With 7.4 million people crammed into its 426 square miles, Hong Kong can be overwhelming to tourists. But now an app tells you exactly what to see—or, more precisely, what to photograph.
Scroll through Explorest to find a surfeit of futuristic high-rises, minimalist staircases, and rooftop views perfect for selfies. Clicking on the pic tells you how to capture it—not only the GPS coordinates for where to plant your feet, but also the exact settings to punch into your camera (in the unlikely event it’s not a smartphone).
"Two of the most common questions asked on social media are 'Where was this picture taken?' and 'How do I get there?'" says CEO Justin Meyers. "We want to make traveling a more seamless, cultural experience using an extensive database of local knowledge."
But Explorest is just an app-shaped version of something tourists already do: flit from attraction to attraction to take the same photos they've already seen of Buckingham Palace, the Golden Gate Bridge or even Brussels' Peeing Boy. That script, staged again and again by countless visitors, reflects how photography has always shaped the travel experience—for good or bad.
“It can be an opening up to the world,” says Peter D. Osborne, the author of Photography and the Contemporary Cultural Condition , “or it can be forcing the world into your frame—as it were, almost literally.”
The standardization of travel all started in the 18th century, as guidebooks began directing visitors to “picturesque” views that looked like paintings. They recorded them with the gadgets of the day: Claude glasses reflected tinted, fisheye scenes that were easy to sketch, while Camera Lucidas actually transposed them onto the page. Nifty as those tools were, they couldn't hold their own against the daguerreotype, a heavy wooden box camera introduced in 1839 that gentleman travelers soon began lugging to Greece and Egypt. But the early technology was still too cumbersome and time-consuming for most people, who just bought postcards.
Until Kodak. The introduction of George Eastman's lightweight, foolproof camera in 1888 meant hordes of tourists could quickly press a button to capture their individual experiences … which turned out to be more or less identical.
That’s because photographs actually created the attractions in the first place. As sociologist Dean MacCannell observed in his 1976 book The Tourist: A New Theory of the Leisure Class , images lift unknown landscapes from obscurity, marking them as significant and “setting the tourist in motion on his journey to find the true object.”
When you found it, you snapped a pic to prove it—a circular ritual John Urry describes in his 2002 book The Tourist Gaze . “What is sought for in a holiday is a set of photography images, which have already been seen in tour company brochures or on TV programmes," he wrote. "[It] ends up with travellers demonstrating that they really have been there by showing their version of the images that they had seen before they set off.”
It's less about seeing the place than taking the same photo as everyone else. At the Grand Canyon in the 1970s, Osborne saw a group of tourists lining up to snap pictures at a spot specially marked for doing so. "People were queuing up, quite politely, waiting their turns," Osborne says. "I thought, 'Why don't they just spread out three or four meters on either side?"
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That lemming-like practice didn't change much with the democratization of tourism in the late 20th century, or even with the explosion of digital photography and social media in the 21st. Now there are more tourists than ever, more trips than ever, and more lookalike photographs than ever. They still depict the same definitive sites set out long ago in travel books, but as these attractions have become ordinary, the ordinary has also become the attraction. Your smartphone lets you snap an unlimited stream of Airbnbs, infinity pools and urban art—all of which you probably first saw on Instagram.
It's tough to break out of that cycle. I knew it was silly to join the crowd of tourists clicking away at the Mona Lisa when I visited the Louvre a couple years ago—geotagging has made it all too clear how unoriginal those photos are. But I did it anyway, elbowing through a sea of smartphones and selfie sticks for a tourist-free shot at the front. The visit just didn’t feel complete without it. But why?
Because photographing something is a way of possessing it—at least, that's what the critic Susan Sontag argued in her 1977 classic, On Photography. “To collect photographs is to collect the world," she wrote. It confirms your connection to places and objects once distant and remote, making the world slightly smaller and less alienating.
Ironically, though, "collecting the world" might mean also losing it. “A way of certifying experience, taking photographs is also a way of refusing it—by limiting experience to a search for the photogenic, by converting experience into an image, a souvenir,” Sontag wrote.
Some recent studies support that idea. One suggested that taking a photo of something makes it harder to remember it . Another found museum-goers were less likely to remember objects if they took photos. And yet, photography is an impartial technology like any other.
Maybe the problem is less with the tool than with how it’s used. Most tourists will never be explorers in the traditional sense of the word, but you can still engage with what's in front of you in a serious way—and the camera, and maybe even apps like Explorest, can help you do that. Jonas Larsen, professor of mobility at Roskilde University, has studied tourist behavior at attractions in Denmark. While some were hurriedly snapping away, others were taking their time, carefully studying their environment between snaps. “Rather than being reduced to something superficial, it can actually open you up to a more sustained kind of experience," he says.
That feels true. During a high school trip to Italy, I lagged behind the group, stopping every few steps to take a photo with my Nikon film camera. It offered a way to look more deeply and express my delight at the details: walls overgrown with ivy, windows crowded with flower pots, a whitewashed monastery shining in the afternoon sun.
I wasn't merely collecting shots of the world I’d already seen. I was soaking them in.
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