Sight Sacralization: (Re)framing Switzerland

When the wealthy English set off on their European Grand Tours in the 1800s, they expected that Switzerland would inspire them with vistas of sublime grandeur. The landscape’s untamed romanticism was a crucial component of Switzerland’s national identity and cultural prestige.

Today, the Swiss landscape often resembles a theater set, where tourists are transported to officially designated areas of natural beauty to gaze upon epic views from the safety of stage-managed viewpoints, a process referred to as “sight sacralization” (MacCannell, 1989, p. 43–45). A place is named, then framed and elevated, before being enshrined, mechanically reproduced and finally socially reproduced across a variety of media. Tourists are both performers and spectators, part of the circle of representation in which “all we see is seen through the kaleidoscope of all that we have seen before” (Grundberg, 1999, p. 16).

These large-format tableaux photographs, often created from multiple exposures, are taken of viewing platforms at some of the most photographed places in Switzerland. The locations were sourced using the online mapping software Sightsmap, which creates popularity heatmaps based on crowdsourcing geo-tagged photographs uploaded to the Internet. In the final exhibited version there is also an added element of augmented data within several of the photographs: embedded information ranging from videos of tourists taking selfies and historic photochromes to a stream of images taken from the same locations within the last twenty-four hours.

Together, these photographs and augmented data explore how we use, manipulate, remember, and experience tourist sites. The series considers tourists’ creation and interpretation of their own photographs, both at the time of taking them and afterwards. The work raises questions relating to aesthetics, performance, and individual and collective identities within our “culture of instantaneity” (Tomlinson, 2007, p. 74).

“Roberts’ photographs show how Rousseau’s Romantic perception of the Swiss landscape has been radically altered as a result of the different ways in which tourists ‘consume’ this same landscape as a commodity. Once upon a time, these photos were intended for private albums back home, but now tourists have become contributors to destination marketing.” – Daniella Bär

This series was commissioned by Fotostiftung Schweiz and Musée de l’Elysée.


View installation shots here

View a video showing the augmented reality working in the exhibition, (link)

View the exhibition’s augmented material (link)

Contact sheet of photographic plates (pdf)

Press Release (pdf)