Dark Tourism and the Power of the Image

September 10, 2008

I attended a talk tonight at the Center for Architecture in New York called Memorial and Meaning. The panelists, Michael Arad (who designed the World Trade Center Memorial), Frederic Schwartz (architect of several 9/11 memorials including the Westchester Memorial), and Louis Nelson (architect of the Korean War Memorial in Washington, D.C), spoke eloquently and often emotionally about their work. But the highlight of the show came in the form of a photography exhibition that lined walls of the Centre for Architecture. The the work of Julie Dermansky, a photographer who has traveled around the world capturing images of memorials built to remember genocide and massacre in many different contexts, is both fascinating and unsettling. 

The exhibit, entitled “Memorial Sites: New York to Nairobi,” contains an array of images that pointedly recount the story of atrocities committed by humankind around the world. Dermansky’s photos are often jarring: stacks of skulls in Cambodia and bloody clothes hanging on a wire in Rwanda. Others show more abstract images of human-caused tragedy: structures of steel or stone that represent loss and absence, that portray sadness and pain in conceptual form.

In her artist statement, she mentioned that there is now a term for this type of travel, for trips that take people to visit these memorial sites. “Dark tourism,” she explains, is becoming more prevalent.” A walk around the World Trade Center in New York can attest to this. 

After the talk, I stayed behind to ask Dermansky a question. I thought her photos were amazing: simple in style yet burdened by the weight of their meaning. “How do these photos speak to the atrocities occurring now?” I asked. I suppose I was afraid that her project would perhaps be primarily about the past in a way that didn’t engage with the present or the future. She smiled and said, “Oh, it’s all about now. It’s about the Sudan; it’s about China.”

She explained further that current atrocities must be brought to the public eyes in different ways. People often feel overwhelmed, guilty, or don’t know what to do when faced with the enormity of international conflict and destruction. But the images she takes are a way to reference the present without pointing a finger. They allow people to ask how this violence can be prevented or stopped. It enables them to raise these questions themselves. No preaching, no blame, and perhaps a new awareness. 

To see Julie Dermansky’s photos and read more about her work, visit: www.jsdart.com.

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