“Dark Tourism” by Rebecca Bathory (no place of publication given, Carpet Bombing Culture, 2018), 240 pages.
reviewed October 2018
Here we have it: the first proper coffee-table photo book entitled explicitly “Dark Tourism”. Wow!
And it's a stunningly beautiful tome. The cover is real looker, mostly black and with the title embossed on it in Gothic script in metallic burgundy red with a pretty frame around it. There's no cover image, just darkness. I guess it would have been hard to pick a particular photo to serve as a title image. I wouldn't have wanted to make the decision as to which to choose, so I think just leaving it black is fully appropriate.
A quick leaf-through of the book makes it instantly clear that this is going to be a visual feast of the highest order. The photography is outstanding. Paper and printing is also of high quality – though I'm less sure about the binding. On my copy it has already come loose after only a week of use.
It is not just a 100% photo book, though. There is text too. But ... here it gets really awkward. How can I put it … The author is evidently a sublimely talented photographer; alas, a wordsmith she is not. The texts accompanying the photos are frequently of an almost cringeworthy simplistic style, often naively superficial and full of redundancies and clumsy syntax. It feels like the texts were hammered out at great haste and that there was no time for revision, let alone proper editing. It could have done with some. I forced myself to read the book cover to cover, but it was at times a painful experience.
Here's a couple of samples. About a cemetery in London: “[b]urials still happen here regularly and although the ground is uneven and the graves are succumbing to nature, which is inevitable due to their age.” (p. 46) That is not even a complete sentence. Or about the Kabayan mummies in the Philippines: “The mummification process had begun immediately, by drinking salty liquids when the person is dying. Over time the process of cleaning, heating, and putting herbs inside their bodies, smoke was used to continue the mummification process” (p. 84) Again, incomplete syntax and wrong tense structure (in terms of agreement). And I swear I did not quote these passages wrong. It really does say that, verbatim. And I could go on and on with further examples. Reading this book at times reminded me a bit of when I had to mark first-year students' essays when I was a lecturer at Nottingham University. But I would never have thought that I'd ever have to read such inept writing in a glossy published photo book. The contrast between photo and text quality here is almost brutal.
Now, obviously I'm aware that you can't expect everybody, and certainly not those whose profession is outside writing, to come up with perfectly polished prose. But here the problem is much more fundamental. It's not just stylistically clumsy but often even downright ungrammatical (as just demonstrated). And grammar, like physics, is not merely a matter of opinion or preferences. You can't argue with rules of grammar any more than you can with the laws of physics. Stylistic aspects are not quite so rigid, I concede, but I really doubt the style of the writing in this book will attract much praise from any reader. Anyway, a decent editor should have picked up on at least the worst of the linguistic deficiencies here, but apparently there was no editing. How the publisher could have let things like this pass, unedited, is beyond me. This could have been avoided.
And then there are some bizarrely erroneous factual claims that the author makes, for instance that there are “over 30 billion internet users around the world in 2014” (p. 11). What?!? Out of the 7.6 billion people that live on planet Earth in total? How's that supposed to be possible? (Maybe it was supposed to say “3 billion internet users”, however the 4 billion mark has meanwhile been passed so it would still be wrong.)
Or, worse still, consider this, about the concentration camp
: “In 1933 it was opened to hold political prisoners but later became a forced labour camp for Jews as well as German and Austrian criminals amongst others that invaded Germany.” (p. 57) Hang on a second, Austrian criminals invading Germany
?!? If anything it was the other way round (Anschluss
). But this is probably just another muddled sentence that derailed and accidentally ended up virtually nonsensical (after having started off alright).
However, the texts still do have to fulfil an important role, in particular to provide some basic context for the photos. That they do, just about, in a rudimentary fashion at least, just don't expect prose of high eloquence or much in-depth background information.
So what is covered out of the world of dark tourism?
It quickly becomes clear that there is a certain thematic imbalance
. Out of all the different categories of dark tourism
, the one I dub dead on display
is somewhat over-represented in this book, with more than a third of chapters featuring bone chapels, mummies, open burial sites and unusual funeral ceremonies, or those bejewelled skeletons on display in churches (see below). Also disproportionately represented are abandoned buildings – though this is less surprising when you know that such “urban exploration
” is another speciality of this author, who's previously already produced two volumes of such urbex
photography. Otherwise there's a decent and fairly wide spread, although a few categories are conspicuously absent, especially Cold-War
- and WWII
-related sites (unless for the latter you count the three concentration camp
There is also a geographical bias, especially towards South-East Asian countries (Cambodia
, the Philippines
), Great Britain
and also central Europe (Austria
, plus some eastern European countries (Slovakia
, Czech Republic
). But there's nothing from e.g. Spain
or Scandinavia or the former Yugoslav
countries in the Balkans, nor anything in Russia
. Also included are a couple of stints in the USA
, plus Mexico
and one site in Cuba
. But there's nothing covered anywhere in Africa, Australia
or, indeed, South America.
That's despite the book actually claiming to cover “four continents” (p. 15), counting South America as a separate one from North America. But then nothing from South America actually is in the book. The southernmost American country covered is Mexico
. (That may be classed as Latin America, but it is definitely NOT South America.)
Also within some of these countries the coverage is quite uneven, in particular in the USA
, where only the north-east is covered but much of the rest of this country's enormous dark-tourism potential is not. The approach is similarly selective in Germany
(three sites and one site covered, respectively), so these top dark-tourism countries
are quite under-represented.
But of course you can't have everything. A selective approach of some kind is inevitable. And in fact 75 destinations in 21 countries
is not bad going. It's certainly a wider catchment than in any previously released (non-academic) books on dark tourism
On what basis these particular 75 places were selected, however, is not made explicit, other than that out of the 100 places visited for this book these were the author's “favourites” (why that is she doesn't say). But what may have informed the choices of those 100 destinations in the first place is left unexplained. OK, top dark destinations such as Auschwitz
don't require any justification, their status is indisputable and evident, but for many of the other places in this book that is not the case, in particular for a number of the nine entries for Britain
. See below in more detail.
The main part about those individual places is preceded by an Introduction and a second chapter entitled “A Year in Dark Tourism Travel”. The latter is a summary/overview of the travels undertaken for this book, but the author writes mostly about herself and her feelings/emotions and how she met so many great people. But how and why she picked her destinations, or how she prepared and planned for those travels and such things, are not touched upon.
is more about dark tourism in general, and about dark photography in particular (unsurprisingly). It's not very in-depth, and no reference is made to the origin of the term 'dark tourism' in British academia (see here
). Nor is the text especially revealing about what constitutes dark tourism and what not … and why. Instead there are several rather cryptic passages that read more like they were written to fill the page than to convey anything in specific content. Consider for instance this (NB: quoted verbatim!): “It is no coincidence that the short history of social media has coincided with the categorization of dark tourism and in the same way that photography has grown up with the tourism industry, dark tourism will evolve alongside social media, in the same timeline.” (p. 11) And that's just one of the passages that left me scratching my head in puzzlement. And, speaking of social media, there are those bizarre factual claims again, e.g. that Facebook “now has over 50 million users across the world” (p. 11). Logically, yes, it does. But 2.2 billion (as of 2018) is actually quite a bit more than just 50 million. So why give that figure?
There are also already photos for illustration in those two intro chapters, but you have to guess where they were taken and why they are used here. I recognized some of the places, but I think captions would have been useful here.
But let's now take a look at what individual dark sites are actually covered. Since the list of places is rather long, I have to go through them without giving full details for all of them but will save my words for those sections that warrant more comment.
The opening chapter
features a charnel house
, with one large and one small photo of the stacks of bones inside, and just a three-and-a-half-lines paragraph of text. I found this a very odd choice to open the book with, but never mind.
The next chapter
turns to a real “biggie” in dark tourism: Chernobyl
. There are three full-page photos for illustration, one is a panorama of the main square in Pripyat
(taken from a rooftop and actually a version of an image already used in the intro part), one really beautiful image of the rusty bumper cars in the fairground, and a similarly atmospheric one taken inside a former school gymnasium. But there are no images of the actual NPP
. The three paragraphs of text that come with these photos aren't particularly rich in background information and, again, rather clumsily worded. The author concedes that “it's very hard to put into words such an overwhelming experience as the one I've had in the zone” (p. 24). That is evidently so for this author, but then again others have been more successful at it (see e.g. this
, or this
, or this
). So it's not impossible.
This is followed
by a chapter about
the Paris catacombs
, though the author shunned the parts that are actually open for tourists to visit and, with the help of some “cataphiles”, instead “infiltrated” the parts not normally accessible. So it's the “raw” non-commodified catacombs that are featured here, with two very evocative large photos for illustration.
One of the most impressive photos comes up in the next chapter
, which is about Varanasi
, famed for its riverside cremations. The photo shows a bearded and bejewelled Aghori (“holy man”) staring straight into the camera with steely eyes while holding a skull in his right hand (the skull's slightly blurred due to a very narrow depth of field) against a backdrop of the flames of a cremation fire. Magical! The two other photos in this section show scenes by the river, with funeral pyres being set up, and taken down, by the riverbanks of the Ganges. You can see how polluted the waters are, so the author's mentioning in the intro chapter that she went bathing in the river with friends in the middle of the night suddenly seems less romantic than you may have thought initially.
There follows a short, single-photo chapter about the unique funeral rites in Toraja, Sulawesi
. And after that a rather controversial place is featured: the “suicide forest
” in Japan
. Some (myself included) would argue that this is perhaps not really representative of dark tourism and also fraught with ethical issues. But this author ventured in and actually found a noose hanging from a tree as well as items left behind by someone who must have ended his life here. The body remained elusive, however. A wallet found amongst those personal belongings had plenty of cash in it, but to the author's moral credit instead of pocketing the cash she handed the wallet in to the police who were then also able to identify the man and inform the family. Kudos for that! The three photos for this chapter are, I have to admit, extremely evocative, but I still have some reservations about the suicide forest being portrayed as representative of dark tourism.
The next chapter
is about a whole group of enchanted, overgrown cemeteries
, Great Britain
, including the celebrated Highgate Cemetery
. This is followed by two chapters featuring abandoned buildings
in the USA
, one a former West Virginia mental asylum
, illustrated with what is probably Bathory's most famous photo (of the spiral staircase inside), the other a derelict ex-prison in Pennsylvania. And after that a Czech catacomb with mummies is featured, with a single photo.
up are two top-league dark sites, the concentration camps
(illustrated here with a single photo of a crematorium oven), and Auschwitz
. The latter gets two photos, both taken at Auschwitz I (Stammlager), and unfortunately nothing from Auschwitz II Birkenau. Yet the infamous gate at Auschwitz
I is featured, with the sign above it carrying the cynical slogan “Arbeit macht frei” ('work sets you free'). However, this is photographed from the rear and with a fence post in the way, so this legend remains rather illegible.
The fabled Sedlec Ossuary
in the Czech Republic
is given the next chapter
and features two photos, one a stunning double page image of the ceiling. However, the author mentions a “massive chandelier comprising of all the bones in the human body” (p. 63), but then why we are not given a photo of that, one has to wonder.
Following another bone chapel
, this time in Italy
, we come to a very odd inclusion: a photo of the sea-of-red-poppies installation
at the Tower of London
that in 2014 marked the centenary of the outbreak of WW1
. Given that it was only a temporary work of art I wouldn't have included it as a dark tourism site. But never mind.
Three more sites in Italy
come up in the following chapters
, one being Pompeii
(complete with a large photo of those famous plaster casts of victims), a church containing mummies on display, and a former hospital/asylum on an island near Venice, with, again, some very atmospheric photographs. The same holds for the next chapter
about the Eastern State Penitentiary
The Kabayan mummies
in the Philippines
, already mentioned above, are the topic of the next chapter
, and one photo is featured. In the text the author makes it clear that this is actually a place “far away from civilisation and untouched by the trawls of tourists” (p. 84), and that the visit was only made possible by a person who guided her to this hidden location and specially opened the otherwise locked site. So can this count as dark tourism? Dark, yes, but tourism? I have my doubts.
It gets quite adventurous in the next chapter
, which features Mt Bromo
, an active volcano that was actually erupting at the time the author was there. She even has a photo taken right from the crater rim with ash plumes forming straight in front. This was obviously quite a dicey thing to do. Still, apart from her getting covered in ash from head to toe, no harm was done.
Following a short, single-photo section about the Sagada hanging coffins
(attached to a cliff side) in the Philippines
, a rather unusual, even unique site comes up next
: the “Island of Dead Dolls
” in Mexico
. I'm not sure why it's called that, given that dolls never actually are alive, but the images, a full five full-page photos, are amongst the most stunning of the entire book. A visual highlight.
Also in Mexico
, the author took part in the legendary Day of the Dead festival
, but only a photo of a candlelit cemetery full of people is given in the book, but none showing the flamboyant masks, face painting and costumes that are so typical for this festival.
comes an abandoned house
that is supposedly "haunted
" and another cemetery
, before we get to another visual highlight – possibly even the very best series of photos in this book, namely of the mummies
displayed in the Mummy Museum of Guanajuato
. Again we are treated to five full-page images, all eerily captivating.
Following another Filipino burial cave, we come to the third and final concentration camp
memorial site covered in this book, namely Sachsenhausen
north of Berlin
. Four photos are featured including one of the gate – and this time (unlike at Auschwitz – see above) the infamous legend “Arbeit macht frei” is fully legible and perfectly framed against clouds in the background.
Yet another ancient burial site
with mummies (not shown) in the Philippines
is next, and then we hop over to Romania
, for three chapters in a row. The first two feature abandoned prisons
, captured in photos highlighting the beauty-in-decay aspect of sites like this (which is something this photographer is especially good at capturing). The third Romanian place, however, is a bit of a non-site: a forest
that is allegedly the “creepiest in the world
”, not for anything real such as the Japanese
suicide forest (see above), but solely for an alleged “reputation for the supernatural” (p. 124), ranging from ghosts to reported UFO sightings. Since this websites excludes
, I wouldn't even have considered going to this forest. But the author camped in it with friends by a bonfire, yet after hours of “not witnessing any of the said spooky goings on” (surprise, surprise) they leave again. So there was nothing dark, and the featured photo is just a random image of a random bit of forest.
The next chapter is entitled “Burma Railway
”, but is set in Thailand
. That's because the topic is the Thailand-Burma Death Railway
here. Only one photo is given showing the famous Bridge on the River Kwai
, but sadly there are none of the much more atmospheric Hellfire Pass
or the viaducts along the line or of any of the memorials.
hop back to Romania
for a short feature of Bran Castle
, allegedly “Dracula's Castle
” (though the connection is rather tenuous), and then
straight back to South-East Asia for a short look at a military museum
. The much darker War Remnants Museum
in Ho Chi Minh City would have been far more representative. Neither are the famous Cu Chi tunnels
mentioned, or the DMZ
. In fact there's not even a word about the Vietnam War
at all. All we learn in the single three-line paragraph of text is that the Hanoi military museum was “opened in July 1956” (that early, really?) and shows “artefacts and images spanning a history of Vietnam's military conflicts” (p. 131).
Another very odd inclusion is next, an Inn in England that is allegedly “the most haunted hotel
in the UK” and was featured as such in some TV series. Hmmm. The next site, also in Britain
, is for real, though, and captured in a beautiful sunset-photo: Beachy Head
– which is another infamous suicide spot.
A single site in Slovakia
is featured in the next chapter
: the ruins of Čachitce Castle
, the former home of the early 17th century legendary mass-murderous “blood countess” Elizabeth Bathory. Why the author had to visit this site should go without saying.
Another two-photo, two lines-of-text “chapter” follows featuring an abandoned
that is supposedly haunted (again!) in the USA
, then it's back to Britain
for a pub in East London
that has some sort of connection with the Jack-the-Ripper
serial killer story, then it's back to the US for a rather singular site that has become quite well known in recent years: Centralia
. Two photos feature the by now completely graffiti-covered cracked ex-Route 61 with steam emerging from the ground from the underground coal fires that necessitated the evacuation of Centralia.
The next two chapters
bring us back into top-notch
dark-tourism territory, now in Cambodia
, namely the Choeung Ek killing fields
and the former Tuol Sleng
prison (aka “S-21”). Both are beautifully captured in photos, but the topic of the Cambodian Genocide
is only briefly and superficially covered in the text. The author informs us that the latter site was visited “with tears in our eyes learning of its terrible past and true hell on earth” (p 151). But what it was that was learned is not disclosed.
Another charnel house
(back in the Philippines
) is followed by a short entry about the Colosseum
, before we come to another rather unique site: the Trunyan burial site
in Bali, Indonesia
. This is a place where the locals don't bury their dead in the ground but let them decompose in bamboo cages out in the open. Here the author gets particularly wordy all of a sudden, explaining her emotions on encountering an actual freshly deceased body for the first time. It's quite emotional but positive. We are spared (disallowed?) a photo of this body, however, instead it's images of moss-covered skulls.
An 11th century burial site in Lancashire, whose inclusion in the book is another strange oddity, is followed by yet another abandoned asylum, this time in Britain
, and then we come to a very special place: Fukushima
. The author was given a rare chance to explore the forbidden zone around this nuclear disaster site, and this had actually given rise to a stand-alone book by the same photographer, which I also own, so the images re-used in this volume were already familiar to me – they are another visual highlight of the book nonetheless.
In contrast, the next chapter
has only one photo, of the A-Bomb Dome
, and just a two-paragraph text that, again, doesn't provide much background. Instead there are platitudes like this: “On reflection, I felt lucky to be alive, sadness for those who died and glad that no nuclear bombs such as this have occurred since” (p. 173). I'm not even sure atomic bombs can “occur”, but it's certainly not true that there hasn't been one used since Hiroshima. There was, namely the one dropped on Nagasaki
just three days later. That could at least have been mentioned.
The eminent 9/11 Memorial & Museum
in New York
is also covered in surprising brevity, with just two photos of the memorial and an even shorter text with yet more platitudes. The outstanding museum at the site is not even granted a mention.
Another killing site in Cambodia
, a cave this time, featured in a single photo, is followed by another series of five full-page photos, namely of Jewelled Skeletons
on display in churches in Switzerland
. These too are amongst the book's visually most appealing images. In the same country the author was given the opportunity to visit a pathology department
, but instead of photos of an autopsy (I was relieved, to be honest) we are only given a photo of a steel sink and some white wellies under it.
Beautiful as the photos generally are, they don't always represent the place in question in the best way. An extreme example of this is coming up next
in the coverage of Ijen volcano
. I had actually been looking forward to that section the most, as I had struggled with photographing the fabled blue flames
of Ijen with my camera when I was there (a lot of RAW tweaking was necessary to get something halfway acceptable out of what I'd captured), so I had very high hopes of seeing what such a talented professional would have got out of it. But even though the blue flames are mentioned in the text, no photos of them appear in the book. The text also talks about the sulphur miners and their hard work, but again there are no photos of the sulphur mine
either. Instead there's only a single panoramic shot taken from the crater rim showing the greenish crater lake as background. I found that rather disappointing.
The inclusion of the Agrasen ki Baoli Step Well
, is another oddity (its dark associations are rather thin), but beautifully covered in a photo showing the place looking very different to when I was there, namely completely without people. During my visit the place was crawling with other visitors, mostly locals.
This is followed by yet another jewelled skeleton
, this time in Germany
, then it's straight back to India
for the Taj Mahal
in Agra. I know it's a mausoleum, but it dates so far back that for me it's outside of the time frame normally relevant for dark tourism (see concept of dark tourism
), and the Taj is also a rather mainstream mass-tourism attraction.
The site covered in the next chapter
is the Sidoarjo mud flow
. I found it quite shocking to see images of those sculptures that I had seen intact in 2014 being so damaged just a couple of years later – with missing limbs, some decapitated, heads smashed in. Given the author's penchant for abandoned buildings I was surprised that she didn't venture to the ghost village with an abandoned mosque that's right on the edge of the mud flow. Or if she did, she withholds any photos taken there from us.
Another two burial sites
in Sulawesi, Indonesia
come next, then some more mummies
and a trio of yet more bone chapels
– skulls galore! – in the Czech Republic
, followed by yet another abandoned buildings
chapter, before the rather odd inclusion of an ancient temple
complex in Thailand
. Another three sites in Salem
, associated with those late 17th century witch trials
follow next, before we return to serious dark-tourism territory in the form of the Landmine Museum
. This is featured only with a single photo of a row of prosthetic limbs, yet there would have been more that's photogenic at that site.
The penultimate chapter
captures the Hoa Lo prison
, and then the volume comes to a sudden end with another odd site: a Chinese cemetery
. As with the opening chapter, I found the choice of place for the closing chapter
rather unconvincing and strange.
At the back of the book is a page with acknowledgements, including the obligatory list of the photographic equipment used. But there's no epilogue, no index, no list of sources (I'm not surprised) or suggested further reading material. So the book ends rather abruptly.
It's hard to come to a balanced final verdict on this book. On the one hand the photography is so good, often absolutely amazing, even if not always fully representative of the places in question. But on the other hand, the choice of places selected for inclusion in this book is frequently difficult to understand, even though about two dozen indisputable top dark-tourism destinations
are also covered. Still, overall it feels a bit unbalanced.
Well, and then there is the quality of the accompanying text that is in such harsh contrast to that of the excellent photos. In fact I was actually quite shocked by this. I had followed the travels for this book on social media, and had already seen some preview images, and so I had been very much looking forward to finally getting my hands on the finished product. And I honestly so wanted to love this book. But as it is, I can't, really. Amazing as many of the photos are, the texts are the big let-down. This is additionally irksome as this disaster would have been preventable. A good editor, and possibly a collaboration with a ghost writer, could have turned this book around. But it's an opportunity missed. Hence I'm quite disappointed.
My recommendation for other readers is: if you like photo books and dark tourism then by all means do get a copy. But leave it at looking at the images, ignore the texts. As it is, reading the book is not for literary edification, and if you want some real background information of some genuine depth you'll have to find that elsewhere. But just for seductively impressive photography of a wide (though sometimes debatable) range of dark-tourism destinations, you're unlikely to find anything much better than this at the moment.