Is Travel Just Jealousy?: An Interview With Oleg Tolstoy

 

Travel has become toxic. It is linked to the acceleration of neoliberalism. Cities are emptied out for the sole purpose of accommodating hordes of tourists that reduce vast spaces into Disney parks. It is only getting worse too. When one city gets too pricey for middle-class Brits looking for a stag weekend, they typically just move East or South, towards more marginalized economies that are encouraged to embrace foreign visitors as the key to economic growth. There the circle of hype, gentrification and displacement repeats itself. Yet, how many friends of ours continue to share those silly memes about how the only thing that makes you richer is travel?

How travel manages to be both so destructive and so appealing is due to the fact that it exists in a space of fantasy whereby an individual is able to imagine themselves free from constraint. They are independent of all their emotional baggage and far from the monotony of home. They are free and they want everyone to know they are free. However, this sensation of freedom comes at a consequence; what those consequences are have only started to trickle into the consciousness of those booking their next adventure to Venice and Tbilisi. As anti-mass tourism protests grow across different parts of Europe, this surely will become a more pressing issue, but before then there exists a serious lack of criticism of the effects of tourism.

Despite this serious lack of criticism, London-based photographer Oleg Tolstoy’s series The Tourist Trap hints to many of the ethical dilemmas associated with tourism. Through his work, he reveals both the superficiality of the typical tourist experience, while equally presenting broader political issues in relation to tourism. It took us forever to get this interview but it was well worth it. He kindly spoke to us about his series. Make sure to follow him on Instagram.

 

Recently, I was in Prague and could not help but notice tourists all armed with selfie-sticks converging to certain iconic locations in the city, like the Charles Bridge. It appeared that they were travelling less so to see something new but confirm what they already believed. What do you think drives the tourists you depicted to travel such far distances to take a photo of something they could find on Google images?

In today’s world, if you go sightseeing or to a gig, it is almost compulsory to take a photo and share it! I learnt that for Chinese tourists specifically, it’s very important that they feature in the photograph itself not just capture the building or landscape. I noticed that young groups of tourists would hardly pull out their cameras when they are by the Florence Cathedral. Whereas the older groups of tourists would all be armed with a camera and snapping away. This was a surprise, as you would assume it would be the younger people, dubbed the ‘selfie generation’ – but this has just as much expanded to older people who treat their tourist selfies as a medal of honour.

 

Can you expand on your concept of “insta-jealousy” in terms of the tourists you captured?

‘Insta’ can be read as instantly or Instagram. Tourists take photos to share instantly on Instagram or to friends. Most of them do this to show off that they have been to a place and have their own little slice of it. I think it’s a positive thing though, as people are taking more care over the photos they share on Instagram and curating them. This competition to take great photos and the need to share is training people to make better images. Anything that places a renewed focus on the quality of photography is a good thing in my books.

The images seen in your photo series really could have been taken in a long list of European cities from Venice to Barcelona to Amsterdam. These cities have started to look to curb the number of tourists visiting due to their intrusive nature. Do you believe there is a justified anger towards tourists in these major centres of tourism?

I went to Venice last year and was very surprised to see that the whole city is almost purely filled with tourists, it’s hard to spot the locals (and if you do they are most likely there to service tourists). It can only be pushing up house, restaurant and supermarket prices, forcing true local residents to move away. The major cruise liners coming into port is quite a sight! I was also in Barcelona and Amsterdam last year, it was alarming to see how many tourists there are. There again house prices are escalating while a lot of the properties are being listed on Airbnb. Barcelona has even placed a number of restrictions on Airbnb properties within the city limits. I think tourism is healthy, until the point that locals are squeezed out, that seems to overstep the mark and can turn an iconic city into a museum piece rather than an authentic lived in a city.

 

Travel is understood to be so much about curiosity. Yet with the advent of discount airliners and platforms like Airbnb, everyone is a world traveller. Has this destroyed the mystic of travel?

The mystery is not what it used to be, but knowing that these places are so accessible makes the world a smaller place. As a result of mass tourism, these cities are transforming their basic structure and creating a lot of tension between locals and tourists. As an observational photographer I find mystery in the mundane, and what might at first glance look like a group of tourists just taking selfies to you, will look like my next subject to me. Every city has its own mysteries, and they are often right there just in front of you.

 

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‘The Tourist Trap’. . While the lure of destinations like Paris has waned in recent years, in ‘safe’ Italy, tourism is at an all-time high. Over the course of two visits and ten days spent by Florence’s historic Cathedral, Oleg has created a striking set of visual paradoxes: portraits of strangers in an alien land that are somehow intimate and completely unguarded. “Everyone was so busy taking photos, listening to audio guides and gawping upwards that they barely registered my presence, even when I was just feet away” the photographer explains. “It was comical, but poignant. They’ve travelled across the world to be here, but in the act of obsessively making thousands of bits of postcard-perfect content to show to friends back home, they’re lost in their viewfinders and not really aware of their surroundings at all”. . . A riot of hyper-saturated floral prints and melting makeup, The Tourist Trap can’t help but raise a smile in the viewer, yet there is more to the series than its gaudy facade: “Some of their expressions reminded me of catholic depictions of ecstasy” Oleg notes. “Like past pilgrims, these visitors to the cathedral are lost to a higher power, but in this case, it’s modern technology.”

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