Heritage Exposed: Nudity at Historical Sites
In February American tourists Lindsey Kate Adams and Leslie Jan Adams were among the crowds at Cambodia’s Angkor, the 9th-15th century Khmer city and temple complex that UNESCO hails as the most famous archaeological site in southeast Asia. The World Heritage Site sprawls over about 400 square kilometers, making it among the world’s largest archaeological sites and one of the most visited historical sites in the world. The Adams sisters were among the thousands of visitors trooping through Angkor in February, with scores of them providing pictures of their journey and the astounding complex. When the Arizona sisters reached the Preah Khan temple, they likewise documented their visit, yet like a modest but growing wave of contemporary tourists they departed from the conventional monument pose: the women dropped their pants for a shot of their butts in the ancient temple, only to be nabbed by the authorities. These increasingly common nude or partially disrobed pictures at historic sites tell us something about the aesthetic power of heritage even as they reveal its irrelevance to many of the Western tourists who are actually visiting historic places.
The Arizona travelers are not alone in their ambition to commemorate their historic site tourism with nude pictures. In January three French tourists were deported after being caught in Angkor’s Banteay Kdei temple stripping for pictures of their Cambodian trek. Five days before pictures appeared on Facebook depicting topless women at Angkor as well as Beijing’s Forbidden Palace. In May a group of ten tourists posed naked in Malaysia on Mount Kinabalu, a World Heritage site distinguished by its botanical diversity (5000-6000 plant species can be found on the mountain). Israeli traveler Amichay Rab’s My Naked Trip blog documents his tour of South America, where he stripped at a series of sites including Machu Picchu, Cuzco, and Monte Verde. The facebook page and blog Naked at Monuments document sun-starved butts at sites including the Great Wall of China, Machu Picchu, and Athens.
Many of these photographers imagine their experience and images as irreverent or spontaneous humor. Paul Marshall’s Naked at Monuments, for instance, suggests that “First and foremost, it’s about having a laugh. For some reason people find the naked body funny. We’re more than happy to watch people slit each others throats and blow each others heads off in movies, but as soon as we see a naked body we either laugh or tense up. We want to break down some of these barriers and let the world know its okay to get naked.”
The unexpected nudity at historical sites is perhaps calculated to make us laugh at the audacity required to streak at the Leaning Tower of Pisa, but that ignores how and why historicity is invoked in these images. These naked images secure some of their power by violating the sanctity of historical sites. In some cases like Angkor a place’s solemnity is rooted in a conventionally defined sacred heritage, but in many of these places their status as historical sites simply assumes respect and decorum from visitors. The host of pale rumps on Naked at Monuments may cynically question such historical sanctity, but fundamentally the site questions the ethics of tourism itself and does not see such photographic experiences as contemptuous or disrespectful. When the site came under attack in June, Paul Marshall argued that nudity is an inconsequential violation of tourist etiquette: “A lot of people have been pretty vocal about how it is offensive and disrespectful. I don’t think disrespect is ever the intent (one could argue it is actually a sign of respect) but I think if people are finding the naked body offensive enough to be vocal about it then we really need to change our social lens. People barely bat an eye at violence or human rights abuses but if you get naked everybody loses their shit.” Marshall somewhat clumsily dissected how nudity functions in these pictures—while he defended the significance of these places—when he argued that “our page is about what’s around the buttocks, not the buttocks itself. All the pictures are posted in good humor. There is nothing gratuitous or sexual about them. It is just a couple of naked dudes running around amazing places.”
The criticism of the conventional tourist experience itself (if not heritage in general) seems to be perhaps the central target of these photographers. Our enormously well-documented lives routinely chronicle nearly every possible experience from fabulous meals to trips overseas, and countless Instagram and Facebook pages document us dutifully standing before yet another heritage backdrop. Such pictures may be less about documenting tourism experiences than they are about how we imagine such pictures make us seem worldly, intelligent, or curious. For some travelers, though, the countless online images of such sites have perhaps produced a deep-seated anxiety that we are interchangeable tourists having the same experience and taking the same pictures. In an ocean of prosaic tourist images and conventional experiences, some travelers likely flash a vertical smile at a World Heritage site to escape the seemingly meaningless if not inauthentic tourist experience.
These travelers are not necessarily disregarding the consequence of heritage venues as much as they are reducing them simply to aesthetically rich places. When Naked at Monuments inventoried the “top seven historic monuments to get naked at,” their analysis devoted little attention to especially reflective history. The analysis of Stonehenge, for instance, observed that “They’re not exactly sure what Stonehenge is.” It appears that in the experience of these (and possibly many more) tourists the historicity of these places seems largely disinteresting or at least secondary to their importance as aesthetic stages for a meaningful tourist experience. The images of travelers’ backsides reflect how some people aspire to escape the conventional tourist experience; they are not about the ways a physical visit to Machu Picchu may provide a deeper understanding of Incan heritage than an authoritative web page, lavishly produced cable documentary, or scholarly paper.
Many of these photographers appear to have avoided a challenging experience; that is, the sites remain exoticized because many of these places are rooted in antiquity, located in distant reaches of the world, and are well outside the experience of Western tourists. For many tourists, these sites are interchangeable spaces: they loom as aesthetically and materially impressive experiences, but they reveal little substantive insight into local culture or heritage and remain exoticized.
Not surprisingly, most of these pages have very few examples of naked pictures taken at Western historic sites. The Western photographers facing international indignation and justice seem charitably naïve, apparently surprised that nudity does not have universally humorous implications or that Angkor or the Great Wall differ from any other place on their Facebook page. An English woman in the group that stripped on Mount Kinabalu said “she was very sorry for the offence caused” and released a statement that “my behaviour was foolish and I know how much offence we all caused to the local people of Sabah. For that, I am truly sorry.” The Adams’ brother said after their arrest at Angkor that “’They didn’t mean any harm, they didn’t mean to disrespect any one.’” After their February arrest taking nude pictures at Angkor, the Phnom Pehn Post reported that three French tourists “posted a video online apologising, saying they did not understand the gravity of the cultural faux pas.”
However, not every offender has been apologetic. Amichay Rab defended his naked images at Machu Picchu, arguing that “I did it when I was with nobody and with the clarity that is a sacred place for Peruvians, above all, with much respect.” A member of the Kinabalu group, Emil Kaminski, released a video ridiculing Malaysians who criticized the groups’ nudity on the mountain. The Malaysian Deputy Chief Minister called the episode “uncivilised” and linked the photo session to a subsequent earthquake: “Whether other people believe this or not, it’s what we Sabahans believe. When the earthquake happened, it’s like a confirmation of our beliefs. It is a sacred mountain and you cannot take it lightly.” Kaminski dismissed the notion of sacred space because “it is just a fucking mountain.” Kaminski was contemptuous of Malaysian efforts to prosecute the photo session as a breach of local customs, indicating on Facebook that “If local religion prohibits certain actions, then local believers of that religion should not engage in it, but they cannot expect everyone to obey their archaic and idiotic rules.”
In a moment when tourism’s aesthetics may seem increasingly interchangeable, it is not surprising that some travelers seek an image that departs from traditional tourist photography. Tourists routinely grumble about the number of people at places like Angkor (where about 800,000 people visit each year), and they daydream about an “off-the-beaten-path” traveling experience. In a post on this subject entitled “Respect my Shitty Culture,” Emil Kaminski adopted the role of privileged traveler and ranted that for most tourists “travel is all about showing up, doing the Lonely Planet circuit, going to a souvenir store, buying some stupid shit you don’t need, and, foremost, keeping your mouth shut. `You cannot criticize things in another country’, `You must have respect for other people’s culture’, and `You must respect other people’s religion’ have become a dysfunctional set of mantras for giddy backpackers who get their passports, buy some tickets, fly to far-flung places, and then proceed to learn nothing, often aided with copious amounts of alcohol and random mind-debilitating drugs.”
Some travelers yearn for the “authentic” travel experience, hoping to escape canned tours and orchestrated historical sites in favor of something that is “genuine” and true to their own imagined self. In that sense there may actually be an interesting insight to take from nude images taken at historic sites, which may illuminate an especially common pattern among Western tourists eager to seek out cultural and historical “authenticity.” For many tourists heritage spaces probably are seen as interchangeable stages for their digital images and orchestrated memories. The status of such places as historic sites is consequential and gives the images meaning, but that meaning may simply be derived from their invocation of general historicity and cultural exoticism; that is, images taken at many of these sites may not be meaningful for their specific materialization of a Khmer culture, Incan heritage, or some other concrete place-based history, they may simply matter because they invoke pastness and the exotic as a backdrop to the tourist experience. Few tourists are ever likely to secure a meaningful trip by flashing a vertical smile across their Facebook pages, but those images may reflect a widespread Western travelers’ disaffection with contemporary tourist experience and historical sites as we continually seek out the “authentic” experience.
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1911 Travel Poster for Angkor Wat from Wikipedia
Kaminski Facebook image from says.com
Monks at Preah Khan image from Markalexander100
South peak Kinabalu image from Wikipedia user Gossipguy
Tourists at Angkor image from Wikipedia user Poco a poca