Mundane Myths: Heritage and the Politics of the Photographic Cliché

Sterling, Colin. 2017. Mundane Myths: Heritage and the Politics of the Photographic Cliché. Public Archaeology 15(2-3), 87-112, DOI: 10.1080/14655187.2017.1384279

This paper considers the impact of photographic clichés on the management, conceptualization, and experience of heritage. Working along the grain of pejorative readings of ‘snapshot’ photography, this account views the repetitiveness and redundancy of the cliché as a critical point of departure, rather than a cause for reproach. Taking the World Heritage Site of Angkor as a core case study, three intersecting axes of political concern are sketched out to elucidate the broad social, material, and affective implications of clichéd photography for heritage. First, processes of dehistoricization and depoliticization are interrogated in relation to the role certain images play in constructing a mythic sense of the past in the present. This leads directly in to the second strand of analysis, which examines the various ways in which individuals negotiate these myths through the production of their own highly personalized photographic clichés. Here I develop the concept of an embodied politics of heritage photography to grasp the multivalent resonances of tourist clichés in particular. Finally, the implicit and explicit forms of spatial control that permeate sites such as Angkor are examined in relation to the photographic clichés they respond to and help shape.

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