The Male / Colonial / Tourist Gaze
[some adult content to follow, be prepared!]
A few weeks ago, we examined a series of articles that dealt with intimacy, eroticism and the colonial gaze. I’ve always been interested in how these different facets of photography intersect, and I enjoyed the discussion immensely. However, as I let the information percolate in my head, it occurred to me how many of these aspects of photography can still apply in certain tropical destinations, like Hawaii.
My family and I took a trip to Maui when I was relatively young, so my memories of the island are limited. However, I do have a clear memory of looking at the possible photographs to send home to friends and family, and coming across a topless woman, lying prostate on the beach. Considering my age, I was more than uncomfortable with the image. I quickly put the postcard back, and didn’t give it much thought…until recently.
(Two Modern Postcards from Hawaii)
Although I had studied how (hetero) male / white colonial gaze impacted the women of colonized places, somehow I had not made the connection between the erotic postcard I saw as a child and that performance. However, this connection was well made by Malek Alloula. Alloula, an Algerian poet who wrote the book The Colonial Harem: Images of a Suberoticism. It it, Alloula criticizes the exotic/erotic postcard industry, and the French men who enjoyed the images of Algerian women with their breasts on display. According to Alloula: “the colonial postcard says this: these women, who were reputedly invisible or hidden, and until now, beyond sight, are henceforth public; for a few pennies, and at any time, their intimacy can be broken into and violated…They offer their body to view as a body-to-be-possessed.” (118)
I then wondered about the history of the postcard industry in Hawaii, and whether the images rivaled that of Algeria. With a quick Google search, I found a number of historic postcards that bare just as much as their more modern equivalents.
(A Postcard from Hawaii, circa 1910)
(Another Historic Postcard, 1900-1910)
In a way, I am both shocked and not surprised that women’s bodies in Hawaii were (and continue to be) sexualized in this way, reminding tourists, and their associates at home, about the possibilities for pleasure a travel destination like Hawaii has to offer. I would like to learn more into how the more modern tourist gaze reflects and supports colonial assumptions about ‘exotic’ bodies and spaces… another time I guess.
I was also struck by Alloula’s outrage not simply the act of photographing such intimate details of women they hardly knew, but also how these images (or, these women) were passed around for the public consumption of French men. The consumption of the naked female body (even of historic postcards) has only increased in the digital age. I wonder how uncomfortable Alloula would be to know that sexualized images of the colonial Other are, potentially, more available in a post-colonial world.