“I will always remember the first time I went to Venice,” photographer François Prost remembers. “I was 23. I arrived there by train on my own, and as soon as I got out of the train station, I had this strange feeling of not knowing if what I saw was real or not. The same thing happened when I went to Rome, to India and to New York. Those places are such full of history, references and fantasy that when you go there for real, it kind of mess up things in your brain: you’re suddenly confronting the reality of the images you have seen. I later learned that this was called Stendhal Syndrome, and that it was a phenomenon happening a lot to Japanese tourists coming to Paris or Florence.”
Stendhal Syndrome, which is also known as hyperkulturemia, or Florence syndrome, is a supposed — although medically unconfirmed — psychosomatic condition which causes symptoms such as fainting or confusion in individuals exposed to remarkable works of art. According to an article published by the BBC, Paris has it’s very own strand of the condition: roughly 12 Japanese tourists to Paris per year are affected by depression or even a breakdowns triggered by the disconnect between their expectations and the reality of the culturally rich, world-famous city.
“Thinking about it," François muses, "any kind of travelling probably involves this reaction at different type of level, depending on how important and heavy the cultural references of destinations are.” The idea behind Francois’ latest series Paris Syndrome began when the Parisian photographer chanced upon an article by Rosecrans Baldwin in which the American journalist travelled to the 20 or so towns called Paris in the US. “The journalist wanted to understand the origin, the reason, and the influence of this ‘naming’”, François explains. “He also wanted to analyse the connections between the different places and the ‘original’ Paris, and the consistency of the French cliché remaining in the US. So he went to those different Paris and asked people living there about all of this. He soon came to the conclusion that people there were living as they would live anywhere else in USA and weren’t very sensitive about their town’s name.”
Inspired, François set about translating Baldwin’s concept visually. “First, I came up with the idea of photographing every Eiffel Tower in the world, but it became too ambitious financially. Then I remembered this place in China that I’d seen in Romain Gavras’ music video for Jamie XX track Gosh and I thought it would be very interesting to compare actual sites from Paris with sites from a replica of Paris.”
After location scouting in Paris, Francois travelled to Tianducheng, also know as Sky City, a luxury real estate development nestled in the outskirts of Hangzhou in China’s Zhejiang Province. “It is located in the big suburb of Hangzhou, an eight million population city 200 km away from Shanghai,” François explains. “It was built ten years ago. There is an 100 metre high Eiffel Tower, three times smaller than the original in Paris, a 31 square kilometre neighbourhood of Haussmanian and Parisian blocks, and a replica of the Versailles Garden.” Here, François painstakingly recreated tens of scenes from his native Paris in this strange city-set hundreds of thousands of miles away.
Despite a national obsession with Paris, France, local enthusiasm for Sky City is a lot more tempered. “The sites in France attract thousands and thousands of tourist per day — it’s never ending! — whereas in China the sites are not very busy and mainly occupied by local people passing by on electrical scooters or by foot,” François recalls. “People in Sky City don’t really care about the monuments: only the Eiffel Tower attracts local people by night, either to practice group dance or to have an evening walk, especially on Friday and Saturday evenings when the tower is lit up like it is in Paris every five minutes each hour every night.”
Nevertheless, the locations have become taken on a new importance for thrifty young couples. “Wedding photography activity seems quite active in both places,” François laughs. “In China, the spot is very popular among young couple that are getting married and that haven’t enough money to go to Paris, they come here to get photographed in wedding suits. It is pretty confusing as the biggest spot for this in Tianducheng looks very similar to the biggest spot for this in Paris, the Trocadero.”
“The subject seemed very interesting to me, not because of Paris especially but because of cultural references and cliché,” Francois concludes. “I’ve always been fascinated by the concept of cultural appropriation, like the mini Paris or the mini Venice they recreated in Vegas or in Dubai. First because it’s not natural and therefore always awkward, that produce interesting failures and imperfections. And secondly because it blurs our repairs of reality: it loses us in translation, you don’t know anymore which is the real from the replica. Those images might also say a lot about how China and Asia sees Europe and what they admire about it. It’s definitely not for its contemporary side, but for its past and cultural heritage. It looks like they are making a cult of it as there are so many replicas of Venice, Florence, Paris, English or Dutch typical towns and villages… All of this seems a little bit overblown since Asia has also a really strong cultural heritage and shouldn’t feel any complex about it.”