Taking photos of strangers, in the age of crowd control

I have started taking photos of strangers – people I have never met or talked to but who are close by or surround me when I have been visiting some of the larger cultural landmarks during my recent visit to wintery Spain.

It doesn’t seem enough to take photos of the landmarks or art works anymore, they appear to be only a small part of my travel experience. A bigger part is crowd control – negotiating entry and exit through the tidal flow of people who float around and over me as I make my way through museums and iconic landmarks.

I lived in Spain some three decades ago. My memories are as faded as the old photographs that I took back then, and now can’t find. This past northern winter I went back to my past and to modern Spain.

Capturing web the altar
‘Capturing the Altar’

The day I visit El Alhambra, I am told at the information counter, where I competed to have my booking confirmed, that I will be sharing the unique experience with 7,999 others on the same day. I went again the next day, and there were just as many people. I think the battles for control of the old Muslim fortress wouldn’t have pulled armies that big.

My decades-old memories of a previous visit to the El Alhambra were of being able to wander unsupervised around the old fortress. You had to pay to get in but there weren’t busloads arriving half-hourly to keep the queues long and thick. It was wide open and the main problem was the persistence of the gypsies who would float out of the shadows wanting to read your palm. Maybe time takes the shine off memories because I don’t remember the tiles having the wonderful sheen they have now. There was also less to see because the dilapidated state of much of the then ruins back then had led to large chunks being roped off. Now they have been renovated to how they were originally, or how it is imagined they were. Imagined history, so to speak.

Why take photos at all given Google omnipotence? As a personal souvenir, a memento.

Of course the veracity of my memories is questionable, particularly as I have no photos to even prove I was there.

I don’t pretend to be an especially good photographer. Occasionally my iPhone or camera set on automatic, flukes a good shot but nothing that competes with Google’s images. Google has the world covered visually, including the art works. If I wanted a hard copy reproduction of an art work, it is easier to find clearer images on the post cards in the museum gift store.

Plaza webMayor pic
‘Plaza Mayor’

Postcards might offer better reproductions of art works, but they come with an innate storage problem. The diminishing number of post offices world wide makes finding a place to buy a stamp in a foreign city even harder than home. Postcards have also become outmoded as bookmarks now that Kindle has become the travelling reader’s best friend.

Taking photos in the El Alhambra palace felt redundant. So I found myself including strangers in my photos, to give my new experiences a perspective, to remind myself that I was not alone witnessing this extraordinary monument to history and the people who lived here and built it.

The prod of selfie sticks has become a constant irritant in the age of mass tourism.

Why take photos at all given Google omnipotence? – the most obvious reason seems to be as a personal souvenir, a memento of my time there. All the more reason why selfies are so important, you have to be in the photo to make them relevant. Otherwise you are better off downloading your visuals from Google.

The prod of selfie sticks has become a constant irritant in the age of mass tourism. They have become dangerous weapons that have to be dodged for fear of being stabbed or clubbed by someone swinging around for a better angle for their photo. In some of those tight spaces – on top of medieval towers, or in royal chambers – I feel the need to wear a helmet and a Kevlar jacket.

Obviously it was never like this back in the day. My memories visiting Barcelona last century are tattered at best. Probably not helped by my exhaustive search for cheap tapas in the long narrow streets full of bars which are all still there but not so cheap now. My photo albums from that time have been thrown out long ago when the photos curled and faded. I am reduced to the negatives, if I can find them. It is hard to judge the value of the negatives without seeing them printed, but where do you get photos printed now? Anyway, what would I do with the photos? Probably scan them so I can put them on my hard drive and load them onto the cloud.

Back then, Gaudi’s La Sagrada Familia cathedral was already a big attraction, but more as dream than a reality. What I remember were the Cathedral’s dark, skinny spires, the beginning of Gaudi’s grand vision which had barely started in his lifetime, and then pretty much stalled after his passing in 1926. It was like they had been left behind, a relic of Gaudi’s Gothic modernist vision. They looked emaciated, which was probably the reason why I wasn’t competing for access with droves of people.

There wasn’t so much to visit anyway, given that the church hadn’t really taken shape. Certainly there were no major construction works in my memories of the place. No dizzingly-high cranes competing with the spires that there are now. At that time, the towers were stark, and what has been built over the last three decades was back then, mostly in Gaudi’s sketches, or sadly remained in his head.

The expansion of the La Sagrada Familia from the spindly spires I first saw into a sand castle-like fantasy deserves the massive crowds it draws today.

What I hadn’t remembered was that Gaudi’s will included the stipulation that his designs could only be built with donations. Back then donations tendered to be pesetas, pence and cents, whatever was thrown into the church collection and there was barely a church let alone a place for donations. So construction was slow, and it took some time for sufficient donations to accrue for the building to gain some momentum.

As Gaudi’s fame spread, the Sagrada Familia grew as an attraction, along with the photos and the donations, which led to increased construction, grander spaces for the tourists to see, which drew bigger crowds, more photos, even more donations, and an increase in construction which inspired more photos etc. …. A not-so-vicious cycle that received a massive boost with the 1992 Barcelona Olympics so that today there are long queues of people lining up even in the middle of winter. I was there early and there was already at least an hour wait in the blustery cold, and that was just to get the tickets.

The expansion of the La Sagrada Familia from the spindly spires I first saw into a giant sand castle-like fantasy beyond the collective imaginations of Pixar’s designers, fully deserves the massive crowds it draws today. Particularly as there is even a church that you can shuffle conga-like through. Still, I decided to pass on a visit inside. The challenge of jousting with all the selfie sticks fighting for a good pose was too much.

Inside web Palacio de Carlos V
‘Inside Palacio de Carlos V’

Clearly looking is not enough, it hasn’t been for a long time. To see is not to understand, perhaps even not to believe, in the digital age. The need to capture a ‘digital’ image has become like grabbing a brick from the Berlin Wall or in this case, El Alhambra or Sagrada Familia, to take home. An obvious difference being that the Berlin Wall brick is a little hard to upload into the cloud for storage.

I tried to imagine how many images were being loaded up onto the ‘cloud’ on just the one day I was visiting, and wondered what would happen if God accidentally hit the delete button – technologically challenged, older folk can do that pretty easily – could all the images in the cloud be deleted? Might have to go back and find the old negatives.

All photos by Alex McGregor. Main photo: Sunset at Mirador, San Nicholas

7 responses to “Taking photos of strangers, in the age of crowd control

  1. It depends on whether you are taking photos for yourself or for others to see, When photographing for yourself you add your own perspective on what is being viewed, and at its best this avoids the cliched ‘standard’ shots of the place. There is nothing more cliched than the ‘here we are in front of …’ evidence of being there shot. In a sense the selfie is the ultimate cliche shot. Finding what has an impact on you and photographing it in a way that lets you re-access it again when you view it is the ultimate test of a good travel shot for me.

    I like the digital age for photographs. You can take multiple versions of shots to capture the right feel, rather than agonising over the one shot to get it right because the film and processing is expensive.

  2. Thanks Alex-for the memories. I too lived in Spain during the Franco era. It was a time when the neighbourhood the Sereño guarded the doors to buildings, and milk was delivered by a herd of goats every morning. And a time when the freezing winter winds swept across the plateau of Madrid and everyone rocked the tram out to the university where it crossed a narrow bridge.

    Down south after a long train ride I arrived in Granada If I’ve remembered it correctly the gardens of the Alhambra looked somewhat dusty and the Alhambra itself, beyond compare. I hasten to add I was too young and too stupid at the time to appreciate the history involved. The same night I stayed at an el cheepo hotel in Granada and there was a guy outside singing “Granada.” It was also my birthday.

    It was a place I’d always wanted to go back to. However, it can’t have penetrated deeply because thirty years later we took the children there but I didn’t feel any sense of awe. Intervening years had seen me in the Far East, Middle East, and South America. And having seen most of the countries in South America, I remain amazed how two small European countries could have given birth to the awe and majesty of that land mass.

    As for the hordes of tourists, grrrr., grrrr. Trying to dodge a squillion people holding those wretched selfie sticks can turn even a country as fabulous as Turkey into a nightmare. However, I did get a marvellous shot in Istanbul’s Hippodrome. There was the raging band of tourists clustered around a guide and there was a very large dog stretched out asleep in the sun. Seemed apt, still does.

  3. I too think people can give context to a photo, so I don’t mind including a crowd in a shot I am taking of some landmark. The people are part of the scene, too. I recall that travel was easier without the crowds – though sometimes crowds are necessary to stop a site sliding into oblivion. The battlefield at Waterloo is one of those – I saw it in about 1999 and was shocked to return years later to see a lot of the information plaques had been torn down by vandals and there was a lot of other damage around what was once quite an intact site. The general loss of interest in that site seems to have allowed it to deteriorate. That issue aside, will I line up for hours to go into a popular site? Not any more. The things do not mean anything to me so I would rather use the time to look at something else. Another aside…there is also value in taking no photos at all – as one guide to Uluru suggested: why take yet another photograph…why not just experience something? I too have thousands of images that are never even looked at by me or anyone else. I wish I was close to an idea regarding what to do with them.

  4. I personally think it was worth going inside La Sagrada Familia. I will probably never be back there and it was absolutely beautiful.

  5. Alex: Now exactly four decades ago when my wife and I lived in Madrid – travelled around other parts of Spain – though I had first visited some four years prior to that when Franco was still (at least nominally) in power. I’d even been through the town on the Spanish side of the border with Portugal where a great x 3 grand-father under the command of the Duke of Wellington had been killed in a minor skirmish with the French forces on May 5th, 1811 (something I never realised till checking an old passport one day several years ago) seeking some other detail from the past. Occasionally there were photographs with people – but back in those days the object seemed to be to fill the lens viewfinder with scenery or structures – or interiors – waiting till other people had moved out of the scene. Clean and with the integrity of itself – not “blighted” by the untidiness of human presence – unless capturing the group of people themselves – all dutifully smiling towards the photographer – was the aim. My photographs of that time are few – a decent SLR camera had been stolen in Italy – and the insurance did not cover replacement – a tiny camera the replacement.

    Leap forward two or three decades and I was living and teaching in Japan. I had an excellent (analogue) SLR – capturing images of Japan which helped me understand it – its cultural historical scenic botanical differences – different from my Australia. Again – largely bereft of other people. I put up a display of about 60 selected photographs in one of the display spaces at the university where I was teaching. One of the Research Institute Professors remarked on the patterns he saw in my photographs – his field – and world famous he was – was Liquid Crystal Display. The Dean (then head of the International Catalysis Association – his father had worked pre-Great War with Nobel prize-winners) went to have a look and approached me afterwards: “There are no people in your photos!” It was politely stated but I felt the accusation behind his expostulation. He gave me a book of his photographs – “Look at these – see if you can sense the difference between scenes with people and your own.” He was suggesting something about “soul” I am sure! It made a big impression on me.

    I am thinking of photos taken recently around Circular Quay – Chinese New Year – how the Year of the Ram/Sheep – along the waterfront towards the Opera House – was enhanced by taking it with a family group (Chinese) standing in front of it – looking towards Mum who was snapping Dad with the two toddlers. Anyway Dean TAMARU – thanks!

    26 years ago in a different part of Japan I was introduced to another one of my photography mentors – SHIMADA Hidetoshi (1930-1998). I was early in an exchange teaching position – it coincided with the glories of cherry blossom. I snapped away – delighted with the visions of pink. I had a mini album with me and after being introduced – passed it across to him. He flipped quickly through it and laid it aside. Everything in Japan in those days was new to me – the meaning of whatever happened seemed hard to read – I maintained my equilibrium in the face of this dismissal – or so I like to think. Then after other pleasantries and some tea – he suddenly said that he would tell me the secret to good photography. He ran an educational unit producing documentaries and teaching programs for the region. He knew what he was talking about – that much I understood. But that I was to be told “the secret” felt unimaginably privileged. I had read enough about Japan to understand that many foreigners were there to seek the essential meaning of Japan or the Japanese – through the study of a martial art or of some cultural practice such as Buddhism or Tea Ceremony. I braced myself. “So,” he continued, “it’s not what you put into the viewfinder, it’s what you leave out.” Like all “secrets” – simple yet profound. I immediately recollected a photograph I had taken from the Lookout Tower on Mt TARRENGOWER in central Victoria back in 1968. Tiny camera – rolling wooded hills to the far horizon – nothing at all to distinguish it as of anywhere particular – a wasted distant shot once printed. Better might have been a photograph from the top through the tower to the ground 20 or so metres below! Anyway, I took his words to heart – and went out that very afternoon taking photographs up through cherry blossom to the blue skies above – his “secret” transformed my photography. (In my own eyes!) So thanks SHIMADA-sensei, too!

    Thanks, Alex.

  6. Beautiful elegy for a pre-digital age – and a period before the dependence of so many economies upon the tourist dollar.

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