The Tourist and the Pilgrim

Perhaps it is not the soul of the one whose photograph is taken that the camera steals, but rather the soul of the one who takes the picture.

What does it mean to be a tourist?

I thought about this often while spending two weeks out of the country being just that, a tourist. Sitting in front of one more cathedral, I think it was, having assaulted the structure with my camera and waiting to move on to the next target, I wondered whether someone had written something like a philosophy of tourism. I was certain someone must have; Alain de Botton surely. Every book I’ve ever imagined turned out already to have been written, often numerous times over.  I was sure this one was no exception. In any case, I didn’t plan to write that book. It was only a question occasioned by the nagging feeling that there was something fundamentally disordered about the experience we call tourism.

We know, of course, that there are many kinds of tourists ranging from the obnoxiously oblivious who seem to gleefully embrace the worst elements of the stereotype, to the ironically self-conscious who take pains to avoid appearing as a tourist at all. Most of us, as tourists that is, probably fall somewhere in between. For my part, I had little interest in pretending to be other than I was. And I certainly was not going to stop taking pictures in order to avoid appearing as a tourist.

In fact, I suffer from a severe case of camera eye. I would not claim to be an amateur photographer, as that might imply too high a level of photographic savvy, but I do enjoy taking pictures — many, many pictures. My wife tells me that she knows before I pull out the camera that I am about to do so because I get a certain look on my face that says, “That’s a good shot I’ve got to have.” I have no doubt that this is the case. I’ve frequently used the experience of walking around with a digital camera as an illustration of the way a technology can alter our experience merely by having it in hand. I use this example principally because I know its existential force all too well.

This photographic compulsion led me to think of being a tourist as a spectrum of activity defined by the degree to which the eye dominates the experience. On one end, seeing is all; the other is multi-sensory. Perhaps it is toward the visual end that most tourists naturally gravitate. You go to see sights. You are told that you must see this, that, and the other thing. You haven’t really been to X if you haven’t seen Y. And so on it goes. It is, more often than not, sight that first mediates our experience of any place. Further, if what there is to see is new or strange or majestic or stunning, we will continue to equate being there with seeing. And wanting to render the ephemeral visual experience durable we will seek to capture it with photographs burdened all the while by the realization that our pictures will always disappoint.

Clearly, then, I tend toward this end of spectrum. But even I recognize that seeing is not the only way to experience a place, or even the best way. And so I try to listen and to smell. From time to time I will touch a building to feel the place. And, of course, there is the tasting. The camera captures none of this, and so there is nothing to do but to put it away and sit and observe, with all the senses, this place and these people and the dynamic reality we call culture that emerges from their interaction. To “take it all in” as is it is sometimes put.

But even at this multi-sensory end of the spectrum, there is something that did not quite sit right with me. I kept thinking that in the end it is all still driven by the impulse to consume, precisely to take in and take away. It was as those tribesmen feared; with the camera I was hunting for the soul of the place, somehow to disassociate it from the material space and absorb it into myself. And even when I set the camera aside and sought to capture the full sensory experience, the impulse was still the same. How can it be otherwise? The essence of tourism is not merely spatial; it is also temporal. A tourist is not simply someone who goes to a different place, but someone whose experience of that place will be temporary. The experience of tourism is always defined by the nearness of its end. And so always conscious that I can be in this place only so much longer, I try to hard to take it in, which is to say, to consume it.

In this mode, there is little thought for what one might give to the place or how one might spend themselves in the place/for the place, or for the people of the place. There is little thought for how the place might transform the traveler either. The place is assimilated to the self and it becomes another vehicle of self-expression and self-fulfillment.

While thinking about what a book on the philosophy of tourism might encompass and what historical antecedents it might survey, it seemed obvious that it would have to reckon with pilgrimage. Pilgrimage had already been on my mind. In fact, pilgrimage is never far from my mind as a resonant metaphor for the religious life.  But the idea of pilgrimage was nearer than usual after having serendipitously watched The Way just two days before embarking on my own less symbolically fraught journey.

The Way is a 2010 film written and directed by Emilio Estevez and starring Martin Sheen. The father and son pair play a father and son. Early in the film, Sheen’s character travels to France to recover the body of his son played by Estevez. Upon arriving in France, he discovers that his son died while having just begun the famed pilgrimage to Santiago de Compostela in northwestern Spain where the body of the Apostle James is reportedly buried. This discovery propels Sheen’s character to undertake the same journey with the ashes of his son in tow. Along the way he is joined by an unlikely set of three fellow pilgrims and the film tells the story of their transformation on the way to Santiago de Compostela.

It is not a profound film, but that is the worst one can say about it I think. It is an earnest film that manages to blend lovely scenery and charming characters in its gesture toward the profound. Along their premodern pilgrim way, the characters flash their postmodern sensibilities by engaging in a running debate about what constitutes authentic pilgrimage. Does making the trek on a bicycle negate the authenticity of the journey? Does recourse to credit cards? The modern hiking gear?

As the film makes plain, many now undertake the pilgrimage with very different motives than their medieval predecessors thus raising the question of authenticity. We can imagine that those most eager to define the authentic pilgrim experience might formulate their concern as an effort to protect the purity of the pilgrimage against the tourist ethos that animates so many that are now on the way. The zeal for purity stems from a desire to shield the experience from the encroachment of commodification and the dynamic of consumerism.

In the end, the film seems to suggest that whatever one’s motives, the road will have its own way. None of the pilgrims whose paths the film follows receive what they expected or desired, but each is transformed. We might say that it is they who have been consumed by the journey. Thinking about the film, it occurred to me that the better, more interesting spectrum placed tourism on one end and pilgrimage on the other.

The way of the tourist is to consume; the way of the pilgrim is to be consumed. To the tourist the journey is a means. The pilgrim understands that it is both a means and an end in itself. The tourist and the pilgrim experience time differently. For the former, time is the foe that gives consumption its urgency. For the latter, time is a gift in which the possibility of the journey is actualized. Or better, for the pilgrim time is already surrendered to the journey that, sooner or later, will come to its end. The tourist bends the place to the shape of the self. The pilgrim is bent to shape of the journey.

Finally, it seemed to me that this was all about more than the literal trips we take for we are all, in a different sense, on the way. In our time of abandonment, home for most must now be a mythic place touched only by hope. We are untethered, unencumbered, uprooted. Under these conditions we have only to decide whether we are on the way as tourists or as pilgrims.


The opposition of consuming to being consumed is borrowed from William Cavanaugh. Hope in Time of Abandonment is the title of a book by Jacques Ellul.

The Architectural Legacy of Barcelona’s World’s Fairs

When world’s fairs close shop most of their buildings and structures are torn down and forgotten. This is as planned; most world’s fair architecture is designed to be temporary. Moreover, some world’s fair architecture was later destroyed by fire including London’s Crystal Palace and Chicago’s White City.  There are notable exceptions to this intended and unintended architectural ephemerality, of course. The Eiffel Tower is just the most famous instance of an enduring architectural legacy bequeathed to a city by a world’s fair. Seattle’s Space Needle would be another. We might also add a number of contemporary museums that are today housed in buildings first designed as world’s fair pavilions. Examples include the Queen’s Museum of Art in New York and The Museum of Science and Industry in Chicago.

Barcelona’s diverse architectural heritage which includes ancient Roman structures alongside bold modernist designs with medieval cathedrals between them also features a surprising number of prominent world’s fair contributions. A number of these are from the Exposición Universal de Barcelona held in 1888. But the most grand and impressive structures are gathered around the Plaça d’Espanya at the foot of Montjuïc and were built for the 1929 Barcelona International Exposition.

While in Barcelona two weeks ago I had the opportunity to take in some of these public spaces. Below are a few shots I gathered with a couple of additions for perspective, both temporal and spatial. To begin with, here is a shot taken from atop a former bull fighting arena now turned into a stylish shopping center. The shot was taken with my iPod so the quality is a bit lacking, but it shows a good bit of the roundabout that is Plaça d’Espanya along with several of the structures built for the 1929 Exposition. These include the Venetian inspired towers, the St. Peter’s inspired colonnades, and the Spanish Renaissance inspired palace in the background. Also visible is the Montjuïc Communications Tower built for the 1992 Olympics.

This panoramic black and white, which clearly I did not take, shows the same area and more as it appeared in 1929.

Here is another look at the Venetian towers, this time from Montjuïc toward Plaça d’Espanya. As you can tell, most of these shots were taken on a rather cloudy day which is unfortunate.

The four columns were intended to represent the four red bars of the Catalonian flag. Because of this the originals were torn down by then Spanish President Primo de Rivera. The columns visible today were reconstructed in 2010.

Below is a shot of what was for the fair the Palau Nacional and which now houses the Museu Nacional d’Art de Catalunya.

Once more looking out from the Museu Nacional toward Plaça d’Espanya. Visible to the right of the towers is the converted bull fighting arena.

Remarkably, alongside these buildings that hearken back to the architectural past there was also built one of the early twentieth century’s most famous specimens of modernism, Ludwig Mies van der Rohe’s German Pavilion (today often referred to as the Barcelona Pavilion). As Paul Greenhalgh has put it referring to the German pavilion and the surrounding structures, “It is difficult to imagine these buildings being of the same century, and even more difficult to imagine them as part of the same event.”

Greenhalgh describes the juxtaposition as the “most dramatic example of contrast and competition between history and modernity at an exposition.” The Mies pavilion, he adds, “stunning in its opulent austerity, is an extraordinary essay on the potential of urban, domestic space to function as pure art.”

This first shot below is not my own, but taken from Wikipedia. It gives you a good look at the whole without any visitors present. Below are series of my own shots from inside the house. The original was torn down shortly after the fair in 1930. However, Spanish architects reconstructed the structure based on original plans and existing photographs between 1983 and 1986.

The pavilion also housed the sculpture below (seen from a distance above), Georg Kolbe’s Alba or Dawn. 

Finally, the fountains that line the avenue leading from Museu Nacional to Plaça d’Espanya including the massive fountain directly in front of the Museu Nacional, the Font màgica de Montjuïc, continue to put on a dazzling night time display as they were designed to do in 1929.

Temps de Flor in Girona

I’m not a photographer and this is not a travel blog. That said, I trust you will indulge me as I put up a post or two over the next few days with photographs from the past couple of weeks. For part of that time I was in Barcelona, a vibrant city with a rich historical and cultural heritage. A little later on this week I’ll likely post about the world’s fairs held there in 1888 and 1929. But for now I’ll share some photographs taken just a short train trip to the north in the city of Girona. Serendipitously, I came to the city during the annual Temps de Flors, a flower festival held each May.

Even without the flowers, Girona is a delightful city; the flowers simply add gorgeous dashes of color to the remarkably photogenic scenery. Of course, photographs don’t quite measure up to the experience, particularly when they are taken by an amateur with a rather pedestrian camera, but here a few of the better or more interesting ones.

N.B. The bridge in the first photo was designed by Gustave Eiffel whose more famous work resides in Paris and no political statement is necessarily intended by the last photo.


And Now For Something Totally Different … Hummingbirds

I’m fairly certain that until I visited western Pennsylvania this summer, I could count on one hand, maybe two, how many hummingbirds I’d seen in my life.  Given the location and time of year, and thanks to a pair of hummingbird feeders, I easily surpassed that number of sitings in about, oh, two minutes time.

The hummingbirds endlessly fascinated and delighted me.  They buzzed effortlessly back and forth from feeder to feeder just slow enough for the eye to follow with some effort, and then would stop so suddenly the eye would continue down an anticipated trajectory for a hundredth of a second before realizing it was now following only a projection.  I say it would stop, but really it was not a stop since tiny wings were still in blurred motion.  It was a hover, a hover and then a dash. Dashing creatures, unafraid to whirl by so closely instinct made you duck. Sometimes it would stop, perched on the feeder.  When it did, you realized just how small a bird this was, and elegant.

When the hummingbird hovered to draw from the feeder, unbroken focus seemed married to feverish activity.  Maybe there is a useful digital age metaphor wrapped up in that moment.

I took the shots below  (incidentally, interesting metaphor we chose for the act of taking pictures) with a pretty average camera from a fairly close distance.