The Bigger Picture: Visual Archives and the Smithsonian
This Side of Paradise
I came across these photos of tourists on Easter Island on our site and their presence has kind of baffled me. They’re neither fine art prints, nor even a tourist’s snapshots of the islands, perhaps laden with some kind of personal or even intimate look into a stranger’s vacation. Rather, they’re 1960s photo reproductions from a travel brochure for Easter Island by the tour company Lindblad Expeditions. But what could be blasé marketing photos actually present a unique view into the beginnings of commercial tourism in an extremely remote locale.
Easter Islanders, or Rapanui Islanders as they call themselves, often joke about how the Polynesian name for their home (Rapa Nui) can be translated as either “the navel of the world” or “the place at the end of the world.” The nearest populated land is the island of Pitcairn over 1,180 miles away. Until Lindblad organized the first civilian flight into Easter Island in 1967, the island had only been regularly reachable by the annual supply ship of the Chilean Navy. Lindblad also imported pickup trucks from the US (the only non-government vehicles on the island) and struck a deal with the state hotel agency to allow his visitors to stay in a tent city that was erected for tourists. By 1968, when these photos were published, flights came in once a month and Lindblad had established a regular itinerary that included visits to the moai; a Sunday church service in Tahitian; and a barbeque lunch at Anakena (the one white sand beach on the island), which was planted with coconut palms imported by the Chilean Navy in the 1950s.
Yet, a Washington Post article detailing the trip warned readers, “This isn’t Tahiti. A tourist not too concerned about comfort may now view stone age wonders formerly beheld only by archeologists . . .” And the island’s own mayor joked, “We not only have one of the world’s most expensive hotels, but also one of the most uncomfortable. We call it the concentration camp. . .”
It is interesting, then, that our photographs advertising Lindblad’s trip to Easter Island don’t actually picture the tourist tent city, and seem to glorify a kind of tropical paradise where bronzed and attractive young women dance in grass skirts and smiling men play guitars in Hawaiian shirts. It makes you wonder if the grandmotherly types seated for a lecture in front of the moai knew that they were essentially signing up for an outrageously expensive camping trip, complete with erratic water supply and a muddy ¼ mile trek to common bathroom facilities. I might be jumping to conclusions, since without access to the original brochure I can neither read the captions nor see all of the photos that Lindblad used to advertise Easter Island. Regardless, it is the potential incongruity of these photos and the actual tourist’s experience that makes them interesting: they remind you that what you see and what you get (especially on vacation) may be two very separate things.