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. Read on to see my personal nugget later in the post.
The popular scholarly views:
- Cultural entertainment
- Repressed sadism
- Dealing with eventuality of human mortality
…and my favourite coming from the director of Institute of Dark Tourism Research (real entity, honestly)
”People feel anxious before – and then better when they leave, glad that it’s not them,”
– Dr. Philip Stone
Simple enough, right? Of course not.
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.
With such a brilliant idea having been around for so long it is no surprise that there are ‘best of’ and ‘top 10’ lists for best Dark Tourism spots.
One thing I love about these lists is how clear they make the reason for the charm of Dark Tourism. All the places, owing to their past, now have a rich history and a great story. Travelling is all about great stories and the places they are made. Maybe dark locations are just that – locations; with effective backdrops and great merchandizing potential. Is that a bad thing? We will see in the next section. Read on.
You may have noticed the lack of Indian representation in the lists above. But that only shows India is not a top destination, but India was built on war and politics. There is enough Dark for the tourism here. Sample a few.
- Jallianwala Bagh massacre site
- Taj Mahal – the tomb of Mumtaz Mahal
- Rajghat – the Samadhi of Mahatma Gandhi
- 26/11 attack sites in South Mumbai – Taj hotel, Gateway of India, Nariman House
- The UCIL plant – Bhopal gas Tragedy site
An important question here would be about the lacking initiative by Tourism department to milk these cash cows, which nicely opens us up the ethical and moral problems that Dark Tourism faces.
Challenges with Dark Tourism:
Commercialisation v/s Memorialisation
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 glamorising 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 commercialisation v/s memorialisation.
Tourist destinations like any location of history are subject to the shortcomings of history – written by the victors.
Unsuspecting, unread visitors who are willing to the accept the text on the memorial plank as canon partake in much graver crimes that just being misinformed on the number of soldiers who lost their lives.
Take these two cases:
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 colours 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 exploited 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.
A great backdrop for pictures
This may sound frivolous but it’s not. Take the case of Toshifumi Fujimoto – the world’s most extreme tourist
Now see this tumblr blog
Dark tourism is not always damaging, but neither is it always helpful. Still, whether or not you approve of the practice, the essence of the ethical debate surely revolves around one key question: who’s really benefiting?
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 juxtaposed images of European backpackers 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
Travellers 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.