.
Take these two instances…
Black history: After slavery was abolished in America, the cotton plantations which were a hotbed for exploiting the African American community became Dark Tourism spots, with tourists of all colors flocking to either commend on how things have changed for the better or comment on how things have hardly changed. Such plantations were known by the wooden planks that detailed the history of the supposedly benevolent white family that owned and housed, rather than exploit the blacks. The African-Americans obviously knew the other side of the story and after a bitter legal battle it became necessary to include both histories – the white and the black – at such locations.
Gays of Auschwitz: You may think that having survived the Nazi Holocaust as a Jew would mean the end of all travails for a lifetime. But you haven’t taken the homophobic zeitgeist into account then. Gay Jews had to fight for right to be represented on the international stage about the persecution they faced in Nazi Germany. No concentration camp tour wants to mention ‘gay victims’ as a special category.
If you are a believer in the theory that all time exists together – that there is no separate past, present and future but one simultaneous – you can easily marvel at the slapstick macabre in juxtapose images of tourists in shorts and tight fitting t-shirts carrying massive bags eyeing attentively the hordes of Tutsi tribe kids being slaughtered in the Hotel Rwanda genocide at Murambi, Africa – now a world famous museum with table displays of children skulls and mummified remains.
The fact is Dark Tourism is an ‘after the fact’ activity. Like with any such undertaking it is necessary to take into account the fact and be mindful of a few things.
The Dark Tourist Commandments
-Respect the location.
-Respect the history.
Travelers have tasted the spectrum of human experience. The more you travel more you come to terms with the impermanence of human life. This revelation may in some trigger the desire to visit places which have become monuments to human endings. Dark tourism deftly combines beginnings and ends into a single trip like no other trip can.
This post is published with contribution from Sahil Siddique.
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