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Photographs Capture the Worldwide Phenomenon Known as ‘Dark Tourism’

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The collapsed Xuankou school buildings, part of a tour of ruins from the 2008 Wenchuan earthquake, Sichuan, China.

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Genocide memorial site at Ntarama, Rwanda.

For I Was Here, Paris-based photographer Ambroise Tézenas delves the practice of grief tourism (or dark tourism), a global phenomenon whereby sightseers are drawn to the scenes of mass tragedies, from the sites of genocides to those of natural disasters. Shedding the privileges normally afforded to members of the press, he chose to embark on the journey just as his fellow travelers did, paying for his own guided tours and uncovering in the process a network of sinister locales, bound together by the rapt attention they inspire in day-trippers young and old.

In December of 2004, Tézenas was scheduled to spend the holiday season in a beachside hotel in Sri Lanka, when the Indian Ocean tsunami ravaged the coast. Over the next week, he visited and revisited a derailed train that had been swept away on route from Colombo to Galle, taking with it the lives of 2,000 individuals. In 2008, he discovered to his bewilderment that the very same train had been restored to attract tourists, who flew into the island in hopes of catching a glimpse of the devastation that had unfolded a mere four years before. That day, the seedling concept for I Was Here began to take shape in the photographer’s mind.

Before visiting each site, Tézenas made an effort to arrive without any prejudgments. Instead of condemning participants in dark tourism, he hoped instead to cut beneath the surface of the industry to reveal the currents of denial and detachment that run beneath it. Today’s society, he suggests, is founded in part on an avoidance of and aversion towards facing our own mortality, confronting death and violence only through incidents from which we are detached, either by the borders that separate our nations or by the passage of time. The fatal flaw in this line of thinking is that ultimately, we are not so far removed from tragedy as we prefer to believe. These events actually happened, and real people were killed.

In commodifying disaster, Tézenas fears that history is in some ways being invalidated, minimized, or sensationalized, leaving us vulnerable to repeating the errors and wrongdoings of our shared past. For this, he blames not the people who participate in dark tourism, admitting that revisiting horrors can be a natural, cathartic, and most importantly, an educational process. From many of the sites he visited, and all the tours for which he paid, the photographer was saddened by the fact that he rarely learned anything. Of course, he was moved by the sights themselves, but he left discouraged, feeling at his core that the various memorials were imbued with the biases of those who built them.

Most countries, he suggests, prefer to market spectacles rather than take full responsibility for their crimes. In making these images, he compels us to forego the narratives that are spoon-fed to us by tourist brochures in favor of the more painful and uncomfortable conclusions that we might draw for ourselves from coming face-to-face with Auschwitz, Chernobyl, the Rwanda Genocide memorial sites.

Purchase I Was Here here.

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Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum, Phnom Penh, Cambodia.

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Auschwitz-Birkenau State Museum, Oswiecim, Poland.

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Genocide memorial site at Bisesero, Rwanda.

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Karostas Cietums military prison, Latvia

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Mleeta Resistance Tourist Landmark, Mleeta, Lebanon.

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Chernobyl, Ukraine.

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Dealey Plaza, Dallas, Texas.

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The Hezbollah-operated Mleeta Resistance Tourist Landmark, southern Lebanon.

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Chernobyl, Ukraine

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The Iranian-built park in Maroun al-Ras, Lebanon.

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A sculpture of Lenin in Grutas Park, near Vilnius, Lithuania.

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Xiaoyudong Bridge, part of the Wenchuan earthquake ruins tour, Sichuan, China.

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The remains of the French village of Oradour-sur-Glane, the site of a 1944 Nazi massacre.

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Gruto Parkas, Lithuania

All images © Ambroise Tézenas

via The New Yorker

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