Roland Barthes article The Blue Guide unpicks the thinking behind Hachette’s travel guide of Europe in a way which made me rethink some of my own attitudes to travel and photography. He argues that only the picturesque is included, with an obsession with mountains and rivers, which he attributes to the 19th century ‘cult of nature’ and puritan emphasis on physical effort.
Climb every mountain; ford every stream. Follow every rainbow, till you find your dream. (From The Sound of Music)
Alongside this, he muses on the emphasis on monuments, particularly grand buildings, churches and other religious symbols. Until one has ticked off various (largely Christian) religious buildings on a visit, one cannot say that you have “seen” it. Conversely, people are mentioned only briefly, and generally as stereotypes.(the Basque fisherman, the Scottish highlander, etc.). Barthes attributes this to authors trying to capture the “essence” of a place in as few words as possible Also, there is often an underlying cultural narrative which promotes a particular view of historical events, which may not be objectively correct.
The net effect of all this is to make the people who inhabit the places, both historic and modern, a mere afterthought to the buildings and scenery, and as such Barthes argues that the Blue Guide becomes an agent for blindness, leading visitors on a tour only of the bourgeois history of Europe, and ignoring any other narrative. Current thinking argues that we should attempt to reintegrate the histories of women, and minority groups into this historiography in order to get a more rounded understanding of a place’s history.
This article was epiphanic for me. I’ve been wondering for years about why particular locations are seen as so iconic when visiting a new place, and why people feel they need to collect images of them as souvenirs, so they can tick them off a list of experiences. The media is full of articles such as 1o places to visit before you die, which feed this hunger and encourages people to travel.. By going along with this narrative, one misses out on learning about the location’s people and their lives, which are, after all, the heart and soul of the place.
Barthes, R (1972) ‘The Blue Guide’. In Mythologies. Available online at: https://monoskop.org/images/8/85/Barthes_Roland_Mythologies_EN_1972.pdf (Accessed on 11 July 2016)