I caught the travel bug way back in the early ’80′s when I went on a high-school student exchange trip to a small seaside town in France called Les Sables d’Olonne. At the time, everything about France and the students I spent time with seemed so different: the fashion, the music, the food all so delightfully “foreign”. Fast forward nearly 30 years, and things seem much less different. The French in particular have long been concerned with preserving the “Frenchness” of their culture, but in the Internet age, that’s a hard battle to fight. Franglais is a durable cultural phenomenon, and its analog exists in most other non-English speaking cultures as well.
These days, wherever I go, I’m fascinated by the signs all around me of one big global cultural re-mix, and that’s exactly the type of stuff I love to document then present using MemoryMiner. I recently returned from a trip that took me to greater metropolitan Mortimer (outside Reading, UK), London and Paris. During this time, I was that annoying person who was constantly taking pictures, recording audio and shooting video. I drive my wife crazy when we’re walking down the street, and I’ll just stop for no apparent good reason. Good thing she wasn’t with me for this trip.
Why do I do this? Mostly because I can’t help myself: I’m fascinated by signs, graffiti, street art, mainstream commercial marketing, and how they all borrow from, and re-shape each other. As a result, when I take pictures, I tend to favor the oddball and the ephemeral. There are no fewer than 1.4 billion photos of the Eiffel Tower on Flickr and other similar sites. Am I going to take a better one? Probably not. The funny sticker attached to a trash can, or a bit of insightful graffiti? Now that’s what I’m talking about! I like to pretend I’m an archaeologist from the future trying to make sense of the culture whose artifacts I’m digging up.
Culinary Culture Clash
My favorite neighborhoods in any city tend to be those where you have different cultures butting up against one another. Edgware Road in London is one such place. There are lots of Lebanese restaurants and shops, competing for your attention with McDonald’s, KFC and other well-known global brands. If you were walking down Edgware you might notice a neon sign offering you “Pizza, Rice & Curries”. It looks like this:
Viewed from across the street, it’s immediately apparent that it’s actually a Subway shop: an American franchise known for its deli-style sandwiches (if you’re in the middle of nowhere and have no other option, you could do far worse).
After taking this picture I had to wonder about what motivated the folks who decided to offer curries at this particular franchise location. Were they trying to offer options for an older generation of immigrants whose teenage kids want to eat what their peers are eating? Were they trying to offer a “safe” place for American tourists to try something “exotic”?
Working on MemoryMiner has forever altered the way I take pictures. When I’m looking through the view finder, I’m constantly thinking of how I might zoom in to a specific area of a photo in order to play around with people’s perceptions of what they’re looking at. This is why the MemoryMiner Web Viewer starts by showing each photo zoomed-in to a specific selection area (if one has been defined), then zooms out when the user clicks on the image itself. It’s all about the reveal.
Another way in which I’ve changed the way I shoot, is that I often shoot short video clips, which don’t need editing (other than just a quick trim) which I’ll then attach to a photo. By now, all consumer cameras shoot at least decent video, while the iPhone 4 produces amazingly good video, especially for a device that you almost always have with you.
I put together a collection of photos and video that I recently shot and assembled in MemoryMiner. I hope you’ll find it interesting and will perhaps even inspire you a little bit. I encourage you to look through the photos one at a time, using the arrow keys on your keyboard to advance from one to the next. Several of the photos have attached videos or web links, which give a some additional depth and context: look for the white dot underneath the paper clip icon on the tool bar below each photo. (By the way, if you’re reading this post on a Windows machine, I hope you’re using Firefox or Chrome. If you’re on the Mac, the best experience is with Safari.)
Go ahead, have a look, I’ll wait…
Call for Participation
When I’m out taking pictures in public, I try to be discreet, asking for permission in advance whenever possible. However, it is a fact of life that in most urban areas, we’re all being recorded, whether we like it or not. In enclosed spaces like a subway (the mass transit, not the sandwich shop), or a crowded market, I’m sensitive to invading peoples’ sense of personal space.
Which brings me to an idea I’m working on for a MemoryMiner project for which I’d like your help. I’d like to document the varying experiences of riding mass transit in cities around the world. I’m specifically interested in having pictures of the types of advertising being shown, and to have audio recordings of the train, subway or bus moving in a sequence from one stop to another. Why? My best explanation is that I often wonder what goes through peoples’ minds while they’re in a crowded bus or train, stuck next to strangers and bombarded with advertisements of other beautiful worlds, such as a sunny beach. Anything to get their mind off what can oftentimes be a fairly unpleasant experience.
Here’s are two examples from the NYC Subway (the # 3 train, to be precise):
On the opposite side of the same train, you see this:
Meanwhile, you’re hearing this:
So, what are you supposed to think? “Man, being on this crowded train sucks, I need to get drunk/go on vacation/watch the game/do something else?”
Have you ever wondered about this, or am I the only strange one among us. If you take public transit and would be willing to send me some photos and an audio recording or two similar to the above, I’d love to include them in a future MemoryMiner collection. In addition to my gratitude and full citation credit, I can offer a free copy of MemoryMiner for Mac to anyone who participates.
If you’d like to join in this project, and/or have questions, please send me an email: john at memoryminer dot com.
I look forward to hearing from you as well as reading whatever feedback you have for this post.