Published online by Cambridge University Press: 13 July 2019
Definitions of the term ‘vision’ range from the physical to the perceptual, from the ‘action of seeing with the bodily eye’ to ‘a mental concept of a distinct or vivid kind; an object of mental contemplation, especially of an attractive or fantastic character’ (Oxford English Dictionary). A very modern travel phenomenon encompasses both definitions: the selfie offers a physical and a psychological image of the photographer/photographee, for the selfie is both material evidence of ‘having been there’ (Barthes 1977, 44) and the proof of cultural capital that marks out the cosmopolitan traveller. It is the ultimate multidirectional commodification of travel, not only framing a partial and often stereotyped vision of the travellee (or, more likely, iconic emblems of his/her culture), but also confirming the value of the traveller, both in the composition of the selfie and its synecdochic associations: thus, for example, if France = Paris = capital of culture = Louvre = Mona Lisa, then a selfie in front of the painting represents proof of cultural and economic capital. It is also increasingly a marker of social capital, given the instantaneous sharing of images allowed by social media and subsequent validation through likes and retweets.
The privileging of vision as the most reliable (and now, as the selfie example illustrates, most ‘valuable’) sense by which to mediate the encounter between the traveller and the world is a familiar trope of travel writing, while the relationship of sight to discourses of power and appropriation has also been well-established since the publication of Mary Louise Pratt's Imperial Eyes (1992). This cultural privileging of sight – or ocularcentrism (Jay 1994) – has implications for both visual and textual modes of recounting the experience of travel. The visual representation of travel in photography is, as suggested by the brief discussion of the selfie, implicated in discourses of power, capture and commodification, which themselves have their origins in the early use of photography as a literal tool of colonial expansion (Hight and Sampson 2004; and colonialism). But writers too grapple with the challenges, possibilities and limitations of a textual visualization of the experience of travel.
At one end of the spectrum, a writer such as French naval officer Pierre Loti (1850–1923) struggles to transcend the ‘déjà-vu’ or ‘déjà-lu’ associated with the exotic picturesqueor with conventional visual stereotypes.