You are using an outdated browser.
Please upgrade your browser
and improve your visit to our site.
Skip Navigation

Is This a Vacation Photo or a Crime Scene?

Reuters/Chaiwat Subprasom

A nice if rather pointless holiday snap. More accurately, a photograph of people taking a rather pointless holiday snap. In this respect, it—the snap—is exemplary, since 90 percent of the pictures now being taken are pointless. The weather’s fine, the beach is nice, the water’s that gentle, unthreatening turquoisey color, but it’s not as if the rock in the middle is covered in ancient petroglyphs or even graffiti. That leaves the dog. A nice enough doggy, sure, and there’s always something fun about a dog at the seaside—until it comes trotting back and leaves sand and saltwater all over your sofa—but even so ... Instead of the woman taking pictures of the dog, shouldn’t the man have been taking pictures of her?

Location: Koh Tao    Date: September 19, 2014    Photographer: Chaiwat Subprasom

The disingenuity may be wearing thin, since this, as many of you will have realized from the outset, is the beach in Thailand where the bodies of two murdered British tourists were recently discovered. This knowledge changes everything—including our perception of the dog, who now seems to have sensed or scented something untoward. In its modest way, the woman’s picture recalls Joel Sternfeld’s photographs of parking lots or street corners in On This Site: unremarkable spots transformed into photographic memorials by captions explaining that these are places where a rape, murder, or abduction took place. The couple in the photograph will offer a similar explanatory caption when they show the picture to friends or post it on Tumblr or whatever. Still, their picture will not be as interesting as this one: a photograph showing the transformation in the process of being made. It is the act—her act—of taking the picture that invests the site with meaning. Her picture might be pointless, the act of taking it is not. Quite possibly she is taking it not to make a visual record, but to offer some kind of tribute, to pay their respects in the way that, had any been available, they might have left a bunch of flowers. This is often the case: People don’t take pictures in order to have a picture; they take pictures because that is what you do. Perhaps it’s better put interrogatively: What else can you do? The man provides the answer: You just stand there.

This photograph—the one of the taking of the picture—is slightly unsettling for two reasons, both cinema-related. First, there is perhaps a double—but not quite specific—Antonioni association at work: a tacit elision of the discovered murder in the photographs of Blow-Up and the mysterious disappearance on the rocky sea shore that gets L’Avventura underway. If that seems a rather specialist or recondite take on the scene, the second reason will be shared by anyone who has ever seen a suspense or mystery movie. The POV here is inherently sinister. A double murder has taken place. The killer has not been caught. The couple is being watched. By the rocks. By us.