Marco Zorzanello, Tourism in the Climate Change Era

JTF (just the facts): Published in 2023 by André Frère Éditions (here). Hardcover, 24 x 32 cm, 184 pages, with 85 color reproductions. Includes essays in French/English by Hervé Barmasse, Paolo Galli, Jacopo Gabrieli, Lorenzo Perrone, and the artist. Design by Kakkalakki. (Cover and spread shots below.)

Comments/Context: As the realities of global warming have become increasingly visible in the past decade or two, the number of photographers who have made climate change their subject in one way or another has significantly grown, as have the approaches to visually communicating the complexities of the environmental changes taking place around us.

Initially, many of the photographers took an Ansel Adams-like angle, in essence photographically celebrating the wonders of the natural world, and calling attention to particular places and ecosystems (icebergs and glaciers, rainforests etc.) that were both stunningly gorgeous and under imminent attack, in the hopes of catalyzing us to care about saving these natural treasures. But when that style of artistic communication didn’t jump start enough urgent action, the aesthetic pendulum swung back in the other direction toward a kind of deliberate eye-poking ugliness, with images that featured the grim truths of oil drilling and refining, open pit mining, livestock feedlots, and other man-made environmental hazards, alternately seen with intentional harshness and something approaching sinister compositional beauty. As the years have passed, still other photographers have become storm chasers, tracking wildfires, floods, heat waves, hurricanes, and other dangerous weather events, all of which have been amplified by global warming and are leaving paths of widespread destruction in their wake, while some have turned their attention to the boom of innovative renewable energy solutions being proposed and implemented, from solar fields to offshore wind farms. When further surrounded by the individual stories of the people whose lives have been upended by climate change in one way or another across the globe, in aggregate these pictures are beginning to tell the multi-layered story of an evolving “new normal”, one that keeps changing and is increasingly chaotic and unstable as the temperatures continue to rise.

The title of Marco Zorzanello’s recent photobook Tourism in the Climate Change Era overtly places it within this burgeoning subgenre of climate-centered work, but the image on its cover signals that the Italian photographer’s perspective isn’t quite the same as most of his contemporaries. The picture features a horse drawn sleigh pulling a colorful crowd of skiers along a thin strip of snow laid down on an otherwise dry area of rocky terrain. Depending on your mood, this strange image can be read as parody (or caricature), wry oddball comedy, bleak tragedy, or perhaps even ingenious human adaptation, and this same unsettled mix of potential reactions emerges from nearly all the photographs in Zorzanello’s memorable book. His photobook is “about” the ways global tourism is being reimagined as the climate warms, and his findings have a kind of prickly gallows humor that we haven’t really seen before. And while we might be tempted to shrug off the eccentricities of the tourism industry, the fact remains that tourism represents roughly 10% of global GDP, and many communities around the world rely heavily on the influx of visitors to prop up their local economies, so when tourism suffers, the ripple effects are much more widely felt than we might initially imagine.

Tourism in the Climate Change Era is divided into four discrete sections, each with roughly twenty color photographs, its own essay, and a captioned thumbnail list – “Water Tour”, set in Palestine and Israel; “Snow Land”, in the Italian Dolomite mountains; “Lost Paradise”, in the Maldives; and “Iceberg Souvenir”, in Canada, Greenland, and Iceland. Given the differences in geography and the particular challenges being created by climate change in each place, each region is really its own separate project, but Zorzanello’s deadpan documentary eye connects the understated ridiculousness (or perhaps desperation) to be found in the four spots, creating a broader thematic arc that points out patterns in both industry reactions and tourist behavior.

The first section is a study of severe water depletion, as seen in the dry desert regions of Israel and Palestine. Visually measured distances provide the fodder for a number of Zorzanello’s setups, including tourists standing near sea level signs riding on camels or backed by completely dry zones, shorelines dried up leaving layers of empty dirt and sand, and an aging metal pier that juts out into air instead of water. Manufactured water (for the enjoyment of visitors) tries to balance this receding in places like the Sea of Galilee, with man-made lakes (with pharaoh-themes paddle boats), infinity pools, water parks, and canals placed in dry zones surrounded by hotels and other tourist amenities. Baptisms in the now-muddy Jordan River still take place, and mud seems to have become the novelty of choice at the Dead Sea, with tourists posing for selfies smeared with supposedly beneficial grey muck, even though sinkholes have closed most of the nearby spas.

The snow section in the Dolomites has a similar water depletion theme resulting from changing climate patterns, only this time it comes in the form of a pervasive lack of snow, for which the winter resorts in the Italian mountains compensate by making it. Many of Zorzanello’s images in this group find the subtle comedy in skiers in puffy parkas and ski boots lounging on snow-less grassy knolls or posing in front of nearly snow-less mountain vistas. Images made on the slopes tell the sad story of trails reduced to thin white lines laid through the dirt, chair lifts soaring over brown runs, and various resort equipment either stranded without snow or improvisationally turned into sites for other “attractions” like a kids’ bouncy castle or a teepee. And while there is a clear absurdity to all of this, the grimly quiet ski rental shops, closed runs, and generally empty resorts tell a story of the missing snow slowly destroying the traditional rhythms of the entire region, however hard the resort owners try to keep things running.

The problem in the Maldives is somewhat the reverse – too much water (in the form of sea level rise and shoreline erosion), and at the same time, too much heat in that water, leading to the bleaching (and dying off) of the coral reefs. Combine that with a tourist industry building hotels too near the water, and dredging up the sea bottom to create artificial islands, sandbars, and other luxury attractions, and you get the farcical images found in the “Lost Paradise” section. If you come at this photbook with an environmentalist eye, then the images here of underwater restaurants, coral cleared away to make room for a pristine ocean pool, a shielded toilet set up on the beach, oblivious jet skiers, and dead coral fragments choking the rocks will make your blood simmer. Quietly grimmer are the images of sandbags trying to hold back the water, beaches reduced to tiny strips underneath the jungle greenery, and rotting (and likely soon to be condemned) condos and hotels being splashed by waves. The utter disregard of the tourists takes shape in many ways, most noticeably in a woman lounging in a hanging chair at the edge of the beach right near what looks like a piece of discarded kitchen equipment tossed into the sea. And yet, with their lives dependent on visitors and their islands set at perhaps a foot above sea level, it’s hard not to feel sympathy for the dire climate situation the Maldivians find themselves in as the waters continue to rise.

“Iceberg Souvenir” is the fittingly laughable title of the final section of Zorzanello’s ecotourism grand tour, set in the Arctic regions of the north where travelers journey to see once immense glaciers, ice sheets, and other frozen marvels. And indeed, this section does include several images of tourists proudly holding their mini icebergs like recently caught fish, and there’s even one of a guy stretching with a net to snare his chosen berg. Various selfies and posed portraits are taken with dramatic icy backdrops, but the warming reality lurks nearby, once again in the form of snowlessness. The sled dogs have no snow to run on, red-parka wearing tourist groups tromp along boardwalks across snow-less terrain, and there is so little snow coverage that both whacking golf balls and playing soccer seem plausibly possible. And there is something altogether foolishly ominous about the white mountain-shaped sign for the 4-star Hotel Arctic set against a rocky vista free of any whiteness.

As divertingly nonsensical as many of Zorzanello’s photographs are, they portend even bleaker futures, where the water is gone, the snow is gone, the islands are gone, and the icebergs are gone, thereby making his photographs the backward looking evidence of the “good old days” rather than of the current moment insanities we now see in them. What I like best about Tourism in the Climate Change Era is how it delivers an urgent message with such flair and absurdity, poking fun at just how ridiculous things have become. Hopefully, the wry humor found in Zorzanello’s pictures can be the starting point for acknowledging just how out-of-kilter our world has become, and just how damaging and unsustainable some of our holiday lifestyles really are.

Collector’s POV: Marco Zorzanello does not appear to have consistent gallery representation at this time. As a result, interested collectors should likely follow up directly with the artist via his website (linked in the sidebar.)

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