Tourist Photography and the Tourist Gaze: An empirical study of Chinese tourists in the UK

Li, Mohan (2015) Tourist Photography and the Tourist Gaze: An empirical study of Chinese tourists in the UK. Doctoral thesis, University of Central Lancashire.

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This study seeks to deepen knowledge and understanding of the tourist gaze and tourist photography. The original concept of the ‘tourist gaze as proposed by John Urry is inherently Western-centric and, as a consequence, it is arguably of limited value as a conceptual framework for appraising the tastes, gazes and, more generally, the visual practices of the increasing number of non-Western tourists’. At the same, despite the fact that, in recent years, smart phone cameras have become widely used by people both in their everyday lives in general and in their travels in particular, few attempts have been made to explore and analyse the potential transformations brought to the landscape of the tourist photography by the increasing use of smart phone cameras.
The purpose of this thesis, therefore, is to re-conceptualise and study empirically the tourist gaze and tourist photographic behaviour, as influenced by a variety of social, cultural and technological factors, amongst non-Western tourists. More specifically, it aims to explore the visual preferences of Chinese tourists in the UK, to consider critically what and how they take photographs of, and to evaluate the extent to which their gazes, their performance of gazing and their photographic practices are shaped by social, cultural and technological factors. In order to meet this aim, the qualitative research method of visual autoethnography is employed during two field studies with Chinese tourists in the UK. More precisely, a first field study was based on a seven-day package tour undertaken with eighteen Chinese tourists, visiting a total of thirteen destinations around British destinations. The second field study, in contrast, involved the researcher undertaking a five-day holiday with six Chinese tourists to the Isle of Wight off the south coast of England. During these two field studies, the researcher adopted the role of ‘researcher-as-tourist’, engaging in travel with the respondents, staying in the same accommodation, joining in with their activities and taking photographs with them. These first-hand travel and photographic experiences conspired to become an integral part of the resultant data resources which were not only analysed but also shared with the respondents during interviews with them.
From the data collected during the two field studies and, indeed, the autoethnographic experiences of the researcher, it became clearly evident that smart phone cameras had become the principal means of taking photographs amongst Chinese tourists. Moreover, smart phone cameras have also altered the landscape of tourist photography, primarily by de-exoticising this practice and further enhancing its ‘playfulness’ and increasing its social functions. During the field studies, the Chinese tourist respondents engaged in a variety of visual and photographic activities, purposefully including but by no means being confined to an interactive game of photo-taking and photo-sharing, imagining authenticity, sensing the passing of time from gazing on natural spectacles, and deliberately observing what they considered to be ‘advanced’ aspects of the toured destination. Based upon these identified performances and practices, this thesis proposes the concept and framework of the Chinese tourist gaze. That framework essentially establishes what Chinese tourists prefer to see during their travels and seeks to explain why and how they see certain specific spectacles or tourist objects. At the same time, it theoretically re-situates both their gazes and their ways of gazing within a network of influential social, cultural and technological factors, including: the travel patterns of the élite in pre-modern China; the cultural characteristics of Chinese people; the intertwining of contemporary communication and photography technologies; and, the fusion of the Chinese nation-state, its economic policies policies and the resultant social and environmental problems that have emerged over the last three decades. Moreover, the framework points to potential future transformations in the Chinese tourist gaze, such as the de-exoticisation of that tourist gaze.
The principal contribution of this thesis to extant knowledge is the concept and framework of the Chinese tourist gaze, as this may provide future researchers with the foundation for continuing to study and more profoundly understand the tastes, gazes, practices of gazing and other visual activities, including photography, of Chinese tourists. Indeed, given the inherent Western-centric bias in the relevant literature, an appropriate theoretical framework enabling them to do has, arguably, not previously existed. In addition, the dimensions and characteristics of tourist smart-phone-photography revealed in this research are of much significance, contributing to a deeper, richer understanding of transformations in the practice of tourist photography and, in particular, of why and how contemporary Chinese tourists take photographs. Furthermore, through identifying and exploring how the Chinese respondents in this study shared their photographs, greater knowledge and understanding has emerged of Chinese tourists’ technological travel communication and connections as well as their attitudes towards and use of the multiplicity of social networking sites and mobile-apps.

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