Take a Photo Here
The day after I explored the Roman Forum online, I visited it in person. I was just as interested in the ruins as in confirming my intuition about the organization of the site. And it had been “archaeologized” in just the way I guessed. When you enter the site, coming in through gates at the Colosseum end of the Forum, a path leads you left, then up a flight of stairs, then farther up, to a restricted promontory, for a northwest view toward the Capitoline Hill. Up on the promontory, I could see people taking the photographs they would later post on social media.
A site ought in theory to make possible a large number of vantage points. In reality, only a few points of view account for the majority of photographs made. The visitor to a place like the Roman Forum does not only take a photograph of the Forum; he also takes a photograph for the Forum. His photograph partly serves the narrative chosen by the Forum’s custodians. The visitor is inadvertently mesmerized not only by the site but also by the municipal or museological organization of the experience of the site.
The technological concept of “affordance,” often applied to devices or tools, might be a helpful way for thinking about how such sites can act on us. The term was coined in the 1960s by the perceptual psychologist James J. Gibson and has since been given two related but distinct definitions. One definition, derived from the work of the cognitive scientist Don Norman, is that “affordances provide strong clues to the operations of things.” A drawer handle is for pulling, a bag is for putting things into and a chair is for sitting. Affordances are what let us know an object’s purpose. The other definition comes from the computer scientists Joanna McGrenere and Wayne Ho, who argued that Gibson’s idea of affordance was “an action possibility available in the environment to an individual, independent of the individual’s ability to perceive this possibility.” I think both definitions apply to how tourist spaces act on us: The effects are both intentional “strong clues” and inadvertent “action possibilities.”
Photography on social media, if you know where to look, can astonish with its hypnotic stream of inexact repetitions. We think we are moving through the world, while the whole time the world is pulling us along, telling us where to walk, where to stop, where to take a photo. Why have so many people looked straight down a stairwell at the New Museum and taken a photograph there? Each person who does it feels a frisson of originality but unknowingly reveals something that was latent in the stairwell all along.
The resultant images are rarely individually “great.” What they offer, as a sequence or as a grid, is a fleeting form of poetry: the poignant commonality of our eyes. The world individually mesmerizes us toward reiteration. Our coincident gazes overlay the same sites over and over and over again, as though we were caught up in a slow-motion religious fervor. Through the affordances of terrain, we are alleviated of the burden of originality without always being aware that we are being unoriginal. Take a photo here, the site whispers. It’s yours, but not yours alone.