Exercise: The Tourist Gaze


Read the first chapter of The Tourist Gaze. Write a 200-word reflective commentary in your learning log about its relevance to documentary photography.


Urry’s ‘tourist gaze’ summarised

  • People seek out places and experiences that differ from their everyday  life
  • Tourists broadly know what they are going to see, and they get pleasure from the anticipation
    • Tourist sights/sites are predetermined, prepackaged – think Debord’s spectacle or Baudrillard’s hyperreality
    • Sometimes it’s specific cites (e.g. Taj Mahal), sometimes it’s signs (e.g. ‘authentic’ English pub)
    • The tourist gaze is a form of visual box-ticking, a way of measuring or proving one’s leisure experience
  • Photography both forms the gaze expectation (via media) and is how the tourist enacts the gaze (via personal photography)
    • “a closed self-perpetuating system of illusions” (Urry 1990: 7)

Relevance to documentary photography

While on the face of it, the tourist gaze and documentary photography are both searching for ‘authenticity’, my takeaway from this text is that the two ideas are, in their pure forms, diametrically opposed.

‘Authenticity’ crumbles under close scrutiny, especially the tourist-friendly version, and is really a redundant concept for documentary photography.

Tourists seek a predetermined, homogenised set of ‘extraordinary’ sights that they can enjoy anticipating in advance and ‘tick off’ while they are there – the whole point is to get the same pictures as everyone else (even if this is never acknowledged). The ‘difference’ they seek to gaze upon is a pre-approved, standardised, socially-accepted ‘difference’. This can change according to one’s social circles, age, income, class etc: there can be an expectation that you “must have seen the Eiffel Tower” or that you “must have seen Machu Picchu”.

Documentary photographers on the other hand (should) dig deeper – photograph the previously unphotographed. A documentary photographer doesn’t work with a predetermined set of shots they want to take; even if there are predetermined messages or even types of shots, they will (should) be executed in an original way.

The tourist gaze is safe, established, predictable.

Documentary photography is risky, novel, unpredictable.


Urry, J. (1990), The Tourist Gaze: Leisure and Travel in Contemporary Societies. CA: Sage Publications (accessed at http://www.oca-student.com/sites/default/files/oca-content/key-resources/res-files/urry_touristgaze.pdf, 22/06/2016)


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