It’s a unique form of travel, tourism. In order to prevent their clients’ feeling lost, the global tourism industry serves up package holidays that organize travelers’ time within prescribed activities.
Tourists choose this option. For the truly curious, a few unaccompanied (perhaps uncertain) hours of walking will often teach you more about a place than a guided tour.
Compared to, say, “backpacking” – youngsters setting off to distant lands with little more than idle curiosity and a change of drawers – package tourism is the processed food of travel.
Lebanese photographer Gilbert Hage gets it. His “Screening Berlin,” a 19-photo exhibition of work currently on show at Clemenceau’s Espace Kettaneh Kunigk, is a silent expression of distaste for the tourist industry.
Reluctant to talk about his work in person, the photographer’s somewhat impressionistic artist’s statement depicts the photos as “a project that raises the issue of the fragmenting of the life of a human being into work and leisure, and then his conditioning as a tourist vacationer.”
Hage’s camera draws attention to the brainwashing aspect of the tourist industry, guides who prey on travelers until “under the pretext of anticipating his desires, his wills and to satisfy his needs, they deprive him of any freedom of choice.”
To this end the photographer booked himself and his camera on the ultimate in prescriptive tourist experiences – a boat tour of Berlin. Out of this journey came “Screening Berlin,” a collection of photographs taken from the windows of the boat, which capture the changing riverbanks, buildings and people along the water’s edge.
“Nailed to my seat to better refuse their editing,” Hage says, “I fixed chance ordinary landscapes.” It appears that, in an attempt to rebel, the photographer took photos of areas of the riverbank not meant to be part of the tour.
The series of images that resulted – most of them 60 cm x70 cm, all remarkably clear for having been taken through glass – document the various aspects of Berlin, from smart stone walkways and grand buildings to abandoned graffiti-covered factories.
The photographs were taken from various different windows, but Hage has manipulated them so that each photo is viewed through the frame of the same drab ship’s window, surrounded by grimy plastic and cleats, and topped with an incongruous frill of faded yellow curtain.
This gives the photos an impression of uniformity that only serves to emphasize, upon closer inspection, how different each image really is.
Gazing upon the river bank (forever above a seemingly unchanging strip of brackish green water) the variation is enormous – ranging from the city center’s beautiful heavy stone walls, to ugly, stained concrete banks in the more industrial areas, to grassy slopes covered with scrubby bushes as the journey continues toward the city limits.
One photo captures an elegant modernist structure with huge curved glass windows, situated next to a set of dignified stone steps leading down to the water. The predominance of grey and blue tones is balanced by splashes of color from pedestrians – a bright orange raincoat, a red scarf and a bright blue and scarlet pram.
In complete contrast is an image that appears to have been taken in a run-down industrial area of the city. Framed by the ugly ship’s window, this photo captures three derelict buildings behind an ugly metal security fence, while, pointing up into the grey sky between them, is a crumbling old chimney stack.
The feeble metal fencing has not protected the building from graffiti – to the right, colorful tags adorn a sprawling two-story building. To the left a towering red brick edifice is entirely covered with paint, which transforms it into a surreal pattern of green, yellow and white, like a child’s drawing of a house.
The show seems to hinge more on the concept of stolen moments in an inflexible tour than on the photographs themselves, which are essentially snapshots.
Hage’s intention has succeeded to an extent. Using the window frame this way to render each image distant and unreal, as though viewed on television, highlights the superficial nature of this kind of travel – which reveals everything and nothing about a city.
At the same time, the photos do show the sheer variety a river tour can reveal, which somewhat undermines Hage’s intention. While having his camera gaze upon the less salubrious aspects of Berlin – the derelict buildings, construction sites and abandoned factories – does go against the grain of what his tour guide had in mind, there is no denying that anybody else taking the tour could also have seen these sights.
The fruit of this boat trip undoubtedly provide an insight into Berlin’s diversity, no matter how brief. The perhaps unintended impact of “Screening Berlin” is to remind onlookers that the city behind the tourist veneer can be laid bare by anybody who cares to look.