They lift their arms above their heads, lean back and look up to the sky in perfect unison. They wear coordinating costumes, made up of fuchsia pinks, pops of turquoise and dizzying floral patterns. At the end of each graceful arabesque, a hand cradles a smartphone, perfectly poised to capture a postcard shot of the building before them. They are not dancers, but tourists to Florence's cathedral.
Street photographer Oleg Tolstoy's series, The Tourist Trap, captures the strange, ritualistic behaviour of visitors to the Duomo. Having spent three months actively avoiding tourists on his own travels, Tolstoy did not imagine that they would inspire his next series of work. But when he observed the behaviour of holidaymakers in Florence he realised there was potential for a fascinating project that explored the nature of tourist culture. He began taking experimental photos of visitors to the Duomo, at close proximity, and was encouraged by the results. His colourful and claustrophobic photo series was born.
VICE: Hey Oleg. So do you think tourists should spend less time taking photographs and more time enjoying what's around them IRL?
Oleg Tolstoy: It's a tricky one, because that is what we've turned out to be, right? We are all taking pictures of everything. One thing I did notice was that different age groups act differently. All the parents or grown-ups go round taking pictures of what they see – of the landscapes and architecture and everything – but with the kids, I didn't see so many cameras coming out. They didn't seem to be interacting in the same way. Also, with their clothes, there didn't seem to be so many floral prints; that's why there aren't many young people in my pictures.
So the tourist-way-of-dressing is something that fascinates you in itself? Those sort of "I'm on holiday" clothes?
From what I gather, they have a sort of hit list of countries that they have to go and visit and, obviously, they might have an outfit to go and visit these places in: something that they're comfortable to go touristing in, but that's also smart. Florence has this sort of hype about how it's this amazing place; it's magical and it's got this history, you know? They're all sort of dressing up for the occasion. I don't know if they go to another city and they wear the same thing, but the floral stuff seems to work with the orangey tones to the buildings.
Do you think there's specifically an American-tourist-way-of-behaving, or, like, a Chinese-tourist-way-of-behaving?
With some groups, when they arrive at the cathedral they have to actually be seen to be in the picture. So a procession will happen, with one person in front of the camera and one bending down on their knees to take their picture. This didn't seem to be such a big deal with Americans and Europeans, but I met a Chinese girl the other day and she said that this is a big thing in China – they have to be able to show they were there. People get so excited. Have you heard of Paris syndrome?
I haven't. What's that?
Basically, it's when Japanese tourists come to Paris and they freak out that they've seen the Eiffel Tower, or that Paris is not what they expected it to be; either they really love it, or they don't. Anyway, they come down with this sort of illness and it's called Paris syndrome. It's a similar thing here, because the whole of Florence is just full of tourists.
So you're criticising tourists?
I am completely objective to the whole thing; I am just an observer. I saw something happen and I went in to photograph it happening; I don't necessarily actually have an opinion on it.
But don't you recognise any of these behaviour traits in the way you photograph when you're travelling?
No. I was going through my pictures the other day, and they're all pictures of people – people I've seen. I don't really take landscapes. I don't take pictures of buildings, as such; it's usually just people, you know? I might take a photo, say, if it's an amazing sunset. But no, I don't take tourist pictures myself.
Did anyone spot you taking their photo and react badly?
Some people spotted me, but remember there's this group dynamic. When there are, like, 25 of them, they're talking to each other and they've got this guide; they're not going to run after me or anything, so that works in my favour. Plus, you do it quite quickly. Once you start getting comfortable with it, you don't really care whether someone says anything. But there was this one tour guide – I was being a bit cheeky and stuck my hand right over his and took his photo. Anyway, he followed me out and walked after me for a couple of minutes and said, "Can you delete that picture?" I just deleted it and that was it.
Do you ever lose your confidence if someone does say something?
I've been taking pictures of people on the street for like ten years, so no. Of course, at one point, it wouldn't have been so easy. It's definitely something that comes with practice. Also, learning how to take a picture like that isn't something you can do in five minutes. It's just having the confidence and the skill and the knowledge, like with anything in life.
So, if one of your subjects confronted you and asked you outright, "What are you doing?" how would you react?
I would probably just walk off.