Abby Waysdorf - Arts and Culture Studies
Imagine immersing yourself in the fantasy world of Game of Thrones – and getting paid for it. This is exactly what Abby Waysdorf does for her research. Her current PhD project at Erasmus University Rotterdam is part of Locating Imagination, a research project on media tourism: the phenomenon of people travelling to places because of an association with a film, television series, novel, song or other media product. Abby: "I like seeing how people connect their fandom to physical spaces and physical activity. It’s a part of fandom that isn’t really talked about in fan studies."
Fandom had always been an interest of her, so she was really surprised when she found out that you could actually study it, Abby says. It was the European perspective on media issues that attracted her to do her Master’s and subsequently her PhD in Europe. “As an American I’m really attracted to the narratives of Europeanness. But what I liked most was the fact that here there’s more encouragement to look at non-US media.”
Stimulating geographical imagination
Existing knowledge about the phenomenon of film tourism is still highly fragmented. The Locating Imagination project aims to be the first in which interdisciplinary research will be conducted on this, involving an analysis and comparison of literary, cinematic and musical examples of media tourism.
Abby: “Also within media and cultural studies, it’s only in the last five to ten years that there’s been a focus on the importance of landscape and geography in media; on how media affects our relationship with places and our understanding of them.”
By investigating commonalities and differences, this project intends to highlight how literature, film and music – each in their own way – stimulate the geographical imagination and literally ‘move’ audiences across the globe.
Game of Thrones
Abby is conducting research on film and television tourism in Europe. Her first case study focuses on the Game of Thrones series. Most of this extremely successful HBO series is filmed in Northern Ireland, Croatia and Iceland. “I’m studying how this show reflects a certain idea of these places that might shape or change the way people think about it,” Abby explains.
Fieldwork in ‘Winterfell’
Northern Ireland, for instance, doesn’t have the best of reputations. It’s strongly associated with violence, walls dividing Protestants from Catholics, The Troubles. Abby, whose fieldwork consisted of visiting film locations and interviewing tourists who go on special Game of Thrones tours: “These tours show another image of the region; this exciting medieval aspect, the charmingly ruined castles and beautiful coastlines. It’s a totally different destination image.”
Recently, significant growth has been detected in this form of tourism, with far-reaching consequences for the locations concerned. “Regions compete for these kind of productions,” Abby tells. “They see this media tourism as a way to differentiate themselves, to get an identity or to change their image, to attach on to popular narratives. Northern Ireland is hoping to get a really massive return from this through place promotion and tourism.”
For Abby, as an academic it’s a fine line to walk between a tourism management approach and more critical academic work. A challenge she really enjoys:
“I like that it intersects with a lot of things. It contains theoretical issues – how we use media, the way media narrates places, place identities and presents these, as well as bigger questions about the nature of reality and realness in a mediated age – but also these really practical ‘how many millions of pounds can we get from tourists’ aspects of tourism.”
It’s one of the things she likes most of her department: “People are really being encouraged to make connections with other fields,” she says. “My project is also a hybrid of Cultural and Media studies and of tourism as an industry. It’s an ambitious department. People are really trying to get noticed. And I like it that as a PhD candidate you’re seen as a junior researcher, instead of just a student.”
After her PhD she’d like to stay in Holland. Abby has already adapted to the Dutch lifestyle: her bike is her main vehicle, she has a subscription to the Dutch Voetbal International magazine and a cat who goes by the name of Klaas-Jan Huntelaar (namesake of a player for the Dutch national football team). Abby: “I like it here. People work hard, but they also know how to relax. It’s a balance you won’t find in the US.”