See the World

Beach Day, Lahaina Maui, Winter 2011, taken by Tanya Nielsen

When I was a teenager, I had these two hideous doors to my closet. They were floor length, brown with white flecks of paint, and slid side-to-side on rollers. The doors stood out next to pale orange walls and attracted the eye of anyone who entered the room. I could not remove them because they were bolted into tracks at the top and bottom. I hated them, and because I could not get rid of them I decided to decorate them with images of all the places I wanted to see when I was older.

I would get brochures from the travel agencies or from magazines on traveling to exotic places, and collaged the photographs over those closet doors. My friends would send me postcards from wherever they went on vacation and those cards went up on my doors as well.

I would fall asleep to pictures of the Pyramids of Giza, the Great Wall of China, Caribbean beaches, the moors of the United Kingdom, and Stonehenge standing alone in a vast field. I saw daily those white houses in Greece, the villas in Tuscany, cathedrals, ruins, castles, Mardi Gras, canyons, mountains, and waterfalls. Basically, I focused on being anywhere but where I was. I had completely bought into what the travel brochures and magazines were selling me.

Much like what I discussed in Isn’t Culture Worth More Than a Thousand Words, the geographic landscapes I used to collage together on my closet doors were framed to provide very specific information about these far off, exotic places. In “Using Photographs as Illustrations in Human Geography,” Gillian Rose discusses how photography is used to provide information about places, and how people (especially academics) need to think carefully about what information is portrayed in photographs they are seeing, or using.

Rose describes how geographers have been using photography since the nineteenth century to convey what exotic lands are like (Rose 2008, 151) because they do so better than words or drawings can. However, photographs were often used without discussion (verbal or written) as to why they were being used, what information they were meant to portray, what context they were taken, and what the photographer/geographer thinks of them.

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The Miriam and Ira D. Wallach Division of Art: Photography Collection, from the New York Public Library. “Avenue of Date Palm, Honolulu, Hawaii.” The New York Public Library Digital Collections. 1920.http://digitalcollections.nypl.org/items/510d47e0-598c-a3d9-e040-e00a18064a99.

Without detailed context, images are left to be deconstructed by the viewer with their own understanding of what the images are meant to represent. What would people of the 1920s have thought of “Avenue of Date Palms, Honolulu, Hawaii”? It’s a photo of a dirt road through a jungle of palm tree and a white adult male, pointing his finger at small dark child. The landscape looks beautiful and exotic, though the road suggests a taming of this wildness; the man is dressed in modern American fashion while the child is not. For some, this image looks like an advertising for coloniality, but others may see the road as portraying accessibility, and the man demonstration that modern, everyday people go to, or live in, Hawaii. The photograph could be a travel advertisement, a family photo, or a demonstration of how tall palm trees grow. It could even be an image of the only road in Honolulu in the 1920s, unless we also look at “Honolulu, Hawaiian Islands.”

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The Miriam and Ira D. Wallach Division of Art: Photography Collection, from the New York Public Library. “Honolulu, Hawaiian Islands.” The New York Public Library Digital Collections. 1863-1868. http://digitalcollections.nypl.org/items/510d47e0-59c4-a3d9-e040-e00a18064a99.

 

This photograph portrays a more architecturally developed Honolulu, and it was taken more than fifty years before “Avenue of Date Palms, Honolulu, Hawaii.” This image negates the idea that Honolulu is a jungle of trees, and simple dirt roads. There is obvious development in “Honolulu, Hawaiian Islands” that is not portrayed in the other photo. By not critically thinking about an image used, or including an analysis of the image, academics are providing information about a place without considering how it effects that place, or people.

Geographers (and other academics) are now encouraged to consider and analyze images if they are going to use them as part of their research. Many of them provide context for photographs to demonstrate their purpose, what they are meant to convey, and how the content is part of a larger concept. While photographers and academics are including more details about the images they are using, it is still up to people to consider what it is they are seeing, who is using the photos, and why the images are being used. What is the motivation to use images in an argument? A personal blog? Or a travel agency?

I think about those images that I used to cover my closet door and I consider what it was about them that I liked so much. The images were designed to create an inviting impression, serenity, beauty, and something monumental. They were meant to bring out longing to travel, and give the impression that these places were within our grasp. I have especially been thinking about the picture of Stonehenge, in a vast field, away from civilization.

I saw it in 2012, and I saw that it was not as isolated as the travel pictures portrayed. There is a highway that runs nearby, and vehicles are constantly passing it. While this did disappoint me, I was quickly amazed when I saw Stonehenge. All the images I had seen did not come close to portraying the monolithic size of it. Maybe it is because most images have to be taken at a distance to capture the whole monument, or maybe it is because photographers want the implied isolation concept. Whatever the reason, I learned that the only way to really know what a place is like is to go and see it up close.

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Stonehenge Up Close, England 2012, taken by Tanya Nielsen

© Tanya Nielsen (tjn710@mun.ca),  2016

Rose, Gillian. “Using Photographs as Illustrations in Human Geography.” In Journal of Geography in Higher Education 32, no. 1 (2008): 151-160.

Images of Honolulu, Hawaii taken from The New York Public Library Digital Collection, http://digitalcollections.nypl.org/.

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