Throughout our Semester at Sea voyage, Sam and I visited several places that were somber and intense. Elmina slave dungeons in Ghana. The Ganges river at Varanasi. Dachau concentration camp in Germany. The Khmer Rouge killing fields of Cambodia. Hoa Lo prison in Hanoi. The Shoes on the Danube Memorial in Budapest.
While travel can be about relaxation and vacation, travel can also be about growth and learning. In my experience, the moments of travel that are most personally impactful are the moments that make me feel uncomfortable, and challenge me to reflect on what I am experiencing more intentionally.
Many of the challenging and uncomfortable moments I’ve had while traveling are associated with somber places which some people call “dark tourism”. Dark tourism can be defined as traveling to historic sites associated with death, natural disasters, violence, tragedy and/or crimes against humanity.
Dark tourism experiences can be intense and heavy, often carrying memories of terrible moments in human history. There is a palpable energy that stays with you after visiting a place like the Khmer Rouge killing fields, weighing heavy on your heart. The visit makes you feel sad, but also reflective. Reflecting is a natural outcome of dark tourism because you simply cannot avoid the acknowledgement of feelings that bubble up from visiting these places. Even the most emotionally obtuse of visitors will feel impacted upon seeing the crematoriums at Dachau or the solitary confinement cells at Ho Lao, and those feelings can have a deep, impactful ramifications that stay with you for days or weeks afterwards.
But in the age of social media and selfies, it shouldn’t be surprising that some visitors cannot behave properly or appropriately while visiting intense places. I had one young woman say to me as we rode to Varanasi at sunrise “I don’t think my visit here will feel complete unless we see a dead body floating in the river.” Voyeuristic impulses are real and every few weeks, the internet rightfully shames the latest bad traveler’s behavior. Recently, it has been visitors flocking to the ruins of Chernobyl following the HBO series to take insensitive photos of the wreckage.
An important question to ask yourself before visiting a dark tourism site is always “What is my intention with this visit?” Are you there to learn and reflect or are you there to capture it as an Instagramming voyeur?
For me, I feel uncomfortable with photography in somber places. It is challenging to capture a place that has seen so much intensity, and in the era of social media, there is SO much harm that can come from inappropriately photographing these kind of places, so I think it is best to largely avoid photography. If I do take a photo of my experience, I don’t prominently feature people, especially myself, and instead focus on the site and the history. These are not the kind of travel experiences that you’ll plaster on your Instagram feed, but rather, the experiences that will stay with you in your heart and mind.
The solemn travel experiences listed above stand out in my mind not because I found them particularly enjoyable, but because they made me feel something intensely. It is hard to not empathize with the desperate ways Jews had to survive during WWII as you walk through the Anne Frank Huis, and you can’t ignore the fragility of life and death as you watch funeral pyres burn on the banks of the Ganges in Varanasi. You don’t visit somber places for enjoyment or pleasure. You visit them to remember and to learn, and hopefully, to change.