“You think of travelers as bold, but our guilty secret is that travel is one of the laziest ways on earth of passing the time,” American novelist and travel writer Paul Theroux once observed. “Travel is not merely the business of being bone-idle, but also an elaborate bumming evasion, allowing us to call attention to ourselves with our conspicuous absence while we intrude upon other people’s privacy—being actively offensive as fugitive freeloaders.”
Outside Theroux, few people understand the delusions of travel better than English photographer Laurence Stephens, whose new book, Bored Tourists, brilliantly captures the ennui of the iPhone-clutching hordes who descend on Europe each summer to see the same churches and museums as everyone else. The idea for the book came to Stephens a few years ago in Barcelona, where he had recently moved. As one of the world’s most popular tourist destinations, Barcelona attracts travelers from around the world to gawk at landmarks like the 15th-century Barcelona Cathedral; Stephens began spending his days hanging around the cathedral, quietly photographing the crowds.
“Juxtaposed against the beautiful architecture was an array of bemused, disillusioned tourists, bored, half-asleep, unintentionally waiting to be photographed,” he says.
Stephens subsequently traveled to tourists attractions in Germany, Spain, Portugal, and his native England to shoot more images for the series. No matter the location, the tourists always seemed more interested in their cameras or smartphones than the sites they had traveled so far to visit. “Since the advent of the smartphone and social media, our expectations of a holiday are being challenged more than ever,” the photographer says. “Along with our need to record what we are doing while we’re traveling is the fact that with our smartphones we have a constant stream of entertainment to draw us away from our ‘real life’ experiences.”
Stephens employed square format photography to crop out identifying location markers from his images, keeping the focus on the tourists themselves. As a result, it’s often impossible to tell what country the images were taken in, much less the tourist site being visited. According to Stephens, that’s just the point: whether they’re posing next to a palm tree, staring slack-mouthed at a painting, or blithely wielding a selfie-stick, the tourists he captures seem hilariously oblivious to their surroundings.
Of course, Stephens is himself a kind of tourist in these images, experiencing life through the digital mediation of his camera. “Any time I’m away from the familiarity of home I’m going to want a camera with me,” he says. “If I ever needed a camera-free holiday I would choose something that takes my attention away from the distractions of life.”