Place and Placelessness

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As I have been finalising the book edit, I have increasingly been drawn to maps to help tell the story – both the Khmer Rouge history, and that of the school program. This has prompted me to go back to Edward Relph’s Place and Placelessness, a geography classic.

I was introduced to his work by comments in James Tyner’s book, The Killing of Cambodia: Geography, Genocide and the Unmasking of Space – an extraordinarily rich and insightful volume.

Tyner described the Khmer Rouge as ‘objective outsiders’, using space to re-locate an entire population, and re-naming of geography to redefine and upend people’s everyday lives.

My notes on and comments on Relph’s book:

Chapter One: Place and the phenomenological basis of geography  

We use human experience to define place, not physical characteristics.

Mick Yates. 1972. Burton Station.

The station was a place that I ‘used’; not really thinking about it as a place, but rather as part of a journey.

Jim Brogden might call this a ‘non-place’, like an airport or a part of a disused, declining urban setting that people pass through rather than consciously experience and relate to. That said, as Jim also notes, we do imbue a shared meaning to an airport concourse, related to our experiences and needs, many of which we share with other users. So, it might be a ‘non-place’ in some ways, but most certainly a ‘place’ in other people’s definitions. On the contrary, we rarely ascribe meaning to a scene of urban decay, other than perhaps as some ‘artistic’ and artificial photographic composition.

But, in more properly looking at it, experiencing it – it is indeed a ‘place’ for many people, defined by how they use it and not what it looks like. And it is a place situated in another place; an urban landscape, across the local pork pie factory (which always smelled horribly from the maggots extracted from the pork), and onto Drakelow Power Station, at that time one of the biggest in the UK – and a declared target for Soviet nukes during the Cold War.

So much to unpack, despite the banality of the station.

Chapter Two: Space and Place

Relph wrote of a hierarchy – from the most primitive to the most abstract sense of place.

It forms a useful analytical tool when considering personal experiences of place (and of photographs). Most are quite easy to find examples of.

  1. Pragmatic or primitive – instinctive or unselfconscious – though animals might also be able to define ‘home’ spaces.
  2. Perceptual – human reflection on space – based on needs, practices, emotional encounters. Safety, warmth, food.
  3. Existential – as members of a cultural group, defining the group or configured to physically manifest its practices. Home, workplace, layout of Balinese villages etc.
  4. Sacred – archaic, symbols, meaningful objects, ritualised relationships to the space. Sacred landscape, human-built places of worship, cemeteries.
  5. Structural or geographic – analytical, reductionist, scale, relationships of spaces. Use of light, space and movement in a  Frank Gehry building.
  6. Architectural or planning – considers living spaces, uses, relationships though may leave ‘non-spaces’ between. Shopping malls, new housing estates, new towns.
  7. Cognitive – abstract definitions as objects of reflection, not experiential other than as basis for actual constructs. Architectural sketches, materials development, social studies and research.
  8. Abstract – non-Euclidean, theoretical, thought experiments. Mathematical space, time and movement.

Mick Yates. 1973. Wallsend Shipyards.

I remember walking the streets of Wallsend, not too long after we started living in Newcastle, to start my post Uni career at Procter & Gamble. The street were rather run down, and superficially one could use the word ‘slum’. But the rows of identical houses were also homes. The meaning they had for the inhabitants was quite different to mine.

Something similar could be said of the shipyards. At that time, they were central to everyone’s livelihood. Hardly sacred, but certainly socially essential. Threats to the shipyards were existential.

The yards had grown in a rather higgedly-piggedly fashion, and not obviously planned from the beginning. But it was all functional, and seemed fit for purpose. how did they launch those huge metallic monsters in the River Tyne?

Mick Yates. 1973. Wallsend Shipyards.

Photographically, there were symbols everywhere, vistas to create, and details to capture: the markings on the ship for construction reasons, the graffiti, the local pub and more.

When I took the photographs, I think I was considering it as simple record keeping, as part of my new home area. Alhough I see now that I composed very carefully, most probably for clarity for the viewers of my slide. Looking back, the layering of meaning can be broken into many of Relph’s constructs.

Chapter Three: The Essence of Place

  • Place and location – most places are located but location is neither a necessary not sufficient condition for a place.
  • Place and landscape – there is some type of appearance – physical and describable form.
  • Place and time – the place might physically change over time (or not) yet it’s meaning might not change (or it might). Clear relationship with time.
  • Place and community – attachment to ‘home’ – community and place powerfully reinforce each other – constructed places to link to power and control (3rd Reich, Cathedrals)

Private and personal places – obviously

Mick Yates. 1970. Home, Rolleston on Dove.

My home as a teenager. A place of safety and comfort, yet also a place I wanted desperately to leave.

There is a rootedness and care for such places – a deep familiarity. Home is as profound centres of human existence – paraphrasing Heidegger – ‘a deep relationship with places is perhaps as necessary, and perhaps as unavoidable, as close relationships with people’. (pg 41)

But there is also a drudgery of such place – nostalgia – becoming (in the worst case) places of everyday misery. Why one wants to leave, perhaps?

Can I  say that my first hall of residence was a ‘better’ place, in substantive ways?

Mick Yates. 1970. Boddington Hall, University of Leeds.

The essence of place is a centre of action and attention, a ‘focus where we experience the meaningful events of our existence’. (Norbert-Schultz, 1971).

In that sense, Boddington became my new focus – new studies, new lifestyle, solo, new girlfriends. And Boddington had a darkroom, my first use of such a place. Boddington, and these building, became places of new experience with (in retrospect) quite deep meaning for me. Existential, almost. Which leads to …

Chapter Four: On the identify of places

There is a hierarchy in the sense of one’s relationship with place, in ascending order:

  • Existential outsideness – everywhere the same except in superficial qualities (unreality, poetry?)
  • Objective outsideness – viewed scientifically and dispassionately
  • Incidental outsideness – place as background to something else
  • Vicarious insideness – a second-hand experience of place
  • Behaviourist insideness – deliberate attendance (and analysis) to place
  • Empathetic insideness – understanding the real meaning of the place
  • Existential insideness – significance of place without conscious reflection

Mick Yates. 1970. Coal Mining at Albert Village, Derbyshire.

I worked as a ‘tallyman’, collecting monthly payments from families to prepay for clothes, Christmas presents and more. The mining communities of South Derbyshire were part of my ‘patch’. I got to know some of the people living and working there quite well, stopping to chat and have tea. And I saw the mines and the slag heaps, instinctively knowing that they had meaning for the people that lived and worked there. these places were of existential importance to them all. Existential Insideness, for sure. Today, these places do not exist, having been replaced (sic) by self-consciously designed communities. In turn, the occupants are most likely a new form of Existential Insider.

Yet too me, they were just landscapes, urbanscapes, objects that needed composing in the frame.

Vicarious insideness, perhaps?

When I first visited Cambodia, the same mechanism was probably still at work in my photography. But in the recent series, deliberately shot to tell a pre-defined story, other constructs were at play.

Mick Yates. 2019. Kirirom Forest, Cambodia.

Perhaps Empathetic Insideness is at work, here?

In Tyner’s view, the Khmer Rouge leadership were objective outsiders, and were not at all insiders or empathetic. Their geographic regions were deliberately designed to destroy previous sense of place and country. And the 4 year plan was totally unrealistic – it was a detailed, all-encompassing list of targets for the population to achieve, without strategies or executional detail.

When things started to fail, instead of changing the plan, the Khmer Rouge turned on their own people as failing to support the revolution. The regime started to consume itself, by again moving people from place to place, using space – and the Killing Fields took on an ultimate meaning.


It is worth repeating Tyner’s notes on Relph:

‘Specifically, Relph develops seven-fold typology in an attempt to flesh out the various “experiences of being an insider or outsider”.

FIrst there is “existential outsiderness” in which all places assume the same meaningless identify and are distinguishable only by their superficial qualities. According to Relph, this is the position that fascinates poets and novelists, who often are intrigued by a “sense of unreality of the world, and of not belonging.”

A second relationship entails “objective outsiderness” in which all places are viewed scientifically and passively. Objective outsiderness involves a deep separation of person and place, and has a long tradition in academic geography as well as that of military planning and politics. Such a position reduces places either to the single dimension of location or to a space of located objects and activities.

“Incidental outsiderness” constitutes a third relationship between experience and place. Here, places are experienced little more than backgrounds for activities and thus, the experience of place is even detached than that of objective outsiderness. Relph provides the example of business persons going from city to city merely to attend conferences and meetings. Place is secondary to the activities at hand; indeed, the identity of the place is little more Than a background for the conduct of other functions.”

A fourth relationship is that of “vicarious insideness” in which places experienced in second hand way. Relph explains that through paintings or poetry we “enter” into other worlds and other places. Often feelings towards these places are most pronounced when the depiction of specific place corresponds with experiences of familiar places.

Fifth, “behaviourist insidedness” involves the deliberate attendance to the appearance of a place. Here one perceives and conceives of a place as a set of objects, views, and activities.

Sixth, “empathetic insidedness” occurs when one understands a place to be rich in meaning. Such a position demands a willingness to be open to the significance of a place, to know and respect its symbols.

Lastly, according to Relph, “existential insideness” constitutes the most fundamental and “intense” a place as an existential insider, one experiences place without deliberate conscious reflection, yet all the whole knowing that the place is full of significance’. (Tyner, pg 142)


Chapter Five: A sense of place and authentic place making 

Place is essential to human self-identity, individually and collectively. But there is a distinct difference between a singer (or authentic) sense of place, and a superficial (or inauthentic) one.

Relph writes:

‘An authentic person is thus one who is sincere in all he does while being involved unselfconsciously in an immediate and communal relationship with the meanings of the world, or while self consciously facing up to the realities of his existence and making genuine decisions about how he can or cannot change his situation. Such a person stands in fundamental contrast to someone who either denies the fundamental realities of his existence, or explains them away as acts of Fate, the Will of God, the dictates of history, environment, economies, fashion, or whatever. Whereas the authentic person assumes responsibility for his existence, the inauthentic person transfers responsibility to large, nebulous, unchangeable forces, for which lie cannot be blamed and about which he can do nothing.

An authentic attitude to place is thus understood to be a direct and genuine experience of the entire complex of the identity of places – not mediated and distorted through a series of quite arbitrary social and intellectual fashions about how that experience should be, nor following stereotyped conventions. It comes from a full awareness of places for what they are as products of man’s intentions and the meaningful settings for human activities, [my emphasis] or from a profound and unselfconscious identity with place’. (Pg 64)

Sometimes we have an unconscious but authentic sense of place. For example, the Australian Indigenous view of Ayer’s Rock is governed by attention to every detail, which has sacred meaning, and is important to the identity of the individuals viewing and using the place. Martin Buber describes the ‘I – Thou’ relationship, where the relationship between the subject and object means everything, rather than focus on the two ‘parts’.

Relph goes on:

An authentic sense of place is above all that of being inside and belonging to your place [Relph’s emphasis] both as an individual and as a member of a community, and to know this without reflecting on it‘. (pg 65)

By contrast, a self-conscious sense of place is useful for understanding and analysis. It becomes ‘I – You’ in Buber’s terms.

Mick Yates. 1970. Canal Street, Derby.

I do not know the people that used to live in this street, but I can only imagine that it was home, and that they felt community. The details – the wallpaper, the TV aerials – show that is was a lived-in place, and of a certain kind. One doubts that the inhabitants thought too much about their home space – other than perhaps to want to find a better one.

Exactly why the Morris had been left there, I do not know. But the scene offers the viewer a chance for conscious (and authentic) documentary and social reflection.

Relph discusses different kinds of construction of place.

First, there are authentically created places, which may be either consciously or unconsciously created, but which gives a system for humans to live, work and play in. An example of an unconsciously created place might be a lovely village on a hillside, built over time, but hardly pre-planned. Castle Combe, perhaps – or even the homes of Wallsend. These places gain authenticity by being lived in.

Athens would be a classic example. Whilst the Acropolis was deliberately designed and placed in situ, the city as a whole was not developed with that kind of foresight.

Mick Yates. 1976. Acropolis, Athens.

A consciously created place might be a model village or town, or a cathedral. The Acropolis itself would qualify, as would so many other buildings and environments.

Mick Yates. 1980. Dome on the Rock, Jerusalem. (Arabic: قبة الصخرةQubbat al-Sakhrah, Hebrew: כיפת הסלעKippat ha-Sela).

Florence in the Renaissance, or Paris in the time of Georges-Eugène Haussmann are examples of complex environments, featuring multiple places and spaces, which are both authentic and conscious.

Chapter Six: Placelessness 

Relph discusses the ‘homogenisation’ of the world, in cultural and architectural terms, as things have globalised. Alexis de Tocqueville, back in the 1830s commented that ‘variety is disappearing for the human race’. Personally, I think that comment premature.

Whilst it is true that there are many parts and artefacts of today’s world that bear a striking similarity to each other, there are also still big differences – as anyone that has observed the remarkable changes in China, and the extraordinary use of architecture and urban planning.

I recall visiting the ‘Holland Village’ outside of Nagasaki, Japan, in the 1990s. The place is detailed down to the artisanal cheese makers, and working windmills. A significant step up from Disney’s Epcot.

Relph would consider both inauthentic tourist spaces – a kind of placelessness. However, as Relph himself notes, Heidegger, even as he discussed Daisen, wrote that both authenticity and inauthenticity are equally valid as modes of being and existence.

As modes of Being, authenticity and inauthenticity (these expressions have been chosen terminologically in a strict sense) are both grounded in the fact that any Dasein whatsoever is characterised by mineness’. (Heidegger, 1962: 68)

Heidegger writes of Dasein thus:

Science in general may be defined as the totality established through an interconnection of true propositions. This definition is not complete, nor does it reach the meaning of science. As ways in which man behaves, sciences have the manner of Being which this entity – man himself – possesses. This entity we denote by the term “Dasein”.

Dasein is an entity which does not just occur among other entities. Rather it is ontically distinguished by the fact that, in its very Being, that Being is an issue for it. But in that case, this is a constitutive state of Dasein’s Being, and this implies that Dasein, in its Being, has a relation­ship towards that Being – a relationship which itself is one of Being.  And this means further that there is some way in which Dasein understands itself in its Being, and that to some degree it does so explicitly. It is pecu­liar to this entity that with and through its Being, this Being is disclosed to it. Understanding of Being is itself a definite characteristic of Dasein’s Being. Dasein is ontically distinctive in that it is ontological‘. (Heidegger, 1962: 32)

Whilst this (philosophically heavy) definition might be seen as tangential to Relph’s argument, it is not. Heidegger is using the word Dasein as a concept which to a certain extent carries its own meaning. I would suggest that ‘place’ might have similar ontology.

Anyway, back to Relph’s main points. He concludes that unselfconscious inauthenticity is a prevalent mode in modern industrial societies, with its associated mass values, impersonal social, economic and architectural planning. And he singles out two manifestations.

First, kitsch. We are surrounded by it, to the point that it even now gets used (often self-referentially) as fine art. Jeff Koons, perhaps?

Second, tourism. There is a near-universal habit of taking photographs of places, especially famous ones, rather than experiencing them – or, yet deeper, existing in those places. Relph considers this the ultimate example of inauthentic behaviour towards place.

This has figured heavily in my won thinking and work, becoming increasingly conscious of ‘dark tourism’ – meaning anything from our collective like of cheap thrills at waxworks, to often well meaning but nevertheless macabre interest in human skulls in the Killing Fields.

Relph describes this weakening of authentic attitudes as a step towards redefinition of ‘places’ to ‘placelessness’. It is worth quoting him in full.

An inauthentic attitude towards places is transmitted through a number of processes, or perhaps more accurately ‘media’, which directly or indirectly encourage ‘placelessness’, that is, a weakening of the identity of places to the point where they not only look alike but feel alike and offer the same bland possibilities for experience. These media include mass communications, mass culture, big business, powerful central authority, and the economic system which embraces all these. Clearly these are neither wholly differentiated as media nor in terms of their effects, for they are all in some way associated with the values of kitsch and technique, rather they are distinguishable cores which interlink, combine, and complement each other both in creating landscapes which are visually and experientially similar, and in destroying existing places. In themselves these not do we yet live in a world that is geographically landscape lit lls that these powerful processes of significant and diverse places. e or nothing to create and maintain signifanct and diverse places’. (pg 90)

his unpacking of this includes ‘disneyfication’ (noted above) and ‘museumisation’. In the latter, we increasingly view the world through the curated lens of museums and galleries, rather than through our own eyes, research and thought processes.

I am sure I was guilty of this on my first visit to Tuol Sleng, although hopefully my sensitivities have changed a great deal since then.

Mick Yates. 1994. Tuol Sleng (S 21), Phnom Penh.

Relph goes on to list ‘Big Business’, ‘Central Government Authority’, and the ‘Economic System” as contributing to increasing placelessness. It would seem to me that these issue have only got worse since Relph was first writing.

These concerns are ongoing concern for any documentary (or landscape?) photography as they consider their audiences and how to engage with them. I find Relph’s analysis again very helpful in providing frameworks for thought and analysis.

Chapter Seven: Experiences of the present-day landscape

Relph argues that we should see ‘place’ and ‘placelessness’ as two sides of the same coin, rather than distinct categories of phenomena. If we go back to where he started, defining understanding geography as a phenomenological task, one can see what he means.

Geography, both places and placeless places, is something that we all experience. How we interpret it depends on our inclinations, and, to seem extent, our understanding of the issues. We judge places emotionally, technically, economically and so forth.

I am not going to go into detail about Relph’s argument in this chapter, other than to note what he describes as a paradox in present-day landscapes.

On the one hand, they appear to be confused and comprising of changing patterns; this is especially so for relationships in and between landscapes. on the other hand present-day landscapes often seem to be simple and superficial, naively obvious; this is the case particularly on a small scale and think specific settings‘. (pg 135).

It would that unpacking the context, use, symbols, history and so forth are the key to ones’ getting to grips with this paradox.

Chapter Eight: Prospects for places

Mick Yates. 2019. Kirirom, where Sarath’s Father lived and fought (and possibly was killed).

Relph’s conclusions stand well the test of time since the book was written.

‘… we must explore the possibility of developing an approach for making places self-consciously and authentically. The only alternatives are to celebrate and participate in the glorious non-place urban society, or to accept in silence the trivialisation and careless eradication of the significant places of our lives. And, as Sinclair Gauldie (1969, p.l82) has written: “To live in an environment which has to be endured or ignored rather than enjoyed is to be diminished as a human being.”

A deep human need exists for associations with significant places. If we choose to ignore that need, and to allow the forces of placelessness to continue unchallenged, then the future can only hold an environment in which places simply do not matter. On the other hand, we choose to respond to that need and to transcend placelessness, then the potential exists for the development of an environment in which places are for man, reflecting and enhancing the variety of human experience. Which of these two possibilities is most probable, or whether there are other possibilities, is far from certain. But one thing at least is clear-whether the world we live in has a placeless geography or a geography of significant places, the responsibility for it is ours alone‘. (pg 147)

A most thought provoking and helpful book


Header: Mick Yates. 1970. Railway Sidings & Maltings, Burton on Trent.


BUBER, Martin. 1937. I and Thou. London: Charles Scribner.

BROGDEN, Jim. 2019. Photography and the Non-Place: The Cultural Erasure of the City. London: Palgrave Macmillan.

HEIDEGGER, Martin. 1927. Being and Time. 1962 Edition, Macquarrie – Robinson translation. Oxford: Blackwell. Available at (accessed 18/09/2019).

MILLS, Sarah. 2003. Michel Foucault. Abingdon: Routledge.

NORBERG-SCHULZ, Christian. 1971. Existence, Space and Architecture. New York: Praeger

RELPH, Edward. 1976. Place and Placelessness. 2008 Edition. London: Sage.

TYNER, James A. 2008. The Killing of Cambodia: Geography, Genocide and the Unmasking of Space. Abingdon: Routledge.