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Tourist photography and the reverse gaze

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The interaction between tourist photographer and local photographee is a dynamic site of identity construction. To date, this interaction has been theorized mainly in terms of the power of the tourist photographer, which has been shown to mediate and commodify local cultures and create new identities amongst those photographed. The present article contributes a change of emphasis by examining the sociopsychological dynamics of the reverse gaze and its role in constructing the emerging identity of the photographer. The reverse gaze refers to the gaze of the photographee on the photographer as perceived by the photographer. Data from Ladakh, a popular backpacker tourist destination in northern India, illustrates how the reverse gaze of Ladakhis can constitute the emerging tourist self, stimulating uncomfortable social emotions, such as embarrassment. The question raised by the article is, what sociopsychological processes constitute the power of the reverse gaze to position the tourist photographer? In this article, I argue that tourists, when they feel the reverse gaze, are not taking the actual perspective of Ladakhis, but are instead attributing their own critical attitudes toward other tourist photographers to the Ladakhi photographee. Thus, the discomfort that a tourist in Ladakh feels when caught in the reverse gaze, I argue, is a product of that tourist being positioned in the same disparaging way as that tourist usually positions other tourist photographers.

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