Simon Høgsberg’s Grocery Store Project uses facial recognition to tie strangers’ lives together

I’ve been a fan of Simon Høgsberg‘s work since first running across We Are All Gonna Die back in 2009. I was especially happy to receive an email from him a few weeks back announcing his newest ambitious photo-internet installation, The Grocery Store Project. The photographer took ~97,000 photos of people outside a grocery store in Copenhagen and then used facial recognition in the free Picasa photo software to identify common passersby in the photos. He then created an interactive website of these photos showing these people at different times and how their trips past the grocery store interact with other people seen in other photos. That sounds convoluted, but if you spend some time with the project website, you’ll see it’s a simple and fascinating idea.

I asked Simon if he’d be interested to discuss the project a bit over email. Our conversation is below. I’ve cleaned up the grammar a little. The smiley-faces were in Simon’s original responses.

M. Scott Brauer: In the “About the Project” text you describe how you made the work, but not the why. Could you explain your motivations behind the project a bit?

Simon Høgsberg: If we can accept the theory that the universe came out of nothing, it may make sense to think that a project can arise from nothing. I like the idea that something can pop out of nothing, that material can appear from a source full of nothingness. In the case of The Grocery Store Project, though, I doubt that was the case. The first photograph that was taken in front of the supermarket on Vesterbrogade in Copenhagen appeared to be taken as a reaction to a sense of confusion I felt in relation to a tendency among the citizens in the capital of Denmark. Why do we look so worried when we move through the city alone?

One day in April 2010, I had a camera in my hand. I was outside the supermarket, a zoom-lens on the camera, and I thought, now I want to prove to my fellow citizens that we look sad, not happy. I thought I had a great case…a good point. The point was that perhaps it was time for us to wake up and realize how fortunate we are, us Danes, if we begin to compare our standards of living with those of citizens in most of the countries in the world. Spending a day gathering photo after photo of worried-looking faces I felt discouraged. Because it was no fun at all spending my time trying to prove a point that was in no way uplifting.

But I kept returning to the bike rail outside the supermarket with my camera. And of course this was because something else, something bigger, something fresher was motivating me to return and zoom in on humanity. I didn’t know exactly why I kept returning to the supermarket taking thousands of images of a crowd in flux. A sense of love for the likeness I felt in the presence of the many people coming towards me. Freezing face after face with a click felt a bit like an obsession, and like every obsession it seemed to have no end. Shooting away outside the supermarket I promised myself to follow this obsession to the end whatever the end looked like or turned out to be. In this way the project grew organically.

Privacy seems to be a much bigger issue in Europe than in the US, though it’s growing here. European laws, for instance, have proven difficult for facebook, google, and other tech companies. There are also laws in some European countries regarding a person’s right to their own likeness. Do you intend your work to say anything about these political issues?

What matters to me is to try to somehow contain or grasp or take in what I find beautiful and substantial, and to spend my time sharing this with the world. Like every other human being I want to give, to let my ability for generosity bloom. If anything, this includes the law, prohibits me from being generous this will be a cause for frustration. Because if you prevent a living organism from giving what it finds natural to give, such prevention will eventually lead to destruction.

I have heard and read that street photography in Germany is a difficult business because in the country there are strict legal rules in regards to photographing people and showing the photographs on the web. I’m not entirely sure that I would’ve been able to do a project like this had I done it in Germany. I’m not very knowledgeable in relation to the specifics of the German rules on street photography but from what I’ve read, a photographer cannot take close-ups of people in public spaces and show these photos on the web, even though such photos could be categorized as art. If this is true I’m happy that there are still many countries in the world, Denmark included, where you are free to do that as long as your motives for taking the photos are pure, and fueled by curiosity.

It would be unwise to prevent the human organism from studying and capturing by means of the camera, say, the behavior and appearances of other human organisms in public. Unwise, because the data and information about humanity that projects such as The Grocery Store Project reveals, holds great value. Is that a political statement? :-) You can’t stop love with legal action. If you do, as a state, you shoot yourself in the foot. That’s one of the beautiful things about life, that it can’t be contained, controlled in the long term.

Could you speak a little more about the location you chose? Many of our readers won’t be familiar with Copenhagen or the demographics of this area. But a grocery store strikes me as being a particularly good location for a project like this: people from all different social and economic backgrounds come together in a grocery store. In the pictures, I see everything from hipsters to business people to people wearing religious clothing. Does this work accurately portray the demographics of the city/area? Did you intend it to or did that emerge as you took the pictures?

Some years ago I found myself in Denver, Colorado, USA, with a group of friends. Stomachs were empty, and food needed to be bought. A cab took us to a grocery store/supermarket, and it was obvious that no-one in the community went to this supermarket on foot, if you wanted to shop where we bought food that night you had to go there by car. Everyone did. Sidewalks are a lovely invention, I think. Because it allows you to brush shoulders with other human beings with whom you share the community. Copenhagen is full of sidewalks. The supermarket outside of which the many thousands of images of people were taken does have a parking lot but it’s tiny. Most of the shoppers file into the supermarket, their legs carrying them there, not tires. A lot of shoulders are being brushed. Just like on busy streets and avenues in New York. And in terms of the people sharing the sidewalk outside of the supermarket you get people of all kinds, in this respect that particular spot outside the grocery store in Copenhagen is a good place to collect photos of people from all areas/groups of society. When you collect data that you want to reflect the reality that you see… no, perhaps it just makes sense to say that the many images that were shot outside the supermarket seem to sort of accurately portray the demographics of Copenhagen as a whole.

Of your projects, I’m most familiar with “We are all gonna die.” Both of these projects have some similar themes: an endless stream of people, anonymity in the city, a single location. What draws you to these sorts of projects?

In the film ‘Smoke‘ written by an American author–who perhaps on a subconscious level is an inspiration to me; his name is Paul Auster–one of the main characters owns a tobacco corner shop in Brooklyn. Every morning a little before eight he takes his camera and tripod and positions it on the exact same spot, the camera always pointing in the same direction. At exactly eight o’clock he takes one picture then carries the camera back into the shop again, and that’s it. One day his friend, played by William Hurt, is invited to have a look at the many photos taken from outside the shop. William Hurt browses through the many photos, disinterestedly, these are just photos of people, nothing is going on. Harvey Keitel, playing the tobacco shop owner, encourages him to dwell on each photo, and then suddenly turning a page William Hurt freezes by the sight of a photograph showing, as far as I remember, his own wife who is now dead. And he starts to cry.

In my attempt to understand the world and how life functions my attention is often occupied in the attempt to find patterns in chaos. Patterns emerge when you stop moving and sit down and take in the full picture. Then you start to notice differences and similarities in the information that is there to be detected. If you sit down in a place where hundreds of people are passing you, and you open yourself to what is happening, at least two things happen. 1: At some point you get the feeling of becoming one with the crowd. And a sense of love for humanity or life may well fill your heart, perhaps because you recognize yourself in what enters your being through your senses. And 2: You begin to notice patterns. A lot of white trousers, for instance, women carrying sunglasses, the smell of the same deodorant used by different individuals. Patterns. And why is detecting patterns interesting? Because, I think, realizing the existence of a pattern gives you a sense of being familiar with the overwhelming amount of information available in the complex environment you’re facing. Brushing shoulders with one another, getting to know each other, becoming more familiar with your environment is something we’re drawn to deep down, I think, all of us. Be patient. I will. Something interesting often happens when you practice patience.

The website for the Grocery Store Project seems like it was a complicated work of programming and data analysis. Could you talk about the process of building this presentation? Do you have plans for presenting the work in a physical space? How might you do that?

All 97,000 images were loaded into Google’s Picasa. Picasa has a face recognition feature that allows the user to give the people who appear in an image a name. When the cursor is on top of a face, a frame around the face of the person appears, and underneath the frame is a box where you can write the name of the person. I began to give the people in the images unique names, starting with A1, A2, A3 and on. It turned out that in the course of the many months of shooting I had been photographing the same individuals more than once. One man (given the name ‘E46′) had been caught by the camera 276 times. The images of him were laid out in chronological order in a long line in a Photoshop document. In image number 3 from left this man is walking toward another man, ‘R51′, who has also been shot a number of times in the course of the 159 days of shooting. The images of him were then laid out on the Y-axis in the document, crossing the line of images showing Mr. E46. Like this, the tree of life developed organically.

The program Zoomify was bought and customized by the help of a very skillful programmer, Jon Bertelsen. This program allows you to zoom in and out of large data sets. We worked closely together for a year. And one day we realized that the site was ready to be launched. I would’ve been lost without his help.

In terms of where and how to exhibit the 2067 images that make up The Grocery Store Project (apart from showing the images online) I’m open as a book to ideas from everyone. The future will tell :-). I’d be happy to consider suggestions from anyone who would want to share… well, if anyone knows of a big wall I’d be happy to hear about it :-)

Worth a watch: Lynsey Addario on the Daily Show


It’s great to see Lynsey Addario getting so much press for her book, It’s What I Do: A Photographer’s Life of Love and War. Hot on the heels of her appearance on Fresh Air, last night Addario was interviewed on The Daily Show with Jon Stewart. You can watch the video embedded above or at Comedy Central’s website.

It’s a short interview, interspersed with Stewart’s usual acerbic wit, but it touches on many important topics including the value of frontline photojournalism, the dangers faced by conflict reporters, and Addario’s efforts to balance normal life with her work.

Not many photographers make it to the Daily Show interview chair, so it’s especially exciting to see this interview. The only other photojournalist to have been invited on to the show, that I’m aware of, is Benjamin Lowy back in 2011.

Worth a listen: Lynsey Addario interviewed on Fresh Air

It's What I Do - by Lynsey Addario
It’s What I Do – by Lynsey Addario

Photojournalist Lynsey Addario was interviewed last week by Terry Gross on WHYY/NPR’s Fresh Air for the release of her memoir, It’s What I Do: A Photographer’s Life of Love and War (at right). The interview is wide-ranging, but specifically address Addario’s experience being kidnapped with three other photographers in Libya in 2011. I wrote about that kidnapping and their release previously. You can listen to the interview in the above embedded player or at NPR’s website.

Fresh Air doesn’t often feature interviews with photographers, but last year, they spoke with Tyler Hicks about his Pulitzer-winning coverage of the Nairobi shopping mall attack. That post has links to a few other photographer interviews from the show over the years.

Make sure you also read the New York Times Magazine’s recent piece by Addario about working while pregnant, it’s an adaptation of parts of her book. The Lens blog also featured Addario and other photojournalists last year in a piece about balancing parenting with the life of a photojournalist.

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