Tag Archives: authenticity

photogenic authenticity

228688_18407733720_1136_nThis post asks: how does the concept of ‘authenticity’ engage and articulate across the phenomenology of tourism as practice, and, in particular, with the ‘tourist gaze’ as embodied experience? This question is more specifically approached through the lens of photography, focusing on the production of what I call ‘photogenic authenticity.’[2] Through looking more closely the example of image production at the South Pentecost gol, I seek to untangle something of the lines of friction and fission by which ideas and understandings of authenticity—both academic and touristic—are engaged with phenomenological and emotional responses—of amazement, for instance—such as are involved in embodied acts of ‘being there.’

The fact that the topic of authenticity has generated so much debate within tourism studies attests to the enormous power and value of that concept within the broader tourism industry. This includes its importance to the creative processes of ‘destination’ branding and marketing, the motivations and evaluations of tourists who visit those places, and the actions and identities of local communities who can be found living and ‘performing’ there (for a cogent discussion, see Belhassen and Caton 2006). However, as the following critique hopefully makes clear, it also has resonances and effects that permeate both across and beyond these overlapping contexts. Indeed, given the power of its continuing ‘aura’ – ‘the unique phenomena of a distance (Benjamin 1968:222) – and in light of the complex, cross-culturally problematic, objectifying and often contradictory effects it so-often produces, any abandonment of the term authenticity would entail throwing out the ‘real’ baby with the post-structuralist bath water. What is important—to this aspiring anthropologist, at least—is not only the question of whether things or acts should or should not be considered ‘authentic’ in or of themselves—by academics, tourists, or ‘others’—but rather how such concepts and ascriptions of authenticity are put into strategic operation by them, and how they articulate with other concepts and phenomena, in actual practice.

Rather than being considered an intrinsic attribute of things, authenticity is typically treated in contemporary scholarly analyses as a discursive and epistemological category that is used to ascribe a relative value to things (eg. Taylor 1999). Thus we might consider that the idea of authenticity primarily speaks to processes of distantiation, objectification and re-appropriation, in relation to powerful and culturally-specific ‘regimes of truth’ (after Foucault 2002 [1969]). Indeed, this feature can readily be seen to link the important analytic distinction that has been made between ‘object authenticity’ and ‘existential authenticity’ (Wang 1999): whether viewed as an intrinsic attribute of objects or as the existential ‘inner’ goal of subjects, the idea of authenticity speaks to the desire to acquire the ‘genuine article’, or to get (back) in touch with the ‘real me’, as distinguished from things (or selves) that are by contrast deemed ‘fake’. What Wang’s distinction also makes clear is that any analytic attempt to evaluate (or ‘resolve’, as Burns puts it) the experienced authenticity of tourism-related events or encounters is far from moot. Rather, and as the so-called ‘Invention of Tradition’ debate so vividly demonstrated (for a summary, see Otto and Pederson, 2000), such analyses must be understood as politically engaged acts, especially in so far as they ultimately entail the sticky (and often disrespectful) business of evaluating the relative ‘value’ or ‘truth’ of other people’s lived identities.


The Pentecost Gol: An anthropologist and tourist’s ‘existential’ Vignette

The south Pentecost gol (or ‘land dive’ as it is more commonly known in English), has emerged as one of the world’s most spectacular and iconic cultural tourism ‘products’, and is key to the branding of Vanuatu as a destination (for an extended description and analysis, see Jolly 1994). During the months of March to June, and with performances staged two or three times a week, tourists flock to see men jumping from 50 to 70 foot wooden towers with liana vines tied to their ankles. Local brokers exploit the event’s obvious visual appeal, charging four or five times or more for tourists who wish to use cameras, and more again for those using video. Indeed, the dive hosts numerous high-budget documentary film makers on a yearly basis.[3]

For one group of around fifty with whom I shared the experience, as it is for most tourists, the tour lasted no more than five hours, including travel; enough time for the one hour flight from the capital Port Vila and short walk to one of several towers which are erected close to the air strip, a brief explanation of the event and its history, the jump itself, and return.[4]. After alighting from our twin otter aircraft and meeting some other tourists who had arrived to stay at a nearby guesthouse the day before, we were led up the hill to the site of the towering gol. The performers themselves—members of a single village, I was told—arrived on a small ‘banana boat’ at the same time as we tourists, and quickly went off to find a secluded place in which to change into their costumes.

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Soon after we arrived at the dive site, the touristic ‘scene’ developed in a haphazard manner, adding an air of ‘naturalism’ and contributing to a growing sense of excited anticipation. Amid the exotic crescendos and decrescendos of song emanated from a traditionally clad group of male and female dancers performing immediately below the tower, tourists mingled and jostled for the best viewing positions as male performers prepared their vines. All the while a commentary was provided by way of megaphone, including the ‘kastom story’ from which the practice was said to have originated: that of a woman fleeing her angered husband by climbing a banyan tree, and tricking him into jumping to his death (see Jolly 1994: 134).

As Lindstrom has explored in his discussion of postcards (2006), indigenous bodies have long been an integral feature of tourism-related image production and consumption for Vanuatu:

Vanuatu’s position as an exotic locale on the global tourist circuit stocks its gift shops with images of spectacularly decorated, painted, young, good-looking, sexual and generically naturalized people often engaged in ceremonial events. Certain body parts in particular – painted faces, eyes, breasts, penises and smiles – speak to touristic desires to experience the sexily romantic and the entertainingly exotic (Lindstrom 257).

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During this build-up, there was much for us to focus our cameras upon which accorded to this touristic ideal of ‘photogenic authenticity’ for Vanuatu, including especially the ‘Margaret Mead Effect’ (Lindstrom 2006: 272) of exotically attired male and female Melanesian bodies, including mothers with babies, and children. Indeed, the first people to perform the gol, jumping from the lowest diving platforms, were boys, the youngest being around six years old. Clearly afraid, and sometimes in tears, these performers showed us mainly Western tourists that we were not only witnessing an ‘authentic’ and deeply foreign ritual event. The inclusion of children also had the effect of evoking a sense of emotional empathy and connection. Thus a theme of radical cultural difference and human sameness emerged as an important precursor to the main act.

What are on central display at the gol are powerful and muscular adult male bodies. For both locals and tourists, albeit in different ways, the land-dive speaks to intimately entangled ideas of masculine strength, health and beauty. As Jolly writes, the jump is considered therapeutic by the performers themselves, for the broader local community, diving ‘is seen as a expression of the hot, risk-taking, and aggressive powers of young men—the powers that were in the past associated with the bwahri—the warrior’ (Jolly 1994: 135). For tourists, this performance of male beauty and power also evokes European fantasies and anxieties relating to racialised stereotypes concerning black ‘savagery’, including a heightened sense of physical and sexual prowess (see also Lindstrom 2006: 276). But the land dive’s spectacular appeal is not simply based on visually exotic difference. In emphasising corporeality and risk, it moves beyond this. The land dive is about male bodies and their strengths, but what is more importantly emphasised for onlookers is their fragile impermanence. The event thus evokes a universalised sense of human transcendence.

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Witnessing the performance entails a strong sense of embodied physicality for tourists as well as performers. ‘As I saw it’, just as the ‘native’ male performing bodies were revealed for our consumption in the form of visual ‘objectification’, the power-effects of this ‘tourist gaze’ was disrupted and challenged phenomenologically. With pulses racing, necks straining, eyes squinting against the bright sky, and with fingers poised on camera buttons anxiously anticipating that perfect moment of flight—click—our scopophilia was shot through with a profoundly embodied sense of awe, and of privilege at having experienced being an I-witness below to the truly spectacular. Indeed, as each successive performer dived from higher than the last, I found myself feeling uncannily disempowered—‘small’, as one fellow tourist described it to me. Here, the emotional and psychological effect of witnessing men jump from the highest platforms was so profound that questions of cultural authenticity receded, eclipsed, for a few moments at least, by wonder at the athletic powers of the human body at its limits. As one blogger put it (on the ironically named website realtravel.com) the experience is “unreal!”

PA and the Spectacular image one

While individual tourists will respond differently—these are, after all, unique and deeply personal experiences—what I’d like to emphasise is the uncanny sense of simultaneous human difference and sameness that experiencing the gol evoked, both for me and the several tourists whom I travelled. On theoretical terms, this relates to the complex and experiential articulation that takes place between ‘object’ and ‘existential’ authenticity in actual practice, especially at spectacular events such as the land dive. Along with the satisfaction of visual desires for an objectified photogenic authenticity, the act of ‘capturing’ the ‘other’ at a distance is disrupted by a sense of authentic experience—of raw and embodied spontaneity and direct emotional responce—that also encouraged a feeling of common humanness. At this point desires to memorialise this now shared ‘existential authenticity’ were fulfilled photographically at the conclusion to the jump. Before descending to the plane that returned us to the safety of our hotel rooms, we were also given the opportunity to pose with the male performers, and to create photographic proof not only of their status of being I-witness to the spectacular, or perhaps of having transcended racial and cultural difference and engaged in a sincere encounter, but of a more fundamentally embodied sense of shared experience—not just “I saw”, but “we did!”.


Photogenic Authenticity and The Embodied Gaze

Photography, like authenticity, is typically understood to operate according to powerful epistemologies of proof and evidence (Sontag 1977), with photographs being interpreted by way of some form of evaluative understanding of ‘reality’. In the case of documentary or touristic photography involving human subjects, these objectifying processes are often imbued with further existential significance; along with the powerful idea that a moment caught on camera is rendered ‘as it really happened’, people caught on film appear, ‘as they really are’. Thus photographs might be seen to represent the ultimate form of evidence of an ‘I-witness’ encounter. But, do they?

Just as sharing photographic images of touristic encounters with friends back home are often accompanied by caveats that ‘the photo doesn’t really do it justice, you had to be there!’, embodied acts of I-witnessing move beyond this analysis. As already suggested, in exploring these murky interstices, I have tried to keep in mind two overlapping but distinct senses of authenticity (amongst many). The first pertains to artefacts or events that are (typically) considered to be more valuable than others due to some perceived quality of genuineness, uniqueness or originality. The second to the idea of a ‘true self’. Thus a distinction can be drawn between ‘object authenticity’ on one hand—the relation between originals and subsequent re-productions—and ‘existential’ or ‘subject authenticity’ on the other—the relation between subject and role, or self and performance, and also often relating to an idea of spontaneous and therefore more ‘truthful’ representations of self as against preconceived performances or pretentions of self (see especially Wang 1999). This crucial distinction is often completely neglected in academic literature on tourism (Steiner and Reisinger 2006:299), resulting in skewed analyses that overlook the complex articulations, ironies, and inter-subjective experiences that imbue tourism encounters.

One area in which this is especially apparent is in discussions of the important, but all-too-easily reductive notion of the ‘tourist gaze’ (especially Urry 1990). In a classic example, Albers and James uncritically conflated a perception of relative ‘object authenticity’ with ‘subjective authenticity’ on the part of performing locals by suggesting that, ‘when taken to its extreme, the limiting representation of ethnicity in the travel media may lead to situations where the subjects themselves transform their own appearance to conform with tourist expectations’ (Albers and James 1988: 137)’. This ‘transformative effect’ has been referred to by them and subsequent commentators as the ‘circle of representation’, or ‘hermeneutic circle’ of tourism photography (for recent usages, see Caton and Santos, 2007; Jenkins 2003; Larsen, 2006; Pritchard and Morgan, 2005). Put simply, this ‘hermeneutic circle of tourism photography’ (hereafter) is conceived as a kind of feed-back loop that circulates between: 1. the tourism industry, that produces saleable images of places and people for tourists to consume through travel; 2. tourists, who desire to consume those images through the ‘I was there’ replication of photography; and 3. locals, who likewise aim to reproduce a credible version of such images, and thus satisfy those tourist desires, in order to get their hands on a slice of the tourist dollar.

As the both iconic and deeply ironic case of London’s so-called ‘postcard punks’ of the early 1980s shows, this phenomena need not be circumscribed by such essentialising terms as ethnicity. Likewise, just as when we travel by tube in London and are constantly encouraged to ‘mind the gap’, it is important to be attentive to the subtle (and sometimes not-so-subtle) ways by which such articulated processes, projections and images overlap across these contexts, to how they may empower, even as they disempower, and more especially, to the shared agency of such processes. As Taussig’s tantalizingly brief analysis of colonial photographs of the Cuna suggests, photographic image-production is no one-way street:

photography concentrates to an exquisite degree the very act of colonial mirroring, the lens coordinating the mimetic impulses radiating from each side of the colonial divide (Taussig 1993: 185-6). What is more, critiques of the ‘Foucaultian’ or ‘medical gaze’ point to several issues that relate equally to Urry’s influential notion of the ‘tourist gaze’ (Urry 1990, also Crawshaw and Urry 2000; McGregor 2000), from which the notion of a ‘hermeneutic circle of tourism photography’ derives. What happens, we might ask, when the object gazed at invites and desires that gaze? What of the gaze returned, or reflected? And what of the tactile, embodied nature of the gaze itself, and it’s relation to the other senses: of smell and taste, of hearing, of touch?

Deeply problematic values concerning the notion of object authenticity—a ‘semiotics of nostalgia’, as Frow puts it (1991)—pertain as much to the idea of a ‘hermeneutic circle of photography’ as they do to ‘staged authenticity’ (MacCannell 1976; and see Taylor 1999), both of which reduce and essentialise cultural tourist events as well as the performers therein, as simple indexes of touristic desires. Worse, according to such analyses, in so far as those desires are themselves seen as scripted by the websites, brochures and other advertising material that draw tourists to exotic locals, tourism-related performances are ultimately considered to index the agency of the tourism industry itself. To borrow from Alfred Gell (1998), according to this so-called ‘hermeneutic’ logic, performers are treated as ‘secondary agents’ rather than ‘primary agents’—they are ‘things’ or ‘objects’ whose agency is projected upon them—‘abducted’, as it were—rather than active social agents in their own right.

There can be little doubt that images produced through the diffuse mechanisms of tourism branding and marketing do contribute to the way in which the aesthetics of cultural performances are shaped and produced, both within and outside of tourism-related contexts. Likewise, I would not deny that unequal relations of power adhere to many, if not to all contexts involving the performance of culture by local populations for visiting tourists, and by indigenous people in particular (which, of course, includes the one described here). Indeed, the brief discussion and ‘reflexive’ example provided above can be seen to affirm both of these claims. I have, however, been concerned to tease out some of the further nuances that emerge across this dynamic relationship, as camera-pointing tourists and self-consciously performing locals strive to produce valuable and meaningful images and memorable shared lived experiences.

The ‘tourist gaze’ and the production of ‘photogenic authenticity’ are dynamic, embodied and emotive processes that are engaged and produced by tourists and locals alike. In this example I hope to have exposed for further research and analysis something of the both positive and negative friction and fission that may develop in the space between representation and embodied apprehension, subject and role, image and object, within tourism contexts, such as are often so radically distinguished in academic studies of touristic image production. Doing so, I hope, would disrupt reductive analyses that cast locals and tourists as unwilling puppets performing a gaudy dance on the fingertips of some nebulously conceived ‘tourism industry’ and instead highlighted the dynamic articulation of objectifying and inter-subjective processes that are inherent to both witnessing and performing culture everywhere.

NB: This blog post is published as an academic journal article in a special issue of La Ricerca Folkorica (61: pp. 32-40).


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[1] Disputes regarding rights and the distribution of revenue gained from the gol are common and ongoing.

[2] This term is adapted from Hutnyk’s discussion of ‘photogenic poverty’ (2004). It is also the subject of two related, but as yet unpublished papers, ‘Photogenic Authenticity and the Aesthetics of Kastom in Tourism: Object-man at the Fanla Arts Festival’ (Taylor n.d.a), and ‘Pikinini in Paradise: souvenirs and photogenic infantalism in tourism’ (Taylor n.d.b). 

[3] Due to concerns of ‘cultural degradation’ and misrepresentation, filming of the event has in recent years been regulated by the Vanuatu National Cultural Council. According to the Vanuatu Cultural Centre website, a moratorium on commercial filming was declared in 2006, ‘…in response to growing concerns about the increasing distortion of this traditional ceremony due to growing commercialisation and about the lack of transparency in the distribution of fees paid by foreign film companies to communities to film this event’ (http://www.vanuatuculture.org: accessed 27/5/2010). Indeed, the terms and conditions look set to change following the tragic death in 2008 of Hardy Ligo following the collapse of a tower under the weight of a National Geographic Society camera crew and equipment, and in apparent disregard of such regulations.

[4] This necessarily brief, instrumental and personal description is based on one of three gol performances attended by the author in the dual role of anthropologist and tourist between 2000 and 2008. It should be noted that performances staged for cruise ship visits especially, which may carry 1000+ passangers, may differ markedly from the event as described here.