© Copyright 2022 Cristal Gillette, Ryerson University.
Upon the consideration of worthy aspects of visual culture for critique, pet travel photography often goes overlooked. Make no mistake; within these seemingly innocuous images is an object worthy of critical inquiry. Scholar Mike Crang describes how “media and representations shape the landscape”(360). In this quote, Crang makes his audience aware that the representations of other countries that we see in the media form our view of the world around us and the people in it. This idea is especially relevant when considering the images used in travel blogs, regardless of whether their subject is human or animal. The research that this paper encompasses stems from the question of how these travel blogger-inspired pet pictures simultaneously mirror and expose the neo-colonial reality of the tourist gaze along with hegemonic power structures through their use of framing? This critique focuses on the work of pet travel photographers Andre Tan and Josh Rakower, whom both use dogs as their subjects. Although these images appear to reveal nothing more than ordinary travel blogger cliches, much insight can be gained upon closer consideration. This consideration consists of defining pet tourism photography by discussing the context that it exists within and the nature of its materiality. Then applying the theoretical framework of the tourist gaze to uncover the hidden colonial ideology that lies beneath the surface of these images. Doing so will reveal the harm that can result from underestimating the importance of analyzing this facet of visual culture.
No research exists in isolation. This essay synthesizes and builds upon the work of several scholars, including Corinn Columpar, Mike Crang, and Katherine Henninger. The scholars involved have created works that have contributed to the development of the theory and methodological frameworks used in this critique of visual culture. These frameworks lead to insight into the harm that can be caused by the hidden ideology of tourist pet photography.
The primary sensory mode used in pet tourism photography is sight. As a visual medium, photography becomes a methodological tool to view the social context that the photographer and the subjects of the photographs exist within. Since the seventeenth century, seeing has been a privileged sense since it was seen as the way people “verified” and “created” a new world for themselves. In the same manner, the tourist represents and recreates the destinations that they visit using the medium of photography. This view of sight applies directly to John Urry’s theory of the tourist gaze, which is situated within the culture of visuality in tourism (Bandyopadhyay & Ganguly 601).
The theory of the gaze is the theoretical touchstone of this paper. Subsequently, this essay will employ gaze theory and its subset of “the tourist gaze” to aid in argument construction (Columpar 26). Within the field of visuality, the gaze is viewed as a form of visual consumption (Wasslera & Kirillovab 117). Laura Mulvey, in her essay, “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema,” first politicized this concept by describing it as an exercise of power (Columpar 27). Philipp Wassler and Ksenia Kirillova expanded on this idea by stating that “the gaze embodies a power dynamic between the self and the exotic other.” They continued on by explaining that this power dynamic can “reinforce preexisting stereotypes” that are held in regards to “the other” (116-117). In this way, the gaze can be understood as a construction done by the tourist. This kind of construction is mediated and formed by specific reinforcing representations in the media, such as tourist blogs, films, photography, and advertisements (Wasslera & Kirillovab 117). These representations create a “structure of expectations” that measures foreign countries against prior expectations that may not reflect the lived realities of these places (Crang 361). As a result of this reality, the tourist gaze projects its fantasy onto other countries as a location that can be crafted into the ideal paradise to photograph their pets (Columpar 27).
Pet travel photography is a subgenre of travel photography that diverges in nature due to its use of pets as the primary subject. The intended purpose of these pet travel images by Andre Tan and Josh Rakoweris is entertainment. This can be seen by observing the novelty of the fact that Tan’s dog is decked out in a hat and a stereotypical tourist shirt, while Rakower’s dog dons sunglasses. Both pets appear to be vacationing alone, as a human being would, thus creating a form of anthropomorphism in order to visually reference carefully staged human travel bloggers and their photographic cliches. Pet tourist photography belongs to the modern social media tradition of producing and publishing highly curated images that are designed to feign authenticity. Similarly, Tan and Rakower’s photos appear to show dressed pets in a background that reflects the reality of the chosen destination, when, in fact, even the seeming honest depictions of the countries are highly staged. After all, countries with picture-perfect beaches uninhabited by locals reflect colonial fantasy more than lived reality. Throughout the entirety of this process of staged image construction, the ideas that these travel-blogger-styled pet photos express remain concealed on the surface.
Pet tourist photography belongs to the modern social media tradition of producing and publishing highly curated images that are designed to feign authenticity”
To go deeper into specificity, pet tourist photography situates its audience within the ideology of the “tourist gaze.” A close analysis of how it does this leads to a deeper understanding of how this form of visual media perpetuates the historical colonial devaluation of colonized peoples. Travel pet photography also perpetuates, the limited knowledge and often inaccurate beliefs about the rest of the world that are caused by these staged and manufactured systems of images. In pet tourism photography, the pets occupy the visual field with a staged background. The staged backgrounds often show just props and scenery, thus not allowing the local people to be seen.
The blogger-inspired pet tourism photography by Andre Tan and Josh Rakower deceives their audience by using staged images that give false illusions of other countries that uphold neo-colonialist power structures and perpetuate misrepresentation. The romanticization of the “exotic other” and the “colonial other” is a harmful function of this feigned authenticity. The harm that is derived from the concealment of the realities of other foreign countries is that it perpetuates the limited understanding that the western world has of the economic, environmental, political, and social hardships that are impacting international communities. This lack of awareness means that help cannot be provided to aid issues in these countries because people are oblivious to their existence. To uncover the colonial ideology of the tourist gaze as well as the hegemonic power that it employs, a top-down critique within a decolonial framework must be utilized to problematize these depictions. The goal of this research is to contribute to applications of the theory of the tourist gaze within visuality as a field of study while promoting accurate representations of foreign destinations.
Medium & Materiality
To begin an analysis of a piece of visual culture, one must first take into account the materiality of the subject. Photography is a medium that can conjure up embodied experiences of emotions like empathy, appreciation, engagement, benevolence, and understanding that can lead to activism and philanthropy. Unfortunately, photography can also negatively impact its viewers by encouraging stereotypes, objectification, uncharitableness, apathy, and ignorance (Wasslera & Kirillovab 116).
Pet photography invites its audience of upper-middle-class Westerners to participate in unquestioning spectatorship practices. This positions them as passive spectators. It misleads viewers into believing that they are honestly and authentically representing the countries. As Crang describes it, tourists “are not seeking authenticity so much as seeking to play with the idea of the production of the authentic,” meaning they desire to create reality more than they wish to reflect it (362).
Pet travel photography’s materiality is digital photography and the digital cameras that are used. This medium grants several affordances. The photograph can be described as a “presented self, performing for an intended audience, removed in time and space” (Crang 358). In the case of pet tourism photography, the audience are the viewers and the inspiration for the presentation are the cliches of standard tourism photographs, which include curated wardrobes, specially scouted flawless locations, and a centred framing of the tourist, leaving the country itself and its inhabitants as merely a part of the background. In this way, new forms are created through the citation of the existing, as these pets mimic existing photographs from established travel blogs. Since the source of inspiration is tourist blogs that try to feign authenticity, the “authentic” becomes staged, but at the same time, the act of staging becomes a means of producing a “sense of authenticity” that the colonial fantasy posits as reality (Crang 362). As the photographers employ framing, the point-and-shoot technique, and staging, they are granted immediate viewing along with accessible, straightforward editing, deletion, and reshooting. During this process, immediacy and engagement with the local surroundings are sacrificed to frame the scene of the present for future observers (Crang 365). The significance of these affordances is that their immediacy and relative ease provide the photographer with the ability to create, construct, and alter their staged representations of the country they are visiting. These affordances are therefore crucial to the genres of travel and pet photography.
The Tourist Gaze
The “tourist gaze” can be seen as a way of seeing where the experience is staged and subsequently consumed by the tourist (Wasslera & Kirillovab 116). In the tourist gaze, the “colonial elite” gaze at the “marginalized and the exoticized” while enacting attitudes of neo-colonization in the twenty-first century. This subset of the gaze is self-upholding because it fuels the tourism industry, which is already fuelled by media fantasies of the other. Bandyopadhyay and Ganguly emphasize “the power of the Western tourist gaze to construct Third World destinations and their inhabitants as the “Exotic Other” through the use of the tourist gaze to construct false realities about other countries (599-600). As a result of the tourist gaze, an authentic experience of a destination is elusive for tourists since they view countries in an illusory manner (Wasslera & Kirillovab 125). The tourist takes on the social role of the “inauthentic experiencer” as their view of a country is impacted by the taking and viewing of these manufactured pet images (Wasslera & Kirillovab 116). The tourist gaze is influenced by the historical legacies of colonialism and the structural asymmetries it created between the colonized countries and the colonizers. The tourist gaze is also impacted by individual perceptions, motivations, and attitudes about the destination (Bandyopadhyay & Ganguly 612).
Colonial Fantasy & The Exotic Other
It remains true that humans are all “embodied beings with their own perspectives on the world,” but this agency and authentic identity are erased when people and their countries are treated as exotic others (Wasslera & Kirillovab 118). In this way, the objectifying power of the gaze is inherently disconnecting (Wasslera & Kirillovab 124). This fact makes it more difficult for those trapped in the ideology of the tourist gaze to empathize with the hardships of other people.
These pet images lay claim to a false “reality.” These images engage the sense of sight with pleasant imagery, which makes the viewer content in their enjoyment of the pet pictures so that they do not consider the underlying colonial ideology. In the photographs of the dogs on vacation that Tan and Rakower have made, no locals get to be seen. By excluding the local inhabitants, photography acts as a lubricant for the ideological reproduction of the “colonial fantasy” (Hurston & Wright 582). The colonial fantasy consists of a romanticized version of other countries as being exotic paradises free from problems, that exist purely for the enjoyment of the dominant culture. In this fantasy, local people are relegated to the background, if not excluded completely, as in the case of pet photography. These countries are treated as playgrounds for not only tourists but also their anthropomorphized pets. This control over the visual narrative marks the camera as an inherent “master’s tool” because of the action of framing grants the position of visual mastery to the photographer. Since the photographer is granted this power, the subject of the photographs is viewed as existing “solely to confirm the subjectivity of the master-viewer” (Hurston & Wright 582). This means that the false reality that pet tourism photography depicts acts as a means of confirming the colonial fantasy of other countries as empty playgrounds for rich members of the dominant culture and their pet companions.
The importance of learning to recognize the concept of “the other” through the intellectual approach to gender, race, and class in media like pet tourism photography is vital to building empathy, equity, and activism in society. To be able to maintain hope for authentic views of and experiences in foreign destinations, members of the dominant culture must begin to move past and transcend the “tourist gaze” so that even while taking photographs of their pets on vacation, they can avoid falling into and promoting harmful colonist fantasies about other countries. Further research is needed to deepen the knowledge and understanding of how these complex power dynamics interact and impact the world through pet tourism photography
Bandyopadhyay, Ranjan, and Tuhina Ganguly. “Situating the Tourist Gaze: From Appropriation to Negotiation.” Current Issues in Tourism, vol. 21, no. 6, 2018, pp. 599-615.
Columpar, Corinn. “The Gaze as Theoretical Touchstone: The Intersection of Film Studies, Feminist Theory, and Postcolonial Theory.” Women’s Studies Quarterly, vol. 30, no. 1/2, 2002, pp. 25-44.
Crang, Mike. “Picturing Practices: Research through the Tourist Gaze.” Progress in Human Geography, vol. 21, no. 3, 1997, pp. 359-373.
Henninger, Katherine. “Zora Neale Hurston, Richard Wright, and the Postcolonial Gaze.” The Mississippi Quarterly, vol. 56, no. 4, 2003, pp. 581-595.
Rakower, Josh. “Dog Wearing Sunglasses on Vacation.” Unsplash, 17 Jan. 2018, https://unsplash.com/photos/zBsXaPEBSeI. Accessed 2 Mar. 2022.
Tan, Andre. “Dog on Beach in Tourist Outfit.” Unsplash, 11 Apr. 2021, https://unsplash.com/photos/IcsEQrEPubU. Accessed 3 Jan. 2022.
Wassler, Philipp, and Ksenia Kirillova. “Hell is Other People? an Existential-Phenomenological Analysis of the Local Gaze in Tourism.” Tourism Management (1982), vol. 71, 2019, pp. 116-126.
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