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 :-)

Massimo Cristaldi’s Touch Ground

Massimo Cristaldi recently submitted his wonderful project Touch Ground to us at dvafoto and today we are featuring this work and a short interview with him about his project.

In 2013 alone, over 40,000 migrants braved the Mediterranean Sea in an attempt to reach Italy (and Europe). Many of these migrants ended up in Sicily and the surrounding islands. The route was a familiar one, as thousands of these people have previously traveled this route in years past during previous attempts. In “Touch Ground,” I photographed beaches, harbors, cliffs—the places where, in recent years, migrants have first reached the shores of Europe from their original homes in North Africa. The photographs form an exploration of the idea of “Terra Firma”, a coveted place, object of hopes, tragedies, happiness, disillusion, and sometimes, death. – Massimo Cristaldi’s introduction to Touch Ground

Have you made any news reportage of the immigration story in Italy?
Not really “news” reportage in the sense that I like to come back to a place after the happenings. I believe there are too many screaming photos of desperate people on those “hope boats” and, as often happens, we’re becoming indifferent to those images as they’re part now of the usual way of telling this immigration story. I would like to suggest to people a perspective of the sea from those who are coming to Italy, but still also show the perspective of those who live close to the sea. The limit between sea and earth gets a completely differently meaning on the basis of where you look at it.

How did you come to take this approach to documenting this large and important story about immigration?
In 2009 in Lampedusa I was blown away by what was happening. The traces of the arrival of immigrants were everywhere. So I started a long process of documenting the beaches, shores and the places where immigrants arrived. And started to take photographs of those places where there were many events, often fatalities, happened.

Is there something specific about landscape images at night that helps to tell your story?
Night is often the moment when they arrive. Night can be scary and the lights of the towns you see finally from the sea could mean a lot for who is on those boats.

Do you have a personal relationship to any of the communities where these boats have landed? Or with the sea?
Yes I do. I had long conversations with many immigrants that arrived to try to understand what they are feeling when arriving. What are those trips, what is the experience. Those conversations improved my idea of working on this project. The sea, on another hand, is magical for me. I love it. I was born in a city on the sea (Catania) and swim a lot. For me feeling the sea from a different perspective was a great experience.

Massimo Cristaldi was born in Catania, Italy in 1970. After receiving a degree in Geology, he began managing international research projects. Art is the environment he grew up in and photography is the way he set his creative side free. The driving concern of his work is focused on traces that man and time carve over nature and things, representing effects and signs on “what remains”, with a particular interest to the “metaphor of the borders” (see more in the artist statement). He was awarded in many international photography competitions such as the International Photography Awards, the B&W Spider Awards, the Photography Masters Cup, the Travel Photographers Of the Year and the Prix de Photographie de Paris. Massimo has exhibited in Europe and in the US, in solo and group shows and at photography festivals. He is represented by galleries in Belgium, France, UK and Italy. He lives and works both in Catania and Rome. Massimo’s photographs are part of the permanent collection of the George Eastman House, International Museum of Photography and Film in Rochester, NY (USA).

Sohrab Hura joins Magnum: “Life is Elsewhere”

Sohrab Hura is one of the photographers whose work I’ve been eagering following closely for years, going back to when Scott and I first saw his work on Flickr. His earlier photos are reminiscent of traditional black and white reportage but his deeply personal project “Life is Elsewhere” has grown into a fantastic, impressionistic style. We, and many others, were very excited to learn a few weeks ago that Hura had joined Magnum Photos as a nominee (Magnum’s Press Release). His “Life is Elsewhere” project has recently been published on the Magnum website and offers us all a chance to admire a extended edit of this work.

India. 2007. My first time playing Holi in Vrindavan. (c) Sohrab Hura / Magnum

… My Life is Elsewhere is a journal of my life, my family, my love, my friends, my travels, my sheer need to experience all that is about to disappear and so in a way I’m attempting to connect my own life with the world that I see with a hope to find my reality in it.” – Sohrab Hura

Hura offers an interesting description of his book: “Life is Elsewhere is a book of contradictions and of doubts and understandings and of laughter and forgetting in which I am trying to constantly question myself by simply documenting the broken fragments of my life which might seem completely disconnected to one another on their own. But I hope that in time I am able to piece together this wonderful jigsaw puzzle called life. And this journey will perhaps lead to reconciliation with my own life.”

Invisible Photographer Asia has an extended interview with Hura that was published earlier this month after the Magnum announcement. It offers a lot of insight into Hura’s work and motivation, how he has edited his work, as well as a glimpse at newer projects.

Hura’s biography from Magnum:

“Sohrab Hura was born on 17th October 1981 in a small town called Chinsurah in West Bengal, India and he grew up changing his ambitions from one exciting thing to another. He started with dreams of growing up and becoming a dog, which later turned to becoming a superhero and then to a veterinarian to a herpetologist to becoming a wild life film maker. Today he is a photographer, after having completed his Masters in Economics. He is currently the coordinator of the Anjali House children’s photography workshop that takes place during the Angkor Photo Festival, Cambodia every year and his home base is New Delhi, India.”

Congratulations to Sohrab! We are looking forward to seeing more of your work gain a wider audience.

Also worth checking out, if you haven’t already, is Prasiit Sthapit’s “Change of Course”, a project recommended by Hura to Dvafoto last year. Sthapit was one of Sohrab’s students in a workshop in Kathmandu in 2012.