Seeing the History of Colonialism Through Resorts

10.22.2021

During the Christmas of 2019 my family and I stayed at a beachside resort in West Palm Beach. Having recently been exposed to leftist theory for the first time, I was beginning to see my surroundings in a new light. I couldn’t help but notice that while most of the visitors of the resort were wealthy white families, the staff and local population consisted exclusively of people of color. Not quite sure what to do with this analysis yet, I stored it away, hoping that I could one day use it.

More than a year later, in a class called Photography and Race, I read an excerpt from Susan Sontag's On Photography that discussed the relationship between photography and vacations. Sontag writes, “A way of certifying experience, taking photographs is also a way of refusing it... by converting experience into an image, a souvenir. Travel becomes a strategy for accumulating photographs.”1

Combining this with my earlier observation, and with an understanding of the historical precedent2 of wealthy Europeans gawking at foreign people of color in places like human zoosas well as taking their artifacts as souvenirsI was curious to investigate the way in which that history echoes in the present. I chose three different resorts, in three different locations around the world that have historically been colonized, and I collected a large number of photos from online sources to analyze the racial demographics of who was visiting these resorts, who was working there, and who owned them. The three resorts I chose were Atlantis, in the Bahamas, Club Meds Cap Skirring, in Senegal, and the Four Seasons Hotel, in West Palm Beach, Florida.  To graphically represent the demographics, I created a series of charts. Because of copyright and privacy concerns, these charts depict the average skin tone of each person, rather than combining the photos in their original formats; this solution drew inspiration from the work of Byron Kim.

Personally, I found the results of my research to be simultaneously surprising and expected. They reveal something about power and race that we know exists but is difficult to understand until it is presented in such a raw and digestible form. For example, I noticed a difference between the various skin colors of visitors depicted in the promotional videos, versus the smaller range seen in the visitors’ own images on Instagram; this illustrates how corporations depict themselves to gain favor from the public.

 

Jade Cannata is a student at RISD and developed this project for a 2021 course taught by Dr. Jane'a Johnson, Photography and Race: Blackness and the Self.

  • 1Sontag, Susan. On Photography. Penguin Books Ltd. 1977.
  • 2Rony, Fatimah Tobing. The Third Eye. Duke University Press. 1996. Pérez, Louis. Aspects of Underdevelopment: Tourism in the West Indies. Guilford Press. 1973.