Antwerp-based photographer Eva Donckers’ tourist trap

Eva Donckers (1991) is a Masters student in Photography at Brussels’ St-Lucas whose exhibition “An anthropology of The Tourist” opens this Thursday in Ghent. We put a few questions to the budding talent and regular Word contributor to talk mass tourism, the ownership of images and infiltrating a group of tourists in Yosemite.

What were your original ideas and intentions at the start of working on this new series?

My first intention was to know why this subject fascinated me. Why was I attracted to tourism commercials and tourists that all fly to the same destination? During my observations I started to detect curious behaviours that I wanted to explore further, and potentially do something with.

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What would you say was the series’ starting point?

For a long time, I was interested in how holiday brochures promote their deals with the sight of a landscape. I was often attracted to these rustic views adapted to cheap posters. Mostly I ignored these crowded touristic places when traveling. But then one day I thought to myself: “let’s go there!” and booked a ticket. And when I stood in between these tourists at Yosemite, I was surprised by their constant need to make a picture of the landscape. Their camera became an eye to see the world. Afterwards, all these pictures disappear somewhere on the Internet. I think this common behaviour, which only emerged a few decades ago, is quite fascinating. We have this picturesque view in our collective memory, but who owns it: paintings, the Internet, travel agencies, airlines…? It felt uneasy to finally visit the actual scenery: there was a big distance present between the sight itself and one’s physical presence at this sight. Why do we feel the need to make our own picture?

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Is there something very specific you’re hoping the series will express/communicate?

As a photographer I was questioning myself, questioning why I took a picture of a well known, and much reproduced landscape. We already have enough pictures of it, so why should I make another one? This notion, of automatically capturing landscapes and sights that have already been photographed billions of times, is what I’m interested in communicating to the viewer. Also, when I was observing these tourists, it seemed as if they were trying to understand their surrounding with their cameras. Their common behaviour caught my attention, and so I decided to nominate myself as an anthropologist of the tourist.

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Can you talk to us about your approach in general?

I always start from a gut feeling. It can be something that fascinates me on a beautiful level or maybe irritates me. If I feel the need to explore something and communicate my thoughts, it can be the start for a project. It can appear very random, just like the cheap nature-like posters I saw in brochures that brought me to Las Vegas and the nearby National Parks. Mostly I try to physically connect with my subject, collect material, reflect and maybe repeat.

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How would you say this series fits in with your wider body of work?

I always like to observe my surroundings and the people in it. I guess that’s why most of my works are about social behaviour and our daily environment. For my bachelor project, I visited different cults and participated in their activities. In the end I made a small book to start your own cult, and shared some of the cult members’ stories and pictures of their surroundings. So in a way, it was also about group behaviour and the promise of paradise. I always like to see common behavior, and then look at it from a distance: it can be quite absurd and humoristic.

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Can you talk to us about how you see your own work? How would you describe it?

Each time I look at my first works, I think: “Oh no, what did I do!” So for the last few years my work was still finding its shape, which is very logical as a student. I’m much closer to my own language now. The main thing, which is always important to me, is the use of photography. It’s a tool to step into the world. I can’t just stay at home and think about what I want to tell and how. I always have to go somewhere physically, shoot, and afterwards reflect and shape the project.

What is your preferred medium for exhibiting your work?

It all depends on the project I’m working on. Sometimes the work needs a book, or sometimes a few prints can be enough. For my next exhibition I invited a painter to paint one of my pictures during the vernissage, and I will show some videos. I don’t like to think in advance too much on how the work will look. More important is to think about what I want to tell.

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Who would you say was instrumental in shaping your work?

Charlotte Lybeer was my first teacher and I can still see her influence in the portraits I create. Her assignments felt very natural to me. Also Bert Danckaert, who saw beauty in the ugly. Or Geert Goiris, who introduced me to photo books.

An Anthropology of the Tourist
From 21st to 28th April
Gouvernement, Ghent