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Saturday, March 1, 2008

It's A Small(er) World, After All


The voyage of discovery requires seeing with new eyes

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Photo Traveler - It‚’s A Small(er) World, After All
Nanjing Lu shopping area, Shanghai, People’s Republic of China
I’ve just returned from six weeks of travel on three different continents, and one thing I’ve noticed for sure: The world is getting smaller. I don’t mean that global warming is actually shrinking the planet (although it may be, for all I know), but that more people are traveling, and once-exotic locations are now becoming as tourist-frequented as Disneyland during President’s Week. Part of this is due to the phenomenon described in Thomas Friedman’s book, The World is Flat: A Brief History of the Twenty-First Century. As the tiger economies of India, China and other once-developing nations are swelling their ranks with educated middle-class consumers, those consumers want to get out and travel, just like us.

We’re talking now about populations so large that their middle class almost exceeds the entire population of the U.S. or Western Europe (there are estimated to be some 200 million college graduates in India alone). Combine this fact with the explosion in interest in photography since the advent of digital, and it’s not hard to see why the world’s major travel sites are swollen with tourists, Flickr just posted its two billionth photo, and there’s speculation that within two years, the Internet itself may not be able to handle the traffic without a hugely expensive infrastructure overhaul (that, to date, nobody wants to pony up for).

The immediate upshot of this for travel photographers is that it’s getting darn near impossible to photograph any of the major sites without including hundreds of your fellow tourists doing the same thing, let alone a fresh perspective or a new angle. On this recent trip, I literally was pinned against a wall in a chamber of Ta Prohm, one of the temples of Angkor Wat in Cambodia, for 10 minutes (I started timing it after about a minute) as hordes of Korean tourists marched through (I lost count at 115, and I’m estimating it was more than 300 people, judging from the amount of time it took me to escape and the number of huge buses that were parked outside the temple). The experience left me a bit claustrophobic, not to mention despairing of getting any kind of unpeopled shot of this moody complex. This is a place which, only a few short years ago, if you showed up anytime before 10 a.m. or after 3 p.m., you had almost entirely to yourself.

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