Fanny packs and visors, cameras and maps—these are the notoriously goofy trappings of tourism. But what does it look like when, rather than traveling to foreign lands, curious folks bring different cultures to their own soil? Photographer Naomi Harris stumbled on just that bizarre phenomenon. Spoiler alert: Lederhosen T-shirts and coonskin caps are up ahead.
In January of 2008, Harris was working on a story in the mountains of Georgia when some people suggested she visit a nearby town called Helen. They offered no explanation as to why, but as soon as she arrived the reason became obvious. “When I got there I discovered a quaint little village with buildings covered in gingerbread resembling Bavaria, yet the gift shops sold T-shirts covered with Confederate flags reading ‘It’s a southern thing.’” This strange encounter prompted what would become a lasting passion project for Harris.
“This got me thinking, If this town exists how many others would there be around the U.S.? And for that matter, would there be places in Europe that mimicked America? A few hours on Google and I realized, ‘Presto! I have a project!’”
The same summer, she made her first trip across the pond to Sweden, where she photographed a Wild West theme park. “I discovered that Europeans were crazy about Native American culture as well as fur traders and the American Civil War. I never expected there to be such an interest in that period of American history.”
Since then, Harris has traveled everywhere from California to the Czech Republic, visiting these niche parks. Though the idea behind the parks in the U.S. and Europe is the same—simulating the culture and history of a foreign country—the manifestations vary. “In America [the parks] tend to be in towns where people are descendants of immigrants from a particular area, like the Dutch who moved to Orange City, Iowa, or Holland, Michigan. They celebrate their heritage during events like Tulip Fest or Oktoberfest. In Europe, I find them to be more of a family holiday destination rather than being about cultural identity. There are entire amusement parks dedicated to the pioneering way of life, complete with Wild West shows and showdowns. There are also a few theme parks, like Sioux City, that were originally built as film sets during the ‘60s and ‘70s, when Spaghetti Westerns were popular.”
Many of the visitors haven’t actually traveled to the locations that the parks or towns are mimicking. “Often [it’s] zero to none. I was really amazed by how many people had never set foot in America, had no family there, and didn’t even speak the language yet knew everything about the Civil War, for example. The same is true for the Americans,” says Harris.
Some of the parks, she says, “have seen better days, with very archaic rides, and [they] are perhaps a little tame for today’s amusement park visitor. Others have [been] updated and modernized to continue to attract visitors.” She wonders if the parks will continue to hold the interest of generations to come, but she’s hopeful.
“In an era where our societies are becoming more homogenized due to the ease of travel and an abundance of access to information, I’m amazed that people are still interested in these bygone days. But maybe that’s the reason we are interested in the past and feel a need to preserve it. There’s a sense of fantasy to these places, a mythological atmosphere that isn’t always rooted in reality. That’s what I think is so special—that the depiction doesn’t have to be 100 percent accurate. Our curiosity in the other is why these places exist in the first place.”