Travel Photo Clichés and Snobbery

I should have known better than to walk across the Brooklyn Bridge this past Sunday, which was probably one of the best days of this New York City summer.

Warm, but neither humid nor oppressive, the sun shining, the sky a beckoning blue. Without even thinking about it, I walked right past the subway entrance and boom, there was the bridge and since I needed to get back to Manhattan and was in no particular rush…up the stairs I went.

I’ve only spent most of my life in this city, so I should have realized that every single tourist was certainly going to be walking on that bridge that day. The path isn’t especially narrow, but there’s only one for both directions, and pedestrians share with bikes, although there’s a painted stripe that attempts to divide the two. There isn’t that much room for passing.

So when one person stops to take photos of the limestone, granite and concrete towers and its supporting cables, and a selfie of the same, and then a group photo, the effect multiplies exponentially and the result is a standstill.

This happened roughly every fourteen and a half seconds, and by the time the Statute of Liberty came into view I’d basically accepted that that the notion of forward movement was folly. Here I mean acceptance in the way it’s used in the Serenity Prayer. So while I was stalled on the bridge, I decided to take my own photo. It wasn’t so easy to do this without also capturing someone’s head, and obviously I did not succeed. It’s a crappy photo but it’s proof that this event I’m describing did indeed happen to me.

Brooklyn Bridge


Eventually I was home again, and receptive to Skift’s post that day: The 22 Most Clichéd Tourist Photos Ever, And Why They Matter.  While I wore a serene expression on the bridge, I’d been more-or-less repressing my feelings of annoyance at the slow breed of human known as the tourist. I came close to sharing Skift’s post on Facebook for the merriment of my well-traveled friends, with a rueful comment about the Brooklyn Bridge, to amuse my fellow native New Yorkers.

My finger hovered over the share button, paused, and then started to point self-righteously in all directions. It occurred to me that the spirit that’s behind making fun of these photos isn’t actually very nice, it’s the snobby spirit that almost always lies beneath the sentence “I’m a traveler, not a tourist.”

In its original meaning, a written phrase becomes a cliché when it’s overused, and therefore familiar (and therefore considered lazy, by writers and people who care about language). Young writers are especially prone to clichés because they haven’t done as much reading as they will eventually do, and therefore often don’t realize that a phrase has become overused.

When you apply the cliché concept to travel photography, though, you run into a problem. By definition, a person who is traveling is in an unfamiliar setting, and probably has not exhaustively reviewed the photo albums of every person who has visited their intended destination.  Therefore, to this person far from home, an image can’t possibly be a cliché.

Now, a certain kind of person — a person with the money to travel a great deal, say, or the rare sort of person who has figured out some sort of a scam situation where they can travel a great deal without lots of money (like travel writers) —  this sort of person has the required experience with the act of traveling itself, if not a certain destination, to know that certain images are clichés. This sort of person also knows that certain activities, like walking across the Brooklyn Bridge, are travel clichés, as are almost all of the credos of so-called independent travelers, like, for instance, the moan that all-inclusives bear no resemblance to real life, and that most people will never know what it’s like to be a local anywhere but in their own hometowns.

But to the person who travels the standard amount, and who pretends to tip over the Leaning Tower of Pisa, or kiss a Sphinx or pinch the top of the dome of the Taj Mahal, this is not a visual cliché that they’ve seen a million times before, this is the record of their once in a lifetime vacation. They’re not being lazy or lacking some sort of originality in photographic composition. They don’t deserve derision, or to be described as a separate and slow breed of human by any snob. Including one like me.


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