Looking Outward (Concept Exploration): Photo Petition

by sbisker @ 8:38 pm 14 March 2010

I’ve been thinking about how uber-cheap digital cameras can be used in public spaces for my final project. Mostly, I’ve been thinking about what individuals can do with cameras that they place in public places *themselves* that allows them to carry on a dialog with others in the community (as opposed to cameras placed by central authorities for surveillance and other “common good” purposes.)

Lately I’ve been thinking about interactions where individuals invite members of the community to actively take pictures of themselves (as opposed to taking “surveillance style” photos of people and places going about their normal business.)

One direction I am considering going in with this is the idea of a “photo petition.” Essentially, people are invited to take pictures of themselves rather than simply signing a piece of paper in order to “put a face” on the people who endorse or oppose a certain side of an issue. This isn’t really a new idea, but one particular photo petition caught my eye in particular – a project for Amnesty International where those petitioning were asked to hold up messages in the photos, messages chosen from a small selection of messages by the petition signer (it seems individual messages weren’t allowed, perhaps so they wouldn’t all have to be individually read and censored? or perhaps because of literacy issues in the region in question?).

Petitions, at least to me, often feel “empty” – my signature (or headshot) is only worth so much where there are millions of other people on the petition. I think that Amnesty sensed this as well, and they tried to get around it by adding a “personalization” element to their petition. But one person’s opinion, randomly chosen, still feels like just one person’s opinion – and reading one after another begins to feel like a jumble. Somehow the sense of “community” is lost – that is, unless the person collecting signatures explicitly explains what set of people he’s picked the individuals from.

What if we could give some context to these opinions? It seems like one way to do a photo petition would be to break down the petition into the smallest groups possible – and then build a visualization around those groups. What if a camera was placed in every neighborhood at the same time, collecting these opinions in parallel? Say, one at each major street corner. We could see the make up of who supports it in each region, and see how it changes from region to region. Local decision makers can see a local face on a petition – and more importantly, the context and backgrounds of the photos adds to the petition itself (since you’re not just dealing with faces, you’re dealing with pictures of PLACES too – a picture of me on an identified street is different then a picture of me against a black background or a generic street.)

If this idea seems like it could be one of a million similar photo community projects, well, that’s intentional. (In particular, it reminds me of Story Corps, except in this case, the Story Corps van costs $10 and is many places at once.) I’m trying to break down the “personal public camera” object into a “building block” of sorts, rather than custom-making it to a single project. If you’re going to invest some time in building hardware for a new interaction, it’s worth figuring out what it is exactly your interaction is capable of in general, in addition to any specific projects you may be thinking of doing with it.

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