Postcards from the end of the world: Photo project captures the beauty and excess of 'last-chance' tourism
Wish You Were here, a new exhibition from Sarah Palmer, is now showing as part of Contact Festival
It's swimming the Great Barrier Reef before it's bleached, or flying to Tanzania to photograph the melting snows of Kilimanjaro. It's bumping a travel destination up your bucket list for fear it'll go the way of Atlantis — maybe the Maldives, or Venice or the Florida Keys. And for those who prefer domestic travel, there's Jasper National Park. If you dream of feeling the breeze off the Athabasca Glacier, book your trip now before it's gone.
You can file those vacation ideas under the same strange travel category. It's called "last-chance tourism," and as the buzzword suggests, it's a trend with apocalyptic undertones — the idea of planning a holiday before climate change destroys the destination.
See the wonders of the world before they've flooded! Or evaporated! Or been swallowed by a sinkhole! And yet, irony of ironies, the more tourists flock to a "last chance" hot spot, the more endangered it becomes.
"Last-chance tourism" is the subject of Wish You Were Here, a new exhibition from Toronto photographer Sarah Palmer. One of the public projects featured through this year's Scotiabank Contact Photography Festival, it's appearing at the Donald D. Summerville Pools through May 31. There, three of her large-scale images have been installed on the exterior of the east-end complex, towering nine-feet high and facing the lake.
In recent years, Palmer's found a niche making multi-exposure images: documentary photographs that convey mood and layered narratives. For Wish You Were Here, she presents postcards for the end of the world: surreal snapshots from a luxury cruise. The exhibition highlights three separate works, all imbued with a sense of dreamy future nostalgia.
In each image, Palmer captures overlapping scenes of passengers lounging on deck. But the photos are layered with additional exposures: watery landscape shots of blue skies and ocean waves. Is this a dream or a nightmarish vision of the future?
"What I want to get is just the irony of it all," says Palmer. "Like, the clarity and contradictions in how people have lived and vacationed up until now without much thought to what's happening to the environment."
It was 2018 when Palmer started thinking about "last-chance tourism" — the same year that Forbes declared it the top trend in travel. She was looking to take her career in a new direction. Her Drunk on Trump series, which captured the circus of the 2016 U.S. presidential race, had earned her international acclaim, and notable news assignments followed. In 2018, for example, she covered the Ontario election for the Globe and Mail.
But the work left her craving a break from politics, and she wanted to turn her attention to another favourite subject: tourism, and the uneasy feeling she'd often experienced as a traveller herself. Says Palmer: "I've always felt like, 'What is my effect on the country and people that I'm going to see?'"
So, Palmer booked a working holiday: a Caribbean cruise. She packed up her cameras and boarded alone, hoping to start a whole new series: a story about cruise-ship culture and the artificial lifestyle of vacationing at sea. But the reality was more unsettling than she'd anticipated.
"Once you're on the ship, you realize how bad they are for the environment," says Palmer. A single cruise liner can produce more than a tonne of waste in a single day, to say nothing of what it's pumping into the atmosphere. As the German environmental organization Nabu reported in 2017 (via CBC's As It Happens): "A cruise ship's emissions are the same as 1 million cars."
The waste and excess that Palmer experienced left her wanting to learn more about the industry's ecological impact. That's how she discovered last-chance tourism. "I've always been drawn to the topic of travel," she says. "The importance wasn't there until I was able to tie it with the climate crisis."
She's since travelled to four continents pursuing the project, taking cruises to places including Alaska, Italy, Florida and various countries in Southeast Asia and the Caribbean. The trips aren't always advertised as "last-chance" destinations, and in developing the project, "last chance" has taken on a variety of meanings.
"When I say 'last chance,' it doesn't have to be literal," Palmer explains. The project is interested in what motivates a person to travel — period. As she's observed through her trips, there's a sort of desperation that often drives a person to book a cruise. Maybe they're about to start a family. Maybe they're in between jobs. Maybe they're getting older, and it's their "last chance" to see the world.
Whatever their reasons, Palmer doesn't judge. The concept of "last-chance tourism" may be problematic, but she doesn't fault anyone who signs up for a holiday. And as she continues to develop the series, she's mindful of her part in it all. "I'm incredibly aware that taking these trips is contributing to the climate crisis," she says. "I just hope that with getting published and having shows, it might contribute to a greater awareness."
"Travelling is in our DNA," says Palmer. "Is it up to us to change how we travel, or is it up to the larger companies and corporations to navigate how we're supposed to travel in this climate-crisis environment?"
Check out these selections from Wish You Were Here.
Sarah Palmer. Wish You Were Here. To May 31. Summerville Olympic Pools, Toronto. www.scotiabankcontactphoto.com