Sam Cheng
Gallatin Travel Course: “Postcolonial Urbanisms: Development, Environment, & Social Movements in Senegal
Senegal, Summer 2018

I am a photographer, but during this trip, I shot less than one roll of 35mm film. Our visit to Gorée Island early on in the trip forced me to grapple with the consequences of global tourism and modern photography specific to a postcolonial space. 

Gorée Island is a complicated place, to say the least. Gorée served as a trading post during the Atlantic slave trade, but its actual role and historical significance is debated. Many slave houses were built on the island, the most notable being La Maison des Esclaves. The island is now (with some controversy) protected by UNESCO as a World Heritage Site and is a popular tourist attraction.

While walking through the island and especially La Maison des Esclaves, I was constantly going back and forth in my head trying to decide the most just and equitable way to capture my surroundings without being problematic and letting my Western gaze dictate the imagery. The paradox of the place was quite apparent, given the complex history of loss and suffering persisting alongside–or perhaps overshadowed by–the abundance of photogenic vitality on the island, seen in the lush plant life and colorful buildings.

Ironically, people from all over seek out remarkable places of rich history, like Gorée, that quickly become ordinary and diluted with the inundation of tourists and their cameras. The pristine touristic photo becomes less a sentimental memory of one’s travels and reflections but more of a trophy won in a competition as proof of voyage and accomplishment. Moreover, the resulting photos are often quite different from the reality on site and, in this case, don’t always reflect the historical magnitude of the place. A photograph is usually a decontextualized representation of just one moment in time and space, and it rarely captures the greater narrative.

Though not to the most extreme extent, the tropes of modern tourism were certainly seen on Gorée Island. The result might be a serene photo of the coastal views of the island, but the events of history are sidelined and emotional reactions repressed when the most important thing to do becomes capturing the perfect photo of oneself in the “Door of No Return” (believed to be the final exit point and view for slaves bound for the New World).

It was definitely interesting to observe this strange dynamic where the past and present become muddled; yet, alternatively, I also began to think of the ways in which this dynamic is maybe an expression of the reclamation of space. We can question the implications of disrupting the history and effect of the space through tourism and photography, but we can also ask ourselves how Senegalese people have potentially retrieved ownership of their history and this island as a means to further decolonize.

At first, it felt strange holding myself back from snapping away with my camera–there were so many beautiful scenes and photographic opportunities–but I’m glad I was able to take a step back and truly take in, observe, and engage with the cities we lived in directly rather than through a camera lens. The photos I did take were more thoughtfully considered, and they helped me better understand some of the complexities and responsibilities of being a photographer.