By: Hannah Peterson /
Since the 1900’s, big game hunters from Theodore Roosevelt to the British royal family have travelled to Africa on Safari in hopes of hunting trophy animals and gaining an authentic African experience. Safaris have since transformed into a luxury eco and cultural tourism industry that is now a main economic driving force in places like East Africa. The complex historical link of imperialism remains deeply embedded in contemporary Safari. Modern media that portrays Safari takes the form of reenacting and reritualizing the imperialist, colonizing journey as a romantic narrative fantasy of power and desire both over African wildlife and primitive cultures.
This desire for contact with exotic species and cultures assuages the guilt of the past and can even go so far as denying accountability and historical connection to what may be irrevocably altered by colonization and now tourism. Safari has been established into a new contemporary narrative in which the suffering imposed by imperialist structures is effectively deflected by images of longing and seduction where domination is no longer the goal, but the desire is to be transformed by this other culture. This presentation explores how ‘the west’ (western Europe and U.S.) has created, represented and used ‘the safari’ (The concept, animals, people, places and cultures identified as safari.) As well as why ‘the west’ (western Europe and U.S.) has created, represented and used ‘the safari’?
To consider this possibility, I will present images of Safaris in both advertisements for retailers such as Ralph Lauren and Michael Kors who draw influence from the Safari culture, as well as actual material from operating Safari camps. I will also show images from other media outlets such as films that incorporate Safari culture. These images will help bolster a link between the contemporary Safari and that of it’s colonial past to help understand this complex relation.
During the late 19th and early 20th century, the Swahili word safari (referring to a trip or journey) was appropriated by European and American travelers in Africa and popularized as a mode of hunting and recreation.
Safaris became increasingly commodified in the late 1950’s and 1960’s with the advent of hunting bans and independence for African nations.
Safaris have since transformed into a luxury eco and cultural tourism industry that is a main economic driving force in places like East Africa.
The camera and motion picture has been and remains an essential piece of safari. The experience of exploration and discovery for most safari tourists is largely constructed through the camera lens and photographic encounters with African landscapes, animals, and people.
SAFARI AND ITS CINEMATIC REPRESENTATION
In the twentieth century, the film industry provided a means for re-imagining African cultural and natural landscapes through Western eyes. Despite technological advances, the image-making practices of Western travelers to Africa remained embedded in colonial narratives and visual tropes of travel and exploration.
Early 20th century films continued to be framed as sensationalistic tales of adventure. This solidified the archetypal figure of the “explorer” and perpetuated stereotypical imagery of Africa; it’s people, culture, land, and animals
SAFARI GENRE + CINEMATIC MAPPING
Safari adventure films of the 20th century often featured:
- “First contact” the encounter with African people, animals, landscapes as if for the first time.
- Celebratory scenes of arrival and departure.
- Dangerous crossings and natural obstacles.
- Touristic visits to indigenous villages
Safari filmmaking promoted western moral and technological superiority over African people, animals, and land. These films often reproduced colonial ideologies and imperial geographies through imagery, narrative structure, and voice over narration. As Donna Haraway argues of Osa and Martin Johnson’s films, “Africans had the same status as wildlife . . . the ultimate justification for [their] domination” by white Westerners.
THE GAME DRIVE
Is it possible to posit that in modern safari, the camera has replaced the gun? A game drive is designed to take you close to wildlife and to give you the opportunity to view wild animals in their natural habitat. The word game itself refers to animals in pursuit, especially animals hunted for sport. The modern game drive is a photographic opportunity to capture the Big Five (Lion, Elephant, Buffalo, Leopard and Rhino). In comparison to it’s historic counterpart, the tourist is no longer bringing home a trophy, but rather a photographic image.
Fashion advertising deals with safari and colonialism in a number of ways. Particularly with a depoliticized rewriting of history. In such cases, adverts present an aestheticized version of the colonial period which selects visual elements from various times and places to create a romanticized version of reality.
CASE STUDY: Banana Republic. The name “banana republic” is a term used contemptuously to refer to postcolonial countries, suggesting a lack of power and incompetent rule. In the 1980s and 1990s stores concentrated on safari and travel wear and were laid out like colonial general stores.
Is it unreasonable to critique brands like Banana Republic for focusing on romanticized versions of colonialism without reflecting on the nature of the experience or the power relations involved? Nevertheless, it is critical to understand why particular images are so often repeated in advertising, images that reinforce messages that tell us about what the world is like.
Before I moved to New York to attend the New School, I lived in Kenya for two years and worked at a children’s home just south of the Great Rift Valley. One day, we had been afforded the opportunity of taking the kids on a Safari, of which they nor I had ever been on. As a devoted lover of travel, I found safari to be truly one of the most unforgettable experiences of my life. The truth is, is that there is no feeling comparable to that of sipping a warm cappuccino and looking up to see a giraffe leering down at you, in all her majestic wonder. Yet, as I watched some of the kids try on pith helmets and march around like the colonials they had learned about in storybooks, I was confronted with a raging inner conflict of which I continue to wrestle with to understand. There was something deeply troubling about safari’s adorned colonial past, and it’s current character as conservation maven that doesn’t tell the story of the rift between its past and present. After unpacking some of the complex relations between contemporary safari and it’s historical counterpart in this presentation, I find it begs a more contemporary question of tourism and it’s profound impact on countries, the environment, and cultural heritage.
Last Friday an avalanche tragically killed at least 13 Sherpas on Mount Everest while crossing the Khumbu Icefall, carrying the belongings of climbers settled at base camp. Over the years, Mount Everest has attracted amateur climbers from the West to become a multimillion dollar business. The way it works is that expedition companies charge climbers to cover the expenses of the trip, and the expedition companies hire sherpas to carry loads, set up tents, cook, and guide the climbers to summit. In response to the Nepalese authorities who infuriated sherpas by offering about $410 compensation to families of the dead, the sherpas have advocated for cancelling the rest of the season’s expeditions on Mount Everest, confronting climbers with the prospect of losing tens of thousands of dollars and years of prerequisite planning. A similarity exists between summit ambitions and safari dreams, and so many other avenues of travel and adventure that we take. Why is it that travel, one of our most beloved acts, is at times so out of line with our values? What is it about being amongst African wildlife that makes it’s imperialist past dissolve? Or climbing the world’s highest peaks that make us forget the implications of the people who risk their lives to make it possible?
DeMello, Margo. Animals and Society: An Introduction to Human-animal Studies. New York: Columbia UP, 2012. Print.
Torgovnick, Marianna. Gone Primitive: Savage Intellects, Modern Lives. Chicago: U of Chicago, 1990. Print.