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Wednesday, February 4, 2009

The vanity portraits of today's young ego-trippers. The focus? Forget about the journey or the destination. It's them, themselves and their friends.

For me, travel has always been about the destination and the journey: there and getting there. And then once there it's about the culture and people as much as the place. But I'm wondering how important either are to today's youngest travellers, those in their late teens to very early twenties. Driving along the Great Ocean Road, considered to be one of Australia's Great Drives, a few days ago, we stopped at The 12 Apostles, striking limestone rock formations considered to be a highlight of the scenic route. I'd visited them before, but that doesn't explain why this time I was struck more by the groups of young tourists visiting the site than the rock stacks themselves. In our three months on the road in Australia, it was the first time since Uluru that we'd seen tour bus after tour bus pull up to the site and witness such large groups of tourists. But these groups were different. They'd troop off the bus, charge to the viewing platform, whip out their cameras or mobile phones, and take photos of... themselves. With barely a glance at the rocks, they'd position themselves in front of the view, hand their camera or phone to their friend, and pose. Paris Hilton-stances seemed to be preference of the North American girls while peace signs proved perennially popular with the young Japanese. Once they'd checked the shot was to their satisfaction (believe me, there were a lot of re-shoots taking place), they'd swap cameras and positions with their friend and return the favour. Then, without so much as a glance at the sight, they'd move on to the next vantage point, and snap pics of themselves all over again. Down on the beach below was an extreme example of this phenomenon: two girls in bikinis spent an excruciatingly long amount of time posing and taking turns to shoot each other's photos as if they were swimwear models on a fashion shoot. Admittedly, Victoria's iconic tourist attraction wasn't looking too pretty against the foggy grey skies, but I don't know about you, I still like to take time to take the vistas in and appreciate the scene for what it is. These young travellers seemed more intent on using the setting merely as wallpaper for their vanity portraits. Of course I'm generalising now, but is it just me or does this young generation of ego-trippers (is it Gen Y or Z, I can't keep up) seem far more interested in documenting themselves than the world around them?


Anonymous said...

I'm struck by three things about this post.

The first is that you're getting old. No, just kidding, the first is actually that I think this kind of tourist has always existed, at least as long as I've been traveling around. The discussions about going into yet another church/museum/ruin that they would never have visited in their own towns, was a discussion I recall overhearing 25 years ago.

I am also reminded that we aren't very well trained to be tourists. I know that for all of the travel I've done, it took me fifteen years to work out, as you have, that the destination and the moments unique to a site are enriched by engaging with locals in a non-touristy and meaningful way.

I also think that there is a huge difference between people who travel to experience and people who travel to kill time. And we are told by the travel industry and the broader community that travel is something that we should enjoy and that we should combine with the relaxation of our vacation period, so trying to transport their everyday (taking photos of themselves for Facebook) probably speaks to the success of the tourism industry in realising how the average person wants it to align with their own view of the world.

And finally, sadly, the capacity to travel the world doesn't really make people more worldly. Ya know?

Pam said...

During our time in Hawaii, we were often surrounded by Japanese travelers doing exactly what you describe - off the bus, snap snap, back on the bus... I can't comment on the North Americans, but I do know that in spite of their rushed sightseeing, the kids we saw - they were from, say 16 to their young 20s - were unflaggingly cheerful. They were in a hurry, but they seemed to be a big mobile ice cream social, chatty, always saying hello to us, and then, whoosh, gone. I certainly wouldn't go so far as to say all Japanese travelers are like that, but there's a method to that kind of travel and it usually involves a schedule that doesn't allow the kind of slow observation that types like us prefer.

They're just getting started. They think they have a lot of turf to cover and aren't yet tuned in to the joys of slow.

Lara Dunston said...

Hi Sandy - fantastic points! Totally agree! And look, yes, I think I am getting old to be honest! ;)

This is a different kind of tourist to the one you're describing, however... sure, there has always been the kind of tourist equally (if not more) interested in documenting that they were *there* as (or, rather than) experiencing the *there*.

And we still see that kind of travel documentation (or "commemoration" as one guy who Stumbled this post wrote) all the time. No doubt about it.

(And look, I certainly do it myself some times if it's somewhere I've always wanted to go or somewhere my Mum has wanted to go and would love to see a pic of me there, but I tend to be too busy snapping a million pics of the place so my memory doesn't fail me, and just taking in the atmosphere and detail.)

But this new, younger tourist isn't even bothering with looking at the place at all it seems, and often isn't even bothering including it as any point of focus in the shot. It might appear around the edge of a close-up vanity shot or out-of-focus in a wide-shot. What is centre-frame and in-focus is the person - and they're generally striking some kind of Red Carpet pose or one leg forward, knee bent and hand-on-hip like a beauty queen, or worse, like one of those girls on the beach, a Playboy-type pose.

Terry witnessed a lot of this when he was shooting in Venice earlier in the year - and he says photographers are also blogging about it - I might ask him to write about it too from a photographer's POV.

But the way I see this change in tourism practice is that it's an extension of the behaviour of the YouTube/Facebook/RealityTV generation etc - this is how they 'do' tourism.

Thanks again for your thought-provoking comments! :)

Lara Dunston said...

Hi Pam

Thanks for commenting! I think the way the Japanese kids on the tour groups were behaving is a way that all tour groups tend to behave - we see a lot of it in Europe and they're from all over the world. Their schedules are so full and time is so tight they just want to make sure they get a photo so they can remember where they've been.

Add to that the fact that they were in their late teens - they're part of a new generation traveller who seems more interested in gathering content for their Facebook pages (or blogs!) than actually experiencing the place.

With the North American kids, I think there's an additional factor coming into play. My husband Terry (a professional photographer) tells me that there's some kind of 'tradition' (and it may be recent) of getting vanity shots done upon graduation. And with this comes a whole repertoire of poses - many of these while probably initially inspired by the college year book portraits have been influenced by popular culture and the media, from the Paris Hilton pre-club pose, or the Red Carpet.

So, add that practice to tourism practice, and I think that's what's going on here... these kids weren't interested in looking at the place at all, all they seemed interested in was how the background might enhance their portrait and help shape the identity (of the cosmopolitan perhaps?) that they want to project. I find this kind of self-obsession rather sad, but fascinating at the same time.

Anonymous said...

Lara - The vanity shot graduation thing has been around for many years. The Paris Hilton posing thing you mentioned though is something completely new. How embarrassing that the "Ugly American" has given way to this!

Lara Dunston said...

Hi Travel Muse - Oh, tell me more about the vanity shots! I find it intriguing. I'm sure it's not only Americans - I definitely detected a couple of Canadian accents among some of the girls I spied. And a few of the Japanese girls were doing the 'Red Carpet' stance. I'm sure it's more representative of a particular age group rather than a nation, so don't worry!

Anonymous said...

I've seen tons of this.

If there are 3 people, they need to take every combination of photo of the 3 people. 3 photos of each one solo, 3 photos of each possible pair of people, then a shot with all 3.

I can't help but think they have very skeptical friends.

Friend: So you went to Australia? I don't believe you Liar!

Tourist: No, I have photos of me in front of everything. See? I was there!

Friend: Ok. With photographic evidence, I believe you.

I should note that there is another type of Japanese tourist I've encountered a few times on my trip. They are the exact opposite of what you've described. They have ridiculously good camera gear and will painstakingly set up every shot. I was on a dive boat in Palau with a Japanese couple that must of had $20,000 of camera and video gear with them. I've seen similar amateur photographers in other places.

Terence Carter said...

Yes, Sandy, Lara is getting old. She doesn't 'get' the music that these young kids are listening to either ;-)

I have to agree that I've seen far more 'posed' shots being done over the past 12 months at tourist sights than I can ever remember. It's hard for me not to burst out laughing when I see how seriously these young girls strike these poses that are fashion and 'glamour' staples. For these girls, the destination is reduced to a 'location shoot' and instead of having their 15 minutes of fame, they're famous for 15 people in their facebook group. It's hard to see them as anything but vacuous and vain.

Gary, you can't believe photographic evidence anymore, I can put myself anywhere in the world on my MacBook Pro's 'photobooth' software, not to mention Photoshop...

The 'pro-ams', as I like to call them -- amateurs with pro gear are over the top. I'd hate to be a wedding photographer these days, many guys tell me that the guests often have better gear than they have!

Anonymous said...

Lara - The graduation headshots date back to the 1950's. My mother has a beautiful black and white posed one that makes her look like a movie star. I think this all originates from what we see in magazines here in the States. Glamour, Elle and Harpers are always doing their "behind the scenes" photoshoot/travel pieces and I think that the young ones have taken it to heart and just cast themselves as the models.

Lara Dunston said...

Hi Travel Muse - oh, that's so intriguing - I'd love to see those old shots! I imagine they are very different to some of the ones done today. I think you're right about the girls today being inspired by the glamour magazines - Terry said that the girls he saw in Venice were using professional photographers! I'm so curious how they managed to hire local Italian photographers... fascinating stuff.

Anonymous said...

I don't think generation X will do that. Most of the time when I travel, its all about the places I go, history and place of interest. Not taking picture of me. Unless that travel is for photo shot.
See you around.

Lara Dunston said...

Hi lunaticg!

I'm generation X too (child of a baby boomer) and I'm like you. Which is why I'm wondering if it's a generational thing...

Thanks for dropping by! :)

Mark H said...

I'd hate to attend a Japanese photo night - here is my mother and I in front of the opera house, here is my father and I in front of the opera house, here is...

It is strange that people feel obliged to be in there photos. Last time I was at the 12 Apostles I saw much the same phenomenon where people seemed truly uninterested in this amazing sight. Maybe for them, travel is the comraderie rather than where they visit. For overseas folks visiting Australia, it seems an expensive form of comraderie to me.

Lara Dunston said...

Hi Mark - Oh, that's hilarious. So what about a photo night at the American Gen Y girls' flat then? "This is me doing my Nicole Ritchie look? Oh, and here I'm doing a Paris pout... but what do you think of my Angelina stance?"

And you make a great point about the comraderie. And what's wrong with that? Gosh, that's a factor I always overlook. Maybe the 12 Apostles is not a 'once-in-a-lifetime' trip for them. Maybe they'll return when they're older and more mature and will slow down and spend time taking it in... I think you're onto something there...

Thanks for stopping by!

Scott Jones said...

I hear what you're saying, but I can't help but to imagine a wine expert complaining about his kids who only drink wine to get loaded. The kids can't believe what an elitist snob the father can be and wonders why he can't understand that they are solely seeking fun, while the father can't believe the kids don't "get" the subtle dynamics of wine and celebrate it the way he does.

Each has their own motivations, expectations, and goals for travel. I suspect that the girls you're talking about don't see themselves as travelers out to experience the world - I suspect that the "travel" is much more about experiencing the journey with these friends than it is about the location. In fact, I'd submit that there's a good chance that those girls could have had similar experiences if they had found themselves walking down a dusty ranch fenceline instead of at a bolded guidebook entry. The location was obviously secondary to their primary motivator. That's not necessarily a bad thing, even though I myself would certainly be focused far more on the object I had endured a noisy and cramped tourbus ride to see.

I've just started reading travel blogs, as I'm getting ready to launch my own in the coming weeks (, though I'm still designing the site and writing the initial content). I'm on a quest to visit each of the nearly 400 units of the National Park Service with my wife here in America. It's a great way to see this country in a way that few do - to enjoy both the stunning natural beauty and learn more about its unique and complicated history.

What I've found is that a strong majority of travel blogs are focused on international travel and implicitly repeat, seemingly as an unbreakable rule, that the ultimate goal is experiencing the local culture in an unfiltered way. I think that's a laudable and interesting way to travel - but I also acknowledge that there are many whose motivation for travel is significantly different. As an example, I have some good friends who do a fair amount of US-based travel each year. But they only visit natural places. Period. There's nothing wrong with them, they see most cities as shades of the same color and they want to experience a wider rainbow of colors. They aren't going to reach out to local peoples and certainly not embrace local culture, as that's not why they are visiting. They simply want to see and experience the diversity of natural settings available in the country, they want to glimpse unknown fauna and inspect foreign flora. That's their motivation, what drives them to travel. But in my (notably cursory) review thus far, that's significantly different than why most travel bloggers travel.

To each their own.


PS - I hope I didn't offend or place blame, that's not my intention.

Lara Dunston said...

Hi Scott

Of course you haven't offended - these kinds of considered comments are exactly what I was hoping for when I started Cool Travel Guide. I very much want to think about the reasons why we all travel, what inspires us, how we travel, etc, and have some dialogue about that. I find too few places where there's the opportunity to do so.

Mark H above also raised the issue of comraderie/camaraderie, and it's something I want to start to think about and explore. I haven't done so yet because I have to admit that during my travels it's rare that I see groups of friends travelling together simply to be together - unless they're on a hen's night or buck's night.

I have friends in Australia who do so, however; they go away on big camping trips together (families of up to 40!), while another older friend organizes a couple of annual trips for her "Wombats & Wogs" group comprised of Anglo-Aussies and Italian-Aussies who've been friends for several decades and who travel overseas and around Australia together a couple of times a year. I guess it's just something I haven't explored because I don't see it often.

"To each their own" is a good point. I'm all for travel, however, people do it, as long as they get out and do it, whether it's for broadening the mind or simply for fun.

Your blog sounds like a fantastic idea - I'm a huge fan of the national park experience myself - and I'm sure there'll be lots of appeal both to Americans and foreigners looking to get more out of their US experiences.

Especially with - and I hate to use the term - the "staycation" becoming an increasingly popular choice for travellers all the world, with people choosing to treat exploration of their home town, region or state with as much focus as they might give an overseas trip.

Re your comment about so many travel blogs being focused on international travel, and those blogs ultimate goal being experiencing the local culture in an unfiltered way... I think those bloggers are just writing about what they're doing, what interests them and what they want out of travel. In my case, I'm an Australian who moved to the United Arab Emirates in 1998 and since then have been travelling the world, whether for pleasure, or in recent years, my work as a travel writer, so I just write about the places I'm going to and the things I'm thinking about. So it can't help but be 'international'.

For me personally, experiencing the local culture is one of the most enriching parts of travel, whatever that might entail - whether it's just getting to know some locals in Milan and having some drinks with them, or going out falconing with some local boys in Dubai. Perhaps those travellers who travel for fun, and to be with their friends, are simply less inclined to blog. Or perhaps you just haven't accessed those blogs yet - and if you did, how riveting would the experience be... I guess 'Girlfriend Getaways' would fall into this category and there are lots of those kinds of blogs about, The Lost Girls being one of the most sophisticated versions because they threw away their jobs and went for a year, rather than a summer vacation.

Your point about a lot of the writing being "unfiltered" is a great one. I often wonder about this myself... I can't help but be critical of our own travel experiences, whether it's a hotel stay or restaurant meal, or a museum or some other attraction, because we're travel writers so all day every day we're critiquing what we're doing and whether we want to send people to these places, deciding whether there are things we need to warn people about, get them to consider, etc.

But I'm often surprised by the blogs I read where people just write about the Eiffel Tower and wasn't it a wonderful experience, without questioning that experience nor telling people about the excruciating long lines, and raising the suggestion that perhaps if they're only there for a few days there might be other things they could do and simply enjoy the Eiffel Tower from the lawn below with a picnic and bottle of red wine.

But when I dig beneath the surface of those sorts of blogs, I often discover that those people haven't been to the Eiffel Tower, they're not really blogging about their recent trip to Paris, they're just blogging about travel for the sake of it, just regurgitating content they've read elsewhere, perhaps for the google $, or simply so they can travel vicariously through their own writing...? I don't know. What do you think?

Thanks for dropping by - and for your very thoughtful comments.

Anonymous said...

Hi Lara,
I can't believe I missed this post from you!But now that I have read it, I am keeling over with laughter. You hit the nail on the head with this post (pun intended?). I see these young ones nowadays, and they're in their 20's and they have all mastered their best angles and their signature poses. And this drives me absolutely insane! It's an epidemic amongst the younger set.

That's not to say I haven't taken a picture or two of myself, because I have. However, I don't think it was to that (vain) degree. After all, I just had to have some memories of my first backpacking trip, my wedding, and my honeymoon. other than that, most things are just in my head...

P.S. We didn't even have a photographer at our wedding. We were just lucky that some guests decide to bring their cameras. We just asked eveyone to email us the photos. :) I'll actually post one of my most cherished photo from my wedding on my blog as kind like a "Photo Friday" sort of exercise.

-Jen LacedaFolie a Deux

Lara Dunston said...

Hi Jen

I'm glad you see it too! Terry and I 'eloped' to Las Vegas a long time ago and got married in the Little White Chapel and we didn't get photos. We just have our memories. But I like your idea of getting others to email pics. Nice. I once heard about a girl who went travelling (a friend of Terry's perhaps) and she went travelling and only had people take pics of her. She'd hand them her camera, but it sounds interesting cause each of them would have been in a different style, different point of focus and so on. I like the sound of that.

Anonymous said...

I have teenage children and that's just what they're like and have always been like.

At that age, all the enjoyment you have in life is about doing things with your friends - you could be on the moon or the North pole but it's being with the friends that matter.

I think you just have to accept this and hope that maybe 5% of what those kids see will rub off and they'll catch the travel bug for life like I did.

This was my philosophy when I agreed to take my 14 yr old daughter to Berlin this spring - along with 3 of her bestest friends to make the trip more fun. I'm hoping that when she has a duaghter of her own she'll have some vague memory of something other than the shopping.

Lara Dunston said...

Hey Heather

Good to hear from a mother of teenagers on this one!

But you know what, what we've been seeing is something different to teens just having fun together because in many cases it's not teens wanting photos taken of them with their friends, but more the fact they want photos of themselves (taken individually) in these poses. It's definitely more about vanity than friendship.

With your kids, I think they'll definitely travel differently as a result of their travels with you as adults. Maybe they'll travel more with friends. But they'll have those memories and those interactions will rub off making them more worldly young people in the process. They are so lucky to have you as a mother.

Eva said...

At the Grand Canyon last summer, I actually saw some girls climb over a barricade (and get shockingly close to a crumbly edge) to get an unimpeded canyon backdrop for their seductive/dramatic poses.

I think of it as the "America's Next Top Model" effect. I think the show (and its diffusion through the pop culture atmosphere) has given people a new awareness of themselves in front of a camera. So where, in the old days, you might take a look, then stand grinning in front of whatever you just looked at for the shot, now you have to set it all up like you're Jay Manuel on a professional shoot.

And then strike your best "broken-down doll" editorial pose, or your best catalogue, etc...

Lara Dunston said...

Hi Eva

I think you've hit the nail on the head! You are so right!

Penguin Lover said...

Personally, I feel travelling is about having fun and fond memories. If the girls or whomever else are having fun, just let them be. Would we rather they not have fun but just have lots of pictures of the attractions? My two cents worth.

Lara Dunston said...

Hi Penguin Lover

I guess if I was their mother I'd want them to bring away something more from the trip than just photos of themselves and when I asked them "How was your time in Australia?" I'd want them to say more than just "We had fun!"

I guess I'd want them to be able to at least describe the places they saw and think that they learnt a bit about them. I can't ever imagine these girls being able to say where they'd been when they didn't take 5 seconds to look around them.

But each to our own, right? I just think it's a long way to travel (and no doubt expensive for their parents) to just have some fun.

But then each to their own. Some people do simply travel for fun. Others want some fun, but they also want something more... even as kids.

I don't know... what did you want from travel at their age? We're talking late teens early 20s?

And thanks for your "two cents"! Much appreciated.