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The picture that took Greece’s soul. Memory of the past, photography and tourisM

Helena González-Vaquerizo (Universidad Autónoma de Madrid)

The picture that took Greece’s soul. Memory of the past, photography and tourism

Helena González-Vaquerizo (Universidad Autónoma de Madrid)

Photography is the art of capturing reality and a means to keep memories alive. In some cultures, however, photography has been regarded as a threat, for it was believed to take one’s soul away. This paper analyses how photography has metaphorically taken Greece’s soul, depriving it from its identities while signaling a way of remembrance. From Winckelmann’s aesthetics of Greek art, to Nelly’s pictures of dictatorial Greece, and even contemporary images of the country in the endless reproduction of mass tourism, there is an astonishing homogeneity based on an idealized image of the Classical past.

Although Winckelmann himself never traveled to Greece –so that it could remain unspoiled–, his view has become that of the millions of tourists that every year visit the country. Thus, a vision derived from scholarship’s elites shapes the experience of the mass. Contemporary travelers to Greece, as if they were captives inside Plato’s cave, interpret the landscape through that idealizing glass and capture its essence accordingly; by taking pictures of Classical antiquities, the tourists select that which they will remember –and that which they will forget–, thus reinforcing the construction of a collective cultural memory –and a collective oblivion.

This process is far from innocent, for it is connected to ideology and political propaganda. In the 19th century the Western vision of Classical Greece was imposed to Modern Greece in order to incorporate it to the European identity, and it ended up encouraging a memory of the past that would suit that ideal. One may think that this image synthesizes everything Greek –Classical beauty, made of light and rationality–, but, as I will argue, this is the very picture that took Greece’s soul, neglecting and even mutilating all traits of foreign influences from it and its many singularities. The aim of this paper is to invite us to consider what kind of memory is being constructed when dealing with Classical antiquity and to analyze how and if that inherited image of the past shapes the memories of the present.

In my presentation I will try to show the process that goes from Winckelmann and the nineteenth and twentieth century photographers to modern practices of photo-sharing like Flickr. And I will focus on the impact that the ideal image of the past has on contemporary travelers to Greece. My main concern, however, will be to critically think about the role of photography as a memory device among tourists. If photography is about capturing reality, keeping memories and records of real events, how can it also be considered the thief of a country’s soul? I will argue that mass tourism has inherited a way of seeing, capturing and remembering Greece. This is a learned image of the country that not necessarily accounts for its variety. Yet, tourists see Greece from this perspective and reflect it accordingly in their pictures: they select what to remember and what to forget… stealing Greece’s soul.

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