‘Dark Tourism’: Ambroise Tézenas and the Pull of Death

4 minute read

It’s not unusual for photojournalists to travel to places that have been scarred by genocide, accident and natural disaster. But photographer Ambroise Tézenas has spent the last few years turning that norm on its head to capture what happens to those sites after the journalists leave, when they become tourist destinations.

In 2008, Tézenas was looking for his next photographic project when he read that a train, swept into the Sri Lankan jungle by a tsunami, was still there four years after the fact. Tézenas happened to have been in Sri Lanka at the time of the storm—on a vacation that became a job—and was fascinated to learn that the train had become a place of pilgrimage.

“Some tourists were coming to have their pictures taken there,” the photographer says. “I thought about what the victims and the survivors would think.”

That question became the seed of a long-term project, Dark Tourism, now on view at Galerie Mélanie Rio in Nantes, France. Tézenas immersed himself in the tourist experience: he always traveled with a tour group, always paid for the experience and only took pictures of things any tourist could see. Sometimes that ethos meant his pictures were restrained—he only had the time allotted by the tourism groups, so he was unable to wait for ideal light—but it also allowed the photographer to comment on more than the scenery.

“It wasn’t just to find new places nobody had seen,” says Tézenas, “but to link these places and to have a portrait of a new tendency of tourism.”

Not that so-called “dark tourism” is new. Professor John Lennon of Glasgow Caledonian University, who coined the term in 1996 and whose work influenced Tézenas’ project, says that the urge to turn the tourist’s gaze on horror—what Lennon calls the “pull factor” of the macabre—dates back to the spectators at the Battle of Waterloo, and further than that, to the first people who watched crucifixions as spectacle.

“It’s a human fascination with our ability to do evil, a human fascination with death,” he explains. “It’s so unimaginably terrible but it exerts this fascination.” Survey data has shown him that the impulse comes from a cross between genuine interest in history, voyeurism and, especially in recent years, commoditization, the kind of pre-packaged deals of which Tézenas availed himself. That ease of access is, according to Lennon, the new factor in the equation.

Tézenas saw that commercialization in action at a Latvian jail where tourists could pay to play prisoner and be terrorized by guards in the middle of the night, on a guided visit to Chernobyl and on a “genocide tour” of Rwanda. Lennon points out that “visiting sites of genocide doesn’t prevent genocide from happening again” and that certain gift shops can make visitors queasy, but tourism can benefit economies that are still recovering from disaster.

And, for Tézenas, it was a subject that was ripe for exploration. “In our time, we are so close to death through news and cinema and video games, but at the same time death is so removed from our contemporary society,” he says, explaining that he hoped to use photography to get to the root of the sociological phenomenon. “I want to raise the point, very humbly, because there are so many questions.”

Dark Tourism will be on view at Galerie Mélanie Rio in Nantes, France, through May 12. Ambroise Tézenas is a French photographer. See more of his work here.

Sichuan Wenchuan earthquake ruins tour – China. 2009.Visitors in front of Xuankou middle school, where over 53 died, and Xuankou grade school, where about 250 died. Ambroise Tézenas courtesy Galerie Mélanie Rio
Auschwitz-Birkenau State Museum – Poland. 2009.On July 2, 1947, the Polish Parliament passed an act on the preservation “for All Time of the Site of the Former Camp.” In 2011, the Auschwitz Memorial was visited by 1.4 million people—a record number in the history of the Memorial.Ambroise Tézenas courtesy Galerie Mélanie Rio
Auschwitz-Birkenau State Museum – Poland. 2009.Auschwitz I. Block 4. Cans that contained Cyclone B used for killing in gas chambers. Ambroise Tézenas courtesy Galerie Mélanie Rio
The JFK Assassination Trail – USA. 2009.The grounds of Dealey Plaza. Group tours delve into the assassination of President John F. Kennedy and can be as short as half a day or as long as a full nine-to-six day. Some include lunch in the West End in Dallas near the Sixth Floor Depository Museum. Ambroise Tézenas courtesy Galerie Mélanie Rio
Trip to Chernobyl – Ukraine. 2008.Funfair in Prypiat, a fenced ghost town near Chernobyl. Tours take visitors to the closed zone within a radius of 30 km from Chernobyl station. Tourists can be photographed against the background of the 4th reactor.Ambroise Tézenas courtesy Galerie Mélanie Rio
Trip to Chernobyl – Ukraine. 2008.Breakfast in the exclusion zone: “the quality of food is guaranteed” says the tourist brochure. Entrance to the Chernobyl exclusion zone is possible only with the help of permits, which can be organized by tour groups.Ambroise Tézenas courtesy Galerie Mélanie Rio
Oradour-sur-Glane WWII martyr village — France. 2009.On the afternoon of June 10, 1944, a detachment of SS troops arrived in Oradour-sur-Glane and rounded up the inhabitants, including those they had collected from nearby farms on their way in. At the end of the day, the SS had murdered a total of 642 men, women and children. Following the war the French government decided to preserve the town in its ruined state as a memorial to the murdered inhabitants. Ambroise Tézenas courtesy Galerie Mélanie Rio
Choeung Ek Memorial (The “Killing Field”) – Cambodia. 2010.This particular killing field is the site of the brutal executions of more than 17,000 men, women and children, most of whom had first suffered through interrogation, torture and deprivation in the S-21 Prison in Phnom Penh. The Choeung Ek Memorial is now a group of mass graves, killing areas and a memorial stupa containing thousands of human skulls and long bones. Ambroise Tézenas courtesy Galerie Mélanie Rio
Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum , Phnom Penh – Cambodia. 2010.Torture bed in Building "A" of a secret prison, which in 1977 and 1978 was converted into a set of rooms with windows that were paneled with glass to minimize the sound of prisoners’ screams heard outside the facility in times of torture. Building “A” was used for detaining cadres who were accused of leading the uprising against the Pol Pot revolution. On Jan. 7, 1979, the government collected all the evidence in the prison such as photographs, films, prisoner confession archives, torture tools, shackles and victims' corpses. Now the evidence of the criminal regime is on display for visitors. Ambroise Tézenas courtesy Galerie Mélanie Rio
Post-Katrina tour, New Orleans – USA. 2009.Abandoned strip mall seen on a tour of post-hurricane devastation. Ambroise Tézenas courtesy Galerie Mélanie Rio
Karosta prison — Liepaja, Latvia. 2009.Visitors enter the only military prison in Europe open to tourists. The tour includes a "historical interactive reality show" in which participants can play the parts of the prisoners.Ambroise Tézenas courtesy Galerie Mélanie Rio
Mleeta Resistance Tourist Landmark – Lebanon. 2011.A rugged bushy trail where thousands of Mujahideen had positions during the years of occupation. The museum aims "to preserve the places where the Mujahideen lived, giving people the chance to be acquainted with the style of the unique experience of the Islamic resistance against the Israeli enemy, since its occupation of Beirut in 1982."Ambroise Tézenas courtesy Galerie Mélanie Rio
Maroun Al-Ras park – Lebanon. 2011.The Iranian government designed and funded a sort of amusement park in Maroun Al-Ras, south of the Litani river, very close to Bint Jbeil, where one of the main battles of the 2006 war took place. Entrance is free. Ambroise Tézenas courtesy Galerie Mélanie Rio

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