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July 12, 2007 6:42 AM   Subscribe

Whence the Asian tourist habit of having themselves photographed standing stiffly in front of monuments? It's the repetitivity/automation with which it's done that never ceases to amaze me.

Couldn't find any thoughtful articles on this. (Also: is it as specifically asian a habit as it seems?)
posted by progosk to Society & Culture (47 answers total) 9 users marked this as a favorite
I think it's more of an amateur photgrapher's habit than particularly Asian. Individuals that are not trained in subject framing and orientation aren't aware that they are taking a boring photgraph. Very funny though and entirely uninteresting aside from the placement humor.
posted by NotInTheBox at 6:51 AM on July 12, 2007

I've always wondered why people (not specifically Asian in my experience, though living in London I do often note this being done by Japanese tourists in particular) go on holiday and take pictures of themselves standing in front of things at all. What scenes of photo-worthy beauty or note are there that can be improved upon by having them grinning in front of it? Or is it that they will forget they were there otherwise?
posted by Acarpous at 7:05 AM on July 12, 2007

I agree fully with NotInTheBox.

Totally amateur. Anyone who takes boring pictures solely of people in front of backgrounds may as well be using a blue screen and photoshop.

As for the humor aspect -- definitely. I like to stand with my hands on my hips in photographs sometimes just to imitate that phenomenon. I think it's funniest when instead of having the landmark as the background, they have the steps leading to the landmark as the background.

"Here I am, on the steps of the the Met".

"Here I am, on the steps of the Natural History Museum".

Definitely not solely an Asian thing, as I've had the joy of sitting through photo album show and tells of friends on vacations, taking pictures of themselves on any landmark steps available.
posted by jeffxl at 7:06 AM on July 12, 2007

I don't think they are trying to make "art", but rather, a memento -- "Oh, remember, we visited the Louvre. Remember how great it was!" -- or proof, of a sort -- "Hey, we were actually at the Grand Canyon".

It's not always just about how something looks on the surface.
posted by amtho at 7:09 AM on July 12, 2007

Response by poster: Yes, of course it's an amateur thing, but what i'm wondering is: where did they get the idea? Is it something to do with their presence validating the snap differently (to differentiate it from, say, a postcard)? What's working in their unconscious, causing this formulaic behaviour - and then, presumably, affording them comfort by the glaringly serial results?
posted by progosk at 7:13 AM on July 12, 2007

When I was living in Japan, I noticed the same pattern... I would often show my Japanese friends photos I had taken of my travels, and they were generally somewhat disappointed that I wasn't actually in any of them.

While the phenomena certainly occurs outside Asia, I've definitely noticed it with more frequency there.

Perhaps it is done as sort of "evidence" that they were in a particular place, so that 10 years down the road they can say, "look how young I looked when I went to x on holiday when I was 20".

Perhaps a companion phenomenon might be my western friends who insist on turning and facing the camera and smiling whenever I pull my camera out, despite the fact that I would much rather just take "candid" shots of whatever gathering I happen to be at.

I wish I had some more brilliant insight to offer!
posted by modernnomad at 7:13 AM on July 12, 2007

My family is Asian and does this all the time when we travel together and it is supremely annoying. We could be, y'know, inside <$monument> looking at presumably cool stuff but instead we're out here trying to organize everyone into some arrangement that exactly blocks out <$monument> from the photo anyway. And even if the wonders of internet mean we could email one around after the trip, everyone wants the same photo on their camera now, so the hapless designated photographer is standing there with a half dozen cameras hanging off their wrist (or arranged around their feet, which besides being an open invitation to theft makes them look a bit like street electronics dealers) as the rest of us yell "no no, the other big silver button, you have to hold it all the way down!"

I'm pretty sure it's a LOOK MA WE WUZ HERE thing.
posted by casarkos at 7:19 AM on July 12, 2007 [1 favorite]

I'm more curious about two things:

- Where the ubiquitous peace sign in photographs of young Asians (mostly Japanese?) comes from.

- Why people from all over feel the need to take photographs of themselves next to works of art. You're in my way, you won't be able to appreciate the art in your shitty photo, and you look that much uglier standing next to it. Now GET OFF MY LAWN!
posted by mkultra at 7:19 AM on July 12, 2007

I don't think this is particularly an Asian trait. I have seen everybody do it everywhere.

This is more to do with having a keepsake of where they have been. Just kind of keeping a record of been-there-done-that.

But I remember being amazed at busload of Japanese tourists working in perfect coordination to take a group photograph in less than 10 seconds. Imagine a group of 30-40 people taking their places in group photograph and mahanging to take snaps with 10-15 seconds. Its a sight to behold.
posted by shr1n1 at 7:22 AM on July 12, 2007

mkultra, it's not a peace sign, it's a victory sign. As to why it's used so frequently, not so sure.

And I think taking lame photos standing in front of monuments isn't an "Asian" thing (WTF?), it's a pretty universal thing.
posted by chunking express at 7:23 AM on July 12, 2007

I (non Asian) take pictures of myself and my family in front of things. Why would I just take a picture of the thing itself? If I wanted just a picture of the thing why did I go there at all? Why not just buy a professional picture of the thing and stay home? The result would be the same except the picture would be better because it was taken by a real photographer. Flickr and various photo-sharing sites have convinced people that everybody wants to be photographers. Well not all of us do. Some of us (me and the residents of Asia apparently) just want to take pictures.
posted by ND¢ at 7:25 AM on July 12, 2007 [5 favorites]

Have you ever sat through a slideshow of someone's trip? Photos of buildings alone tend to be a bit boring. I mean, the Taj Mahal is beautiful, but I've seen it before in better pictures. But a photo of a person, even a posed snapshot from a distance, is more interesting. A photo of my (fictional) great-aunt Gertrude, who saved up for years for her dream vacation, smiling in front of the Taj Mahal in tacky floral culottes and a blue floppy hat--that's a lot more fun.
posted by hydrophonic at 7:25 AM on July 12, 2007 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: Ok, so far we've got:
- immediate proof "i was there"
- future record "i was younger"
- memento "remember when we were there?"
- people are more interesting than buildings

With the following added angles
- (western?) presumption of being a real "photographer"
- compare/contrast with vs. typically western "smile-to-camera"

Still no further on where the archetype might be from. Memento mori? Pictures/Portraits of early travellers?
posted by progosk at 7:43 AM on July 12, 2007

Sometimes it works out - after taking a ferry from Istanbul to the end of the Bosporus and the entrance to the Black Sea, a friend and I climbed a steep hill behind a village and posed on the edge overlooking the water, making us appear to be leaning on Europe, or pushing Europe and Asia apart, with looks of extreme physical strain on our faces. I took other photos too, of course, but those are my favorites, because we were able to really highlight the novelty of the situation. We got photos of the place without us in them, of course, but without people, the area just looked like any other bay or inlet. Our actions, we tell ourselves, gave our posed photos context.
posted by mdonley at 7:44 AM on July 12, 2007 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: Also, casarkos and sh1r1n: both aspects of the relevant group behaviour (the series of individuals replicating a pose/snap as well as the trained coordination for the groupsnap moment) are fascinating to me. The dedication with which it's done borders on the ritualistic. (It's what this ritual's about that I'm trying to figure out - or at the very least find something to read about.)
posted by progosk at 7:48 AM on July 12, 2007

I could get a picture of the eiffel tower anywhere. But a picture of me in front of the eiffel tower I gotta take myself. It's both 'proof' that you were there and a reminder of the good times you had while you were there.
posted by sid at 7:50 AM on July 12, 2007

Response by poster: oops: sh1r1n shr1n1
posted by progosk at 7:50 AM on July 12, 2007

Response by poster: sid/ND¢: are you saying that, if you photographed just the view/object, you wouldn't remember that moment when you took the photograph? So you're, as it were, predicting the impermanence of your own memory of the place/moment - thus preferring to make the picture an explicit reminder/piece of evidence?

One thing i actually suspect is that putting yourself into the picture is a kind of outsourcing of your memory of the moment. If you made a very special picture, a picture that only you could take, wouldn't that picture then be more evocative of your experience of that place? Perhaps this is an encumbance that a lot of people do not want.
posted by progosk at 7:57 AM on July 12, 2007

amtho for the win. It's proof you went, for later show and tell. Definitely not just an asian phenomenon.
posted by invitapriore at 7:58 AM on July 12, 2007

OK, I have to admit that I totally do this. [NOT ASIAN]. I have plenty of pictures of the Great Barrier Reef and the Sidney Harbor Bridge/Opera House (and of course professional photographers have taken absolutely stunning ones to which I have access). But the ones I carry with me are this one and this one. Why? Because they remind me not only of the amazing reef and the cool opera house, but also of the wonderful time I had there with my lovely wife. It's not always about "art".
posted by The Bellman at 7:59 AM on July 12, 2007

Best answer: The idea of capturing landscapes as a subject matter is relatively new compared to representing discrete objects, like people. I remember studying in art history that the first paintings of landscapes as objects dated to around the 1500s, whereas people have been painting other people virtually since the beginning of art. What this suggests is that it's somehow a more obvious idea to capture a photo of a person rather than a vista. It's certainly easier to frame. I think there's a felt obligation to document interesting experiences and of course you'd take a photo of the people since it's their experience. The background is just context, not the subject.

The stiffness of the pose is likely an artifact of the photography process. I'm fascinated by the idea that culturally people are so willing to modify their behavior to fit the needs of the camera. Everyone knows that you have to stand perfectly still for a few seconds and say cheese. How unnatural, how dictatorial. It's like life stops for an instant, because the camera needs us to be still.

If cameras didn't produce blurry images outside of a narrow tolerance, I don't think you'd see the same stiff poses. Everyone is just standing there because that's the safest way to take a photograph. If you look at old portraits from the 1800s and early 1900s you wonder why everyone looks so grim. That's the only expression people could hold for the length of time it took to make an exposure, but as cameras improved that largely went away.

As people are exposed to video cameras and consumer-level cameras with even quicker exposures I think you'll start to see more candid photographs begin to dominate in a generation or so.
posted by Jeff Howard at 8:07 AM on July 12, 2007 [3 favorites]

Well, what the heck else are you supposed to take pictures of? Tourism is an inherently amateur practice. There are thousands of professional and non-professional but extremely talented photographers who've taken thousands upon thousands of beautiful pictures of wherever you're visiting or whatever you're seeing, and have done it a hundred times better than you ever will. Likewise, taking pictures of -just- oneself is silly, because again, there are portrait photographers who can do it much better, if the background doesn't matter. The point is to capture that, yes, we were here, we saw this in person, and it was so unbelievably cool, there's just no way pictures could do justice, so you'll have to listen to our stories of it and then go visit for yourself one day.
posted by po at 8:11 AM on July 12, 2007 [2 favorites]

For a memento. For proof. 'Cause it's fun. Thousands of pros and amateurs having taken the same photo WITHOUT you in it, so why do you need to duplicate it?

Also, ever sit through someone's boring travel slideshow? The pictures with people you know, especially if they're hamming it up, are infinitely more interesting to see.
posted by exquisite_deluxe at 8:24 AM on July 12, 2007

There was this one time when I spotted a dog lying on the ground, soaking in the rays, outside Pompeii. I (being British-Chinese), decided to take a photo of this event. to sounds of laughter from the other half.

Upon looking up, I realised why. Two groups of Asian tourists had decided to take the exact same shot I had just taken - of a sunbathing dog outside Pompeii.

I don't know whether they were all Flickr wanna-bes or copycats.
posted by electriccynic at 8:38 AM on July 12, 2007

Americans do this too, usually as a family portrait on visiting various places. The strangest incidence of this I ever saw was at Trinity Site (only open to the public 2 days a year), where smiling groups of people were lining up to get the family photo in front of the ground zero monument. everybody smile and say "global thermonuclear war!" It just seems like an odd thing to want in the family photo album.

I don't recall the specific ethnic distribution of people doing this, so it was probably in line with that of the surrounding area.

As far as why people of any ethnicity would have themselves in photos, I'd rather someone give me a photo with themselves or someone I know in it than some vista of something they saw. Once the kids grow up or grandma dies, these sorts of photos serve an important spot in family history.
posted by yohko at 8:42 AM on July 12, 2007

Best answer: Having lived in Japan, I think there's something to progosk's point. I'm not saying non-Asians don't do this, but there does seem to be something…totemistic about it in Japan. This sunk in for me when I saw photos of an acquaintance's trip to China. She brought back photos of breathtaking, otherworldly scenery—with her standing in front of it in every. single. goddamned. picture (this is particularly ironic because the woman in question is an artist).

It's as if the visit wasn't real until the visitor was documented as having being there. I had a vaguely similar experience when I went with an American friend to visit a Japanese family she knew. The grandfather videotaped us sitting around drinking tea and chitchatting. Then he loaded the tape in the VCR and we watched ourselves drinking tea and chitchatting. I suspect this springs from the same urge. But I don't know where that urge comes from.
posted by adamrice at 8:46 AM on July 12, 2007 [1 favorite]

I think that most people don't seem to want to take photos of buildings/monuments/natural objects from unusual and interesting angles or viewpoints.

'Flat' pictures of anything are fairly boring, so if they stand the family in front of it and take a picture of that, then in their minds it maybe makes it more interesting . If I can, I always try and find new ways to look at something when I photograph it.
posted by worker_bee at 8:54 AM on July 12, 2007

Response by poster: here's something (from google cache): "Pizam, Jansen-Verbeke, and Steel (1997) reported that Japanese tourists were. perceived by the Dutch tour guides as highly involved in photography when ... "
posted by progosk at 9:10 AM on July 12, 2007

Don't be afraid of this particular stereotype. It's an Asian thing. Not to say other cultures don't do it, but it really is more common with Chinese, if not other Asians.

I've shown my Chinese friends pictures from my vacations, and they've been mildly disappointed/perplexed that I'm in so few of them.

While out on vacation, it's really common to see Chinese women elaborately posing for their photographer boyfriends/husbands; in sexy/funny ways that few Americans I know would be comfortable doing in public. At first it seemed silly to me, but the more I see it the more refreshingly uninhibited it seems to me.

After observing a lot of Chinese people on a lot of domestic vacations, my conclusion is that they are generally much more comfortable posing for pictures in general, and much more likely to share their vacation pictures with co-workers, family, and friends. (I work in a Chinese office, so I'm not just pulling this entirely out of my ass).

Anyway, when I make it a point now to take at least 2 or 3 pics of me standing in front of some landmark when I go on vacation.
posted by bluejayk at 9:34 AM on July 12, 2007

It certainly takes the guesswork out of photography when you have a prescribed pattern of places and poses to fulfill. Photography doesn't have to be a creative process with an aesthetically relevant output - it can be a journal. Over a long trip, people who take these shots produce a play-by-play of their itinerary, which may not be interesting to anyone else but is at least a complete and authentic memento.

As for the peace sign, wonder no more.
posted by Ambrosia Voyeur at 9:50 AM on July 12, 2007

I should add: when I was a tour guide at The Mystery Spot, we had bajillions of Chinese tourists and I was always perplexed at how to pose when they wanted a photo of me, because so often they would just stand in the shot, deadpan, while I was all "heeeeey, right back atcha babe" at camera.
posted by Ambrosia Voyeur at 9:52 AM on July 12, 2007

Wow....another huge difference is that (Indian) people at least never smile for the camera. Americans almost always do.
posted by skepticallypleased at 9:53 AM on July 12, 2007

Best answer: The Patel shot.
posted by enrevanche at 10:22 AM on July 12, 2007

I dont think it's an Asian thing, It's just some kind of a proof that u can show other that u hv been there.

When I go some where with friends I try to capture things of interests which includes the friends in the frame, without them intentionally posing for the photo. But unfortunately others don't do that, so basically when I need a photo of my self in front of somethings, I hv to pose and ask them to take a picture.

But in this digital age (wher u don't hv to pay for film) u can take as much as pictures of anything with/without ur self in it.
posted by WizKid at 10:22 AM on July 12, 2007

Barely even amateur photographer and I do this all the time too.

People are interesting and transitory.

Landscapes are usually quite static (monuments more so).

Which one should I preserve?

I suspect cultural attitudes would explain why this behavior (and possibly attitude) is more prevalent among Japanese tourists more than Westerners. A quick google search reveals that there are a number of academic papers on the subject, but they're all locked behind subscription-only websites. If you're really interested in something beyond supposition (unless we happen to have an anthropologist in the house), I'd suggest that you check out your local library for some more researched answers.
posted by fishfucker at 10:38 AM on July 12, 2007

I thnk it's considered an "Asian" thing as they stand out more in Westerns societies when they're traveling--you're gonna notice the busload of Japanese tourists before your quiet German couple. And seeing White American tourists in other countries (with their pale legs in shorts, no less ;), I'd say we're guilty of the same thing abroad.

Now what's up with the 20-something-and-younger crowd with their arms-length self-portraits?
posted by hobbes at 10:38 AM on July 12, 2007

Response by poster: enrevanche: thanks - some interesting points here.
posted by progosk at 10:47 AM on July 12, 2007

I agree with hobbes and think this is observation bias. Large groups of Asians are rare in my neck of the woods, so I would notice them before I'd notice European tourists. It's the same question as "why do black people ....?" Probably lots of white people do too, but I just tune it out.

If it's observation bias, then you're not going to find an original source in Asian culture.

My parents [white American] always complain that I'm never in my vacation photos. My thought is, you're seeing me RIGHT NOW - I'm sitting next to you! If you need proof I went on the trip, here's my airline ticket stub.
posted by desjardins at 10:59 AM on July 12, 2007

Best answer: Once upon a time it was necessary to hold a pose for several minutes while the photograph slowly "burned in" to the film. This is one reason why people are sitting down and not smiling in many old photos. Perhaps there's some carry over. More likely people are concentrating on not blinking.

Yes, of course it's an amateur thing, but what i'm wondering is: where did they get the idea?

I don't think people have the idea to iterate the "stiff-pose-monument" cultural meme as you perceive it. Folks travel for many reasons and one of them is so they can say they've been there. Documenting onesself in front of a landmark is like taking a trophy. You get to go home and put it on the wall and say "look what an interesting and well-traveled person I am." It's the same reason people take their photos with celebrities and political candidates: by juxtaposing themselves against something well-known, they hope to inherit some of its fame - perhaps solidify for posterity the fact that THEY WERE THERE or that they are more real.

Given our short lifespans and the vast anonymous landscape of this modern world, I think people do feel it's easy to be lost and forgotten forever. Being photographed with something famous and permanent perhaps sublimates the fear or dying in obscurity, which almost all of us are going to do anyway.
posted by scarabic at 11:09 AM on July 12, 2007

OK, I can understand the "I was there" need, but please explain why tourists take pictures of art in museums? I frequent NYC's museums and see it all the time -- no one in the shot, just somebody jockeying into position (no worries about disturbing other viewers actually absorbed in the work) to get a picture of the art. WTF?
posted by thinkpiece at 12:23 PM on July 12, 2007

i dont knnow about the asian thing, but i know the tourist picture you're talking about.

i think it's the fear of death.

it says "i existed. i was here"

so when we die and decompose, there is some record we were once walking around.
posted by prophetsearcher at 4:52 PM on July 12, 2007 [1 favorite]

Also: is it as specifically asian a habit as it seems?

My mother runs a boarding home for foreign students in Mexico. Most of the guests visit the exact same cities and monuments, and share the pictures with us. This gives me a nice sample, I think.

Everyone takes pictures of themselves in front of monuments, but I see some consistent differences:

Japanese girls (we have never had a japanese male) will always have the same facial expression, and make the exact same V sign in EVERY SINGLE PICTURE. Most of their pictures are just like you described. They have very few different pictures, mostly portraits of their non Japanese friends.

Most Europeans will have pictures of themselves posing in front of monuments/landscapes, but doing funny stuff, like wearing funny clothes, squishing a monument between their fingers, etc... Many pictures show them interacting with the locals. Lastly,many of the pictures don't have them in there, and these pictures are usually of stuff they find unique to the place they are visiting, mostly people in traditional clothing, weird signs and exotic food.

Most Americans and Canadians will have thousands of pictures of themselves and their friends hanging out and goofing around. They seem to try to go for the candid and embarrassing shots (I have been subject to hours of "and that is my friend Jenny passed out in her own vomit showing her thong"). Pictures of them standing in front of stuff are few, one per city, location at most. I guess these are the ones to make it to the family album.

When we've had Latin Americans, they take a lot less pictures, and mostly they are group shots of special events, like birthdays, parties, etc...

My personal plan is to make enough money to take a short space trip, and take TWO pictures only, of myself standing in front of the window, showing one side of earth on each. I will carry these two pictures with me, and whenever someone starts showing me pictures of themselves standing in front of famous place, I will swap out the appropriate picture and say 'No need to continue, I have been there, and there, and also there'.
posted by Dataphage at 7:55 PM on July 12, 2007 [1 favorite]

thinkpiece:I went to Europe last year and visited a ton of museums, seeing some cool art I've never heard of. I took photos of stuff I liked, and when I remembered I also took a photo of the nametag/description next to it. Now I have cool desktop pictures, and a cheapass beginners guide to what kind of art I like. It was especially satisfying to see that I'd often zero in on the same few artists in several museums.
posted by jacalata at 9:17 PM on July 12, 2007

Best answer: Just in case anyone's still reading, here's the kind of answer i was hoping for, courtesy of Philip Pearce, Foundation Professor of Tourism at James Cook University in Australia, whom I took the liberty of emailing:

"My view is that it is a habit developed by comparison with others, and derived from the low experience levels of the first waves of Asian travellers - with self portraits being one of the behaviours that defines the tourist role. In short, a solution to what you do when you get somewhere, exaggerated by a cross cultural issue of not always understanding why you are where you are and what you are looking at. Solution? Take a photo, rather than engage verbally, intellectually."
Note how this analysis can be applied, with the relevant nuancing, to any ethnic/cultural group.
posted by progosk at 11:03 PM on July 12, 2007

One thing I will add - with US tourists they do the same thing and they smile. A lot of asian facial expressivity is in the eyes more than the mouth. Maybe it just looks like a blank stare to you, maybe some asians would see your pictures of you standing in front of a monument smiling and wonder why your eyes look dead.
posted by henryis at 1:07 PM on July 13, 2007

Thanks for the update, progosk, interesting.
posted by paduasoy at 2:37 AM on July 15, 2007

I have the strong idea that these sorts of photos were used to sell the public on buying cameras, in decades past. These were common sorts of photos for American families in the baby boom. They sold a meme, the meme has a life of its own.
posted by Goofyy at 8:55 AM on July 16, 2007

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