DOCUMERICA and the rise of tourism in Hawaii

(See the entire collection here)

The United States Environmental Protection Agency sponsored the DOCUMERICA program from 1972 to 1977. The goal of the series was to “photographically document subjects of environmental concern” in the USA. In 1973, DOCUMERICA hired Charles O’Rear (later to be of Windows desktop fame) to document the rise of tourism and industrial development in Hawaii. The collection underscores many of the theories Appadurai lays out in “Disjuncture and Indifference.” The extent of Hawaii’s “deterritorialization” (as Appadurai puts it) is evinced by the intermingling of Japanese gardens, golf courses, suburbanite housing developments, and American tourists in Hawaiian leis. Where were these pictures even taken? Were it not for the caption, many could have easily appeared outside of Hawaii. The images appear fragmented, uprooted form even Hawaii’s cultural history.

Other photos reinforce Appadurai’s assertion that the transnational world blurs reality and fantasy. Tourists bathe in bliss merely three miles away from where raw sewage is discharged into the ocean. An ineffectual “no littering sign” is surrounded by garbage. Private property blocks access to a public waterfall (proceed at your “own risk”). Indeed, the flows of industry and tourism appear poised to destroy that which makes Hawaii so attractive in the first place – the scenic beauty of its natural ecosystem.

Max Snyder

One thought on “DOCUMERICA and the rise of tourism in Hawaii”

  1. Hawaii is an interesting example of a transnational space. Most of the world is only familiar with a stereotyped, caricatured version of Hawaii, perpetuated by popular media, but there has been a concerted effort to maintain the traditions that set these islands apart. In many ways it is as thoroughly “American” as any other U.S. state, or at least heavily Americanized—in the town where my dad grew up, locals lamented the opening of a new Whole Foods and Target in their downtown shopping district last year—but it also occupies a unique position as a “halfway point” between Asia and America. The flows of industry and migration have made the islands a melting pot of ethnicity: native Hawaiian, Filipino, Chinese, Japanese, other Asian, Portuguese, and many others. Thus most Hawaiian residents are really “from somewhere else,” or their parents or grandparents were. But unlike New York and other cities with large immigrant populations, there is also a deeply rooted native Hawaiian culture that predates the United States and underlies (or is overlaid on?) all the others. In this sense, it is hard to define what it means to be Hawaiian, or how one who is not born there might become so.


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