Snapping the snappers: What does our obsession with documenting our holidays say about us?

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We all do it. Go on holiday, see the sights, and then take a picture to prove we were there. But what do all these identical pictorial momentos tell us about ourselves?One photographer set about finding out…

Back a bit, left a bit – the holiday snap is a minor art form, a work of skill and concentration. Well, you need to know which button to press. These days, our cameras do so much of the legwork that any teenager with an iPhone can create images of astonishing quality. Yet, no matter how many millions of pictures are created and uploaded to the internet daily, we never tire of taking them. Even when we see a landmark that has been snapped 1,000 times before, we still reach for the camerabag, wanting, for whatever reason, to create our own version. Perhaps it's just to prove we've been there.

Alan Powdrill, 45, is a professional photographer who became fascinated by watching other people take pictures. It all began on a trip to Rome two years ago, and soon became an obsession. "I started looking at the expressions of tourists in the Pantheon," he says. "I was interested in the poses they would make as they took their pictures. There's this mode of extreme concentration people slip into, when everything else is momentarily shut out. Wherever they are, no matter how crowded the place, people would get into this zone, all for the creation of their little slice of photographic art."

From then on, wherever he went, Powdrill would snap the snappers. He photographed tourists in Lanzarote, in Thailand and in London, and found that no matter where they are, people strike the same peculiar pose of intense concentration. The result, a collection of 300 images called Shooting Tourists, is at once comical and k touching. His pictures gently poke fun at the cliché of the happy-snappy holiday-maker, shifting our attention from the sights to the reactions of those who see them.

Many of his shots illustrate the lengths that tourists will go to for a picture. Like the woman in London who lay on the pavement to take a portrait of her bulldog, with Westminster Abbey as a background. Or the Japanese tourists bursting out of a red telephone box. His own favourite, he says, is of a nun at St Peter's Basilica in the Vatican. "That was one of the first ones I took, that first weekend in Rome," he recalls. "There was a whole line of nuns waiting to kiss the foot [of the Pietà], and they were in heaven. I loved the light on it, and the glee on that nun's face."

Some of Powdrill's shots may look too good to be true, but all record real moments, snatched without their subjects' knowledge. "It was all completely covert, because obviously I wanted to capture people in their natural state," he explains. "None of the people in my pictures are aware of this project, and nine times out of 10, I was not noticed."

Not surprisingly, capturing tourists in the wild wasn't easy, and required much staking out of their terrain. "It was hard to get them on their own. I normally work in the studio, on pre-composed shots, so this was a bit of a departure. These pictures were all taken completely on the hoof, on a split decision, and many times I would miss the shot. It was going back to the real roots of photography, of pure photo-journalism, where it would be in the moment, the decisive moment, as Henri Cartier-Bresson used to say. You either get it or you don't." k

Powdrill was born in Nottingham but has lived in east London for 20 years. His father was a keen amateur photographer, though Powdrill himself was unaware of this until after he became a professional. "Perhaps it's genetic," he muses. His career came about in a somewhat unorthodox fashion. "I got into photography when my best friend found a credit card and bought me a camera," he explains. "I then did a City & Guilds course and one of my first jobs was in cruise-ship photography, where I learnt the fine art of very hard work and very hard partying".

Powdrill spent 18 months as a cruise-ship photographer, taking pictures of tourists not necessarily looking their finest. He would take up to 30 rolls every night, and post the pictures in a gallery for guests to buy. "It's a massive business, and it was great fun. I travelled all over the world and took so many pictures that I would dream about it at night."

No doubt those experiences triggered his interest in the tourist as subject. Perhaps they also gave him the sense of humour with which he treats his subjects. But some might see Shooting Tourists, with its cleverly punning title, as the work of a professional lampooning the clueless amateur. "That might be the case, but it wasn't intentional," he says. "Taking pictures has been the biggest passion of my life, so I can relate to their enthusiasm. Whether you're professional or amateur, holiday snaps are where it all began. I might take pictures for my work, but when I'm on holiday, I still take pictures like that."

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