Saturday July 24th was the 24 Hour Project, an international street photography event. It’s been happening since 2012 – with a gap last year for COVID – and I’ve been participating since 2015. The “rules” are that participants document the life of their cities for 24 hours. From midnight Saturday morning to 11:59 Saturday night, people are out on the street taking pictures and posting at least one picture an hour on Instagram, noting the time, the city, the country, and themselves. This year there were 4,395 official participants from 924 cities across 95 countries.
Leaving my house at 11:30 at night, knowing I’ll just be out on the street all night long is always strange. It was more strange at the end of July, after 18 months of really just being in my house, and always being locked up tight long before 11:30. And I suppose it was actually more surprising to see just how much I wasn’t alone on the street that whole time. There were folks out and about all night long, making me feel as if I really am the last person to come out of quarantine.
I love street photography. I’m no artist in this area, but I like getting to play along. The friend who introduced me to the 24HrPrj is a true magician. His pictures are extraordinary. I like taking pictures on the street, but for me the real fun of the project is the piece I added: for every photo I post, I write a tiny story.
I like making up the stories because it connects me to my fiction brain, a piece of myself that mostly lies fallow these days. And creating histories for strangers feels familiar. It’s what an old friend and I used to do whenever we were out – in cafes, in bars, on the street. Imagining strangers lives was a game we returned to again and again. (It got us into trouble a few times when we were a little too loud in our imaginings, but we kept at it all the same.)
As much as I like taking these candid photos of people, I also struggle with it. I’m taking their pictures without their permission. I’m posting them online. I have had the experience of having someone photograph and film me without my permission and do it with the express purpose of mocking me. It was demoralizing and shaming and enraging and painful. Seeing people looking at candid photos of me and calling me a beast and a monkey is one of the most hateful things that’s ever happened to me.
I think about that when I post my pictures. I know that I am not the same as the people who took and shared images of me. I don’t post pictures maliciously, don’t post with the intention of mocking the subject. I have posted a few stories that are less than flattering … but those have usually been verbatim conversation I’ve overheard from the subjects because I’ve been amazed (and sometimes scandalized) by what they’ve actually said. But those are extremely rare.
Sometimes, the stories I create are inspired by what’s happening in the photo. One picture I shared from the three o’clock hour is a young white woman standing outside a building. She’s talking on the phone and has one arm crossed over her chest. She looks peeved. And she’s looking right at me. I titled this picture “Karen,” because it was just too easy to imagine her calling the police to come see about me being on her block minding my own business. To be clear, that’s 100 percent NOT what she was doing. I blurred out her face because it seemed unfair to label her a racist when she had done not a single thing wrong. But the story had formed the moment I saw her.
Sometimes the stories are a catalyst to tell something from my own life, just draped over the strangers I’ve photographed. A picture I took in the noon hour is of a Black man sitting and eating a slice of pizza. He’s looking at the pizza very thoughtfully, and it made me think about the pizze place down the block from my house that closed during the height of the early pandemic. It wasn’t a great pizza place – there is far superior pizza all over the place – but I really liked the Italian couple whose place it was. The husband with his funny little hat like the one Art Carney work on The Honeymooners. He always asked after me, noticed when he hadn’t seen me in a while. Just really nice. And then, suddenly, while I was holed up in my apartment hoping Covid wouldn’t kill me, the shop closed. And no one could tell me what had happened, whether business was bad or Covid had come for either or both of the owners. There’s a new pizza place there now. And it’s got slightly better pizza, but I miss the old shop, the old owners.
Sometimes people make a particular gesture or I hear a snippet of their conversation, and I try to make a story about who they seem to be in that moment. In another picture from the three o’clock hour, I was on the 6 train headed north. The man across from me had his hand over his face. He caught my attention because I gave ther most exhausted sigh I’ve ever heard. And immediately I imagined his work schedule was to blame. It was three-thirty in the morning. How many jobs did he have? What was the goal he had in front of him that kept him dragging himself to work at that hour? And there was the story.
Years ago, I got into writing 420-character stories because I’d heard an interview with Lou Beach, and (as I’ve established) I love a challenge. I wrote a bunch of those stories, a few of which I really loved. I was surprised by how much of a narrative could be squeezed into so little space. I was also surprised that most of the stories I wrote were sad or dark. Was it easier to get to those feelings quickly? Did pleasure and joy need more expansive language to sound real?
Where I decided to create and IG account a couple of years later, it was with the express purposed of using the pictures as story-starters. A thousand years ago, when I was 20, I fell in love with Duane Michals and the tiny stories he wrote to accompany his photos. I was in the Modern Art Museum in Paris, and seeing his pictures felt dramatic, like a shifting of the ground beneath me. Those words and images were exactly what I wanted, all the right pieces pulled together. So obvious, and yet I hadn’t see anyone do it quite that way before. I tried my hand at a few, but I was still much too timid then, not yet comfortable with my storytelling voice.
On IG, I was ready. I could stretch out and see what worked for me and how it worked. I had a lot of fun with it … And then I got busy, got lazy. It just became easier to take and post a picture with some silly or snarky hashtags and move on.
When I learned about the 24 Hour Project, I knew I wanted to come back to stories, wanted to stretch again, remember who I was as a fiction writer with the most micro of microfiction.
In theory, I could take a picture of anything, of anyone, and there would be a story there. That’s probably true. But it’s also true that I look for the stories before I snap the photos. Something has to click in that part of my brain for the picture to look interesting for me. I mostly take pictures of people, which makes that easy for me. I find people fascinating (even as I find them horrifying, infuriating, irksome …).
I look for stories: a gesture, a pose, a surprise clothing choice, beautiful hands, a longing glance, a torn sleeve, an operatic laugh. I want to be drawn in, and I want to try to capture a tiny piece of a world that might draw viewers and readers in.
I reveal a lot more of myself in my 24-Hour stories than I could ever reveal of the people I photograph. Of course. And that’s okay. I’m pretty much the Queen of Oversharing, so giving myself away in these bits of telling feels entirely on-brand. But I hope I’m also shining a light on other people, on the simple face that each of us has beauty, has something that makes us interesting, something that showcases our worthiness.
Those women who shot video of me on that bus in Mexico and then held it up next to a caricature of a monkey, they didn’t have the ability to see something beautiful in me, something interesting, something that could have made me worthy of kindness, respect, human decency. I want to give that to the people I photograph. Humanizing strangers makes us see one another more clearly.
I don’t know if I’ll ever go back to writing short stories outside of IG, if I’ll ever go back to any of the novels that are moldering in my file boxes. I don’t know if I have the same pull toward longer fiction that I had for years and years. But these wisps of story, these tiny moments coupled with an image grabbed on the fly and (mostly) on the sly … this is a telling that feels like home for me, like I’ve found a place where fiction and I can be comfortable together.
In 2017, I took up Vanessa Mártir’s #52essays2017 challenge to write an essay a week. I didn’t complete 52 essays by year’s end, but I did write like crazy, more in 2017 than in 2015 and 2016 combined! I’ve kept working on personal essays, kept at my #GriotGrind. If you’d care to join, it’s never too late! Find the group on FB: #52Essays Next Wave.