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 :-)

Must see: Bitter Lake by Adam Curtis

Adam CurtisBitter Lake is a phenomenal documentary exploring the recent war in Afghanistan through the intertwining histories of the US, Britain, Russia, and Saudi Arabia, especially through their various economic, cultural, and political interests. I can’t recommend it strongly enough. You have to see it.

I believe the film is free through the BBC’s iPlayer for the rest of the year if you’re in the UK, but you can probably find parts or all of the film on youtube or other sites if you spend a few minute’s searching.

Descriptions of the film call it “an experimental documentary.” The majority of it is presented without much narration through disjointed remixing of what appears to be found footage, archival BBC footage, excerpts of farcical British films, etc. The sound design, at times, feels straight out of a David Lynch film…other times, as in the end of the trailer above, it’s a Kanye West song.

The movie requires patience, but it’s well worth the effort. I was immediately intrigued and entranced by the trailer (embedded above) and the rest of the film’s 137 minutes follow this style. There are moments of extreme violence–blood spatters the camera lens, in one memorable vignette, and there’s plenty of war footage–but then there’s an interlude of a soldier playing with a bird that lands on his helmet, footage from a Morrison-Knudsen swimming pool party, American soldiers getting manicures, and a lot of dancing. There are off-moments of politicians waiting for a broadcast to start, kids hamming it up for a camera, Afghan dogs fighting, soldiers joking about how many people they’ll kill, a desert trader emerging and disappearing into a sandstorm, and so on. Tarkovsky‘s “Solaris” is a frequent metaphor throughout.

I don’t think any description I can come up with will ever do the movie justice. It’s dreamy and beautiful and poetic, but also forceful and informative and polemic. I’ve never seen anything like it, and I’d definitely consider it one of the best documentaries I’ve ever seen.

Here are a few reviews: The New Yorker, The Guardian, The Telegraph, and Hollywood Reporter.

Worth a look: Послание-70 – Portraits and Interviews with Russian World War II Veterans

Through a few Russian photographer friends on facebook, I ran across the fascinating project Послание-70 last week. The name translates to “Message-70″ and it’s a series of portraits and short interviews with Russian veterans of World War Two (known in Russia as the Great Patriotic War). For the 70th anniversary of the end of the war, hard fought on the Eastern Front in Russia, a group of Russian photographers (mostly freelancer photojournalists) came together under the name Vasily Terkin, the hero of Alexander Tvardovsky‘s great war epic, to photograph surviving veterans of the war. When you navigate through the site, the red text next to the portraits (or gray in the gallery above) are veterans’ responses when asked to give advice to younger generations. The larger text, below each portrait, comprises some of the veterans’ recollections from the war. More than 50 photographers from 30 cities across Russia participated in the project

The website is only in Russian for now, but Google Translate does a decent job with getting the general idea across. You will need to copy and paste excerpts, though; it doesn’t seem to work when you try to translate the whole page. I’ve translated the quotes in the above gallery, so you can read the veterans’ advice to youth in the captions.

I was intrigued by the project, so I reached out to ask some of the photographers involved how this all came about. Anton Karliner, a young photojournalist based in Novosibirsk, Russia, involved in the project, answered a few questions. The interview was conducted over email and facebook in English, and I’ve made a few minor corrections to grammar in Karliner’s responses. Our conversation is below.

M. Scott Brauer: First, a bit about the project. How many photographers were involved? How were the chosen? How did you decide on the style of presentation (both photography and writing)? How did you keep it consistent across all of the photographers?

Anton Karliner:First of all, I want to highlight the fact that I’m not a “leader” or “curator” of the project. Im just one of the authors. We all have the same rights, it’s truly a collective work and this is pretty much the idea. Speaking about how it actually worked, firstly we had some kind of a “core” – a group of young photographers mostly involved in Misha Domozhilov‘s course in documentary photography at Fotodepartment.Institute, with Misha himself as well. We discussed the idea for some time and then, as it was clear, we invited reliable photographers from all possible regions of Russia. Everyone could invite. So, at the end it was more than 50 photographers from more than 30 cities (which is unique for a group photography project, I would say!). At the first phase we continued to discuss the style we want to keep, we did some sample shoots, it was a lot of discussion and then, as things were set, we just had to introduce them to newcomers. As you can see, our visual language is not very complicated, so it wasn’t a big problem.

I’ve never seen a coalition of photographers publish a project under a single name. Sometimes agencies and collectives work together, but the way this was done turns the photographers into a single author. Why?

The idea of doing some kind of “anonymous” group project came from the very beginning. And the reason is very simple – we want to give a voice to veterans, not to express our personality in pictures. When you sign the photographer’s name near to the picture, it starts to influence the viewer. So we prefer to stay under the name of the book’s hero. It may sound vain – but this is maybe a true documentary photography. We don’t want to interpret and express ourselves, we only document things and then present them to the viewers like this.

I’m a student of Russian literature, but don’t know much about the poem “Vasily Terkin.” (here’s an excerpt with English translation. The name may also be written as Vasily Terkin or a similar variation.) Is that where the name comes from? Was he a real person? Could you talk about why that name was chosen to represent the authors of this work?

Vasily Terkin is the name of the hero of the Alexander Tvardovsky (famous Soviet poet and writer) poem. Vasily Terkin wasn’t a real man, it’s an image of the Soviet soldier during WW II. Tvardovsky constructed his hero from the soldier’s types he met in the battlefields. Tvardovsky worked as a journalist during the war, and the “Vasily Terkin” poem chapters were printed weekly in military newspapers and soldiers could read it. The poem was extremely popular, also because there wasn’t a lot of ideology inside, Stalin wasn’t mentioned at all, for example. That’s how Vasily Terkin’s image – a simple, but wise and honest man, who can survive during the hardships of war time and also express his thoughts in humorous and metaphorical way became very popular in USSR. This is why we’ve chosen his name.

Screenshot of Poslanie-70.ru
Screenshot of Poslanie-70.ru

Poslanie-70 seems like a journalistic project, so it strikes me as a little strange that journalists would insert themselves into the story of war by naming themselves after a representation of heroism in the war. Is this a work of journalism or something else? How should viewers consider the work if it is presented under the name of a participant in the war (or at least a representation of the war)?

I understand your question. And yes, our project is a documentary project. But I think that it’s in a bit of a different field. We don’t try to investigate the sides of this war, who was right and who wasn’t (speaking of which, we believe that Nazism is the most terrible thing ever happened). We try to preserve the memories of those who defeated the evil. So, I don’t think that this pseudonym makes us less objective here.

In the US, where I’m from, veterans have special status in society. People are very grateful and respectful of what soldiers did for their country. Is that the same in Russia? Do ordinary Russians respect and revere WW2 veterans in a similar way?

For sure, WWII veterans (or Great Patriotic War veterans, as we call it) have a lot of respect in Russia. There are a lot of veteran organizations which do their best to make veterans’ life better. There are also many volunteers who help veterans in very different ways. Sometimes the state fails to make everything possible for them, but simple citizens do. The sad thing is that there are very few veterans left. Even some of the heroes of our project passed away already.

Were most of these veterans featured in the project drafted into the military, or did they volunteer? Does that change how they think about their military service?

Most of veterans who we took pictures of volunteered in some way. Most of them were younger than 18 years old when the war began. But there were also those who were already doing their military service before the war began [Note from MSB: Russia has had compulsory military service of some sort since imperial times). I didn’t have an impression that it changed their attitude. Many of them told us that they felt duty to protect their homeland.

I’ve seen similar projects on American veterans that pair contemporary portraits of the veterans with photos of them at the time of their service. A project like this is necessarily about their deeds in history, but you don’t show pictures of them then. Did you ask the veterans how they would prefer to be represented? That is, in a modern portrait of how they survived life and war, or if they’d prefer a portrait from their time in ww2?

We didn’t ask them for their war portraits, but that could be an interesting addition, I think. But in our project we have another goal – we want to show them now. Their wrinkles, scars and eyes tell a lot about their history as well.

This project as you have presented it is very much about the Soviet Union. You’ve taken the name of a Soviet hero, you’re exploring a very significant part of Soviet history, the uniforms are Soviet uniforms. But the Soviet history is a complicated one with both great and terrible things done under Soviet banners. I don’t know who all of the photographers involved are, but I’m sure many of them don’t even remember Soviet times. What is it like to look back and celebrate this history when current politics are so removed from the politics of that time? I guess, looking at American history, for instance, that many or most people would think (or hope) that current American politics is very closely allied with the American politics driving our participation in the war, but that might not be the case with Russians.

I see your point. But I have to say that the importance of WW2 for Russia isn’t connected with Soviet ideology only. I mean, there are some people who are very nostalgic about Stalinism, but most of the veterans say that they didn’t fight for Stalin (or for Stalin only, at least); they fought to protect their homeland and their beloved ones. The interesting thing about this period is that war united all people, independent of their political views, nationality, etc. That’s why these 4 years stay apart from the Soviet history (which, I can agree, is very double-sided). So, it’s not about Soviet ideology, I would say. And you can see that many of the veterans even don’t wear their old uniforms at the photos.

What did the veterans think about putting on their old uniforms?

Well, some of them are very proud to wear their uniforms and others don’t want to put on their medals – they say that they remind them of the terrible events of war. So, it depends.

The website for the project is wonderful. What other plans do you have for presenting the work? Book? Exhibitions?

Thanks! We plan to redesign the website, actually, we took much more portraits (about 230) and we want to add them. We also plan to make a book, for sure. Now we’re looking for possibilities. We also want to translate the site into English, hope it will happen soon. And we continue to shoot! We don’t want to stop now, there’s a lot of work to be done.


Thanks to Anton Karliner for talking about the project. Spend some time with the Послание-70, if only to look at the portraits. You should also check out Fotodepartment.ru to get a feel for current Russian photography.