24-Hour Flight of Fancy

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.

24 Hours: Do I Dare?

What is it with me and challenges? I can’t resist them. Cannot. I never used to think of myself as a competitive person, but I so am. And that’s part of the driver behind my saying yes to challenges. I’m competing: against the ridiculousness of the challenge, against myself.

I think it throws me back to taking a dare as a kid. Someone would thrown down some petty or foolish gauntlet, and I would immediately feel the pull to dive in and prove … who knows what, but prove it all the same. Clearly, I’ve never outgrown the inability to resist that pull.

All this to say I can’t resist. Generally speaking, the challenges I take on are fairly mild. They come in the form of, say, doing NaNoWriMo. Or the 30/30 poetry month challenge … and sweetening the pot by choosing a poetry form and writing that form all month long. Not easy for me, but pretty harmless.

The 24 Hour Project is one of the challenges that keeps captivating me year after year. It tests me on different levels:

  1. Can I stay awake and mostly functional for 24 hours?
  2. Can I find something or someone to photograph every hour of the day?
  3. Will I be able to imagine a story to write for each photo I post each hour (this is the “sweetener” I’ve added to the basic rules of the 24HrPrj)?
  4. Will I be able to get all the photos of people that I want without being spotted (I fail this every year, always get busted at least once)?
  5. Will I venture into neighborhoods I haven’t visited on previous 24HrPrj days?
  6. Will I post all my “leftovers” after the day — all the pics that didn’t go up on the challenge day but which I still want to make stories for (I haven’t succeeded with this one this year … yet)?
  7. If I’m going out alone, will I settle into the fun of the challenge and not let the worry and discomfort of being alone on the street in the middle of the night sour my good mood and make it hard for me to take pictures (this one is really a crap shoot and has as much to do with me as it does with who else is out on the street in the middle of the night)?

Is it any wonder that I love this challenge when it has so many challenges baked in?

I had a lot of fun this year … after I managed to succeed at Number 7, calming down about being by myself. Both of the friends who’ve gone out with me in the past weren’t able to do the Project this year. I did wind up running into my friend S, the person who introduced me to the challenge. I spotted him in Times Square around 4 am and hung out with him and a few other 24 Hour Photogs for a couple of hours then met up with him for another couple of hours in the evening.

I was rusty with the story-making. Not only was the Project Covid-canceled last year, being in quarantine for the last forever has meant not being out and about that much, not taking pictures, not having the catalysts/inspiration to make up stories.

So yes, quite rusty. But after a couple of hours it began to feel easier. There’s a picture from the two o’clock hour that was the turning point. I had found an all-night diner (key establishments for making it through the Project, to be sure) and took a picture of a police officer who was having dinner and a very involved conversation with his partner. In the picture, he is studying the menu. The combination of his serious face and the fact that he reminded me of a friend’s son and echoed her older brother who had been a police officer all clicked for me and the story just fell into my head. From that point forward, the stories came more quickly and smoothly.

*

I miss my city. Eighteen months in my room is a long time to be separated from people watching, grabbing a coffee at a favorite café, chatting with store employees, having random and excellent encounters with strangers.

That last one is one of the things that struck me hardest during the 24 Hour Project. I miss talking to strangers, something I’ve always done quite a lot of … but not since Covid came to town. Around 7:30 Saturday morning, having seen my way through the long midnight-to-dawn of the challenge, I was headed home to charge my devices and recharge myself. I stopped in my grocery story because I still needed a photo for the hour. I saw an elderly woman I wanted to take a picture of. I did take a picture, but she surprised me by starting to talk to me.

Not only did she talk to me, but she was funny and sweet. At two moments in our conversation, she reached over and put her hand on my arm. You know, the way you reach for a friend’s arm when you’re talking and you want to emphasize your shared feeling at that instant. And she did it twice.

I am a toucher. I like affectionate physical contact. Not with everyone, of course, but yes, I like it. Having this woman touch me in this conversationally intimate way — after a forever of almost no physical contact, when we were strangers, when she was a tiny elderly white woman and I a big, Black woman — it was absolutely beautiful. It made my heart smile.

I have missed this type of sweetness my city has always given me. Yes, the city has given me some ugly moments, too, for sure. But I get much more of the random kindness and connection of that exchange in the chips and cookies aisle.

* * *

(My 24-Hour experience this year was a warm welcome back to my city. But what a difference a couple of weeks can make. I was out taking my pictures on July 24th … and now, Delta is threatening new lockdowns. I’m glad we got the Project in before the tide started to turn, and I really hope we can stay on the safer side of this variant wave.)

Do I dare? Well, I certainly always do when it comes to the 24 Hour Project. It’s such a great idea and a fun event, and I love following people from around the world, getting to see a day in their cities. This year I followed two Italians, a Pole, two Mexicans, one Turk, a couple of Australians, and a handful of people around this country. In a sense, I guess it’s a virtual way to have a random conversation with a stranger.

I need to get back to posting my leftovers … and some of the shots I’ve captured since the event. I’m already looking forward to next year!


It’s Tuesday, which means it’s Slice of Life day!
Head on over to Two Writing Teachers
and see what the other slicers are up to!

Original Slicer - GirlGriot

Into the Woods

Earlier tonight I read a post by another Slice of Life Story Challenge writer. It was about getting lost in the woods. And it reminded me of a moment during my writing retreat last fall when I, too, got lost in the woods.

I will say up front that, in the moment, it felt less like I got lost and more like the woods tried to absorb me. It wasn’t a good feeling.

In September, I went upstate for two gorgeous and glorious weeks at an artists residency. I had a beautiful studio, a lovely view, gourmet meals, four amazing artists and writers to share my dinners and down time with. It was heaven.

There is a small wooded area behind the house where I stayed. “Small,” in that it doesn’t stretch on for hundreds of miles or something dramatic like that, but large in comparison to my day-to-day encounter with woods. As a child, I spent my summers in the Adirondack mountains. I was in the woods every day and felt entirely happy and comfortable there. I have spent the last 30-plus years in this huge, clattering city, and my time spent in the woods would be … nil.

Add to that what I’ve realized is a creeping dread I’ve developed when it comes to the woods, a dread that has formed slowly enough for me not to notice it until it was suddenly in my chest, fully formed.

But I was determined to go for a walk in the woods. We’d been told there were two trails, a red trail and a blue trail. We’d been told that the blue trail was the better maintained, easier trail (this turned out to be 100 percent not true). We’d been told that there were blazes painted on the trees and we just had to keep an eye out. Yep.

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That picture is the trailhead. See the nice arrows pointing toward the blue trail and the red trail? See how easy this walk in the woods was going to be?

The moment I entered the woods, I questioned the wisdom of my decision to head out, alone, without telling anyone I was going into the woods. I didn’t turn back. I set out on the blue trail because I am not brave in the woods. The blue trail immediately disappeared: path completely overgrown, not a single visible blaze after the first one. So I turned back and stopped at the trailhead and decided to take a chance on the red trail, the steeper trail that would be harder to follow.

I follow the blazes — so much easier to find than on the blue trail — and walked along trying hard to convince myself that I had no reason to be getting a stomach ache over being alone in the woods. I followed the blazes and started up a small hill. I saw a blaze ahead of me, and another a ways ahead of that tree in front of me, but I stopped walking. I stopped because I wanted to listen to a bird song I’d never heard before. It was a strange, almost hollow sound, and I looked up to see if I might spot the singer. I stopped in my tracks. I didn’t turn around. I just stopped walking. I looked up into the trees, but didn’t see what bird might be sending out that strange hollow call. So I stopped looking up at the trees. I brought my gaze down …

And there were no blazes on any of the trees in front of me. Not one.

I pretended to be calm about it. I took a few steps forward, telling myself that the blaze I’d seen would, of course, magically appear once I was closer to the tree. Of course that didn’t happen. There was nothing on that tree or any of the others.

I turned around to walk back … but I couldn’t find any blazes on any of the trees behind me, either. I walked back to where I’d looked up for the bird then tried to walk back out on a different route. No blazes, and the path I was walking was totally unfamiliar. I went back up to the spot where I’d stopped for the bird then tried again to get back out of the woods. No blazes and the path I was walking was not the path I’d walked in either of the other attempts at escape, nor was it the path I’d walked to get up to that point on the hill.

The thing was, I knew I wasn’t even ten minutes from my door, knew that the woods would clear somewhere very near where I was standing. But I was pretty certain I wasn’t getting out of those woods.

Okay, so here I am writing about my experience, so you know I got out. I stood on the trail for a while, refusing to go back up the hill only to find myself on another wrong path. Finally, I saw a tree whose half-fallen branches I had fought my way past on the way up the hill. And I could see the path running in front of that tree. I pushed and shoved my way through an overgrown area to get to the tree, refusing to walk back up the path and think I could find the way to walk down to that tree.

When I reached the tree … I no longer saw the path. I’m not kidding. But I did see another tree I remembered and cut across some more overgrown business to get to that tree. And then I found the path and found my way back to the trailhead and got my citified self out of those woods.

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This is the entrance to the woods. Doesn’t it look like the entrance to a magical kingdom? Yeah. Magical. Kind of like the Hotel California.

__________

You can read the not-at-all-creepy post that inspired this memory here.

And you can read my retelling of other times I’ve been lost in the woods:
Into the Woods, Part 2
Into the Woods, Part 3
Into the Woods, Part 4
Into the Woods, Part 5 (the final part)


It’s March, which means it’s time for the
13th annual Slice of Life Story Challenge!
Curious? Head on over to Two Writing Teachers
and see what the rest of this year’s slicers are up to.
Or … it’s not too late to join in!

Original Slicer - GirlGriot

Twenty-four Short Hours

I’ve been thinking about the 2019 edition of the 24 Hour Project — about whether I’ll feel healed enough and pain-free enough to participate … and then I realized that I never got around to posting my slide show from the 2018 project! Must fix that post haste!

For the unfamiliar, the 24 Hour Project is a street photography extravaganza. For a 24-hour period each spring, people go out and document the city they’re in. From midnight Saturday morning to 11:59 Saturday night, participants are charged with taking photos and sharing on Instagram, at least one photo an hour. When the project started in 2012, there were 65 participants. When I joined the madness in 2015, there were 2,030 participants! Last year, there were 4,280 people in 850 cities across 104 countries! All of us out and about, capturing the world for a day.

Went over to the website to copy the URL for the link above, and discovered that this year’s project will be at the end of May, rather than early April. That makes it much more likely that I’ll be healed and strong enough for the challenge. It also (I hope!) means I won’t half freeze as I walk the city in the middle of the night! My dear friend, Raivenne, has been my 24-hour companion twice, and I hope she’ll join me again this year! Raivenne is the perfect partner for a project like this. She’s brave, she’s silly, she loves the city with all its curiosities and messiness, she has a great sense of humor, and she doesn’t suffer fools.

I modify the project to suit my interests. I post at least one photo an hour, but I also up the ante by adding a writing element, a tiny story created for each photo. As much as I enjoy capturing interesting images and random city moments, it’s the story-making I love — imagining the right bit of narrative to give a photo a different kind of life.

Can’t wait to get out and start snapping. But for now, without further rambling, here are the photos I posted for last year’s challenge. I hope you like them!

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It’s the annual Slice of Life Story Challenge over at Two Writing Teachers! With hundreds of folks participating, there’s more than a little something for everyone … and plenty of room for you to join in!

3½ hours …

That’s how long until I’ll be hitting the street — off to midtown Manhattan to meet my friend and compatriot crazy person, Raivenne, and get started on the 2018 edition of the 24 Hour Project! I’ve got a cold and should be staying home, but I am incapable of resisting this challenge. I put myself to bed at 1:30 this afternoon so I could sleep a nice eight hours and be bright eyed and bushy-tailed for the midnight-to-six run. As if.

What I discovered is that sleeping the afternoon away in this apartment is a challenge of another kind. Just the way the moon woke me up with it’s bright-bright-brightness through my bedroom window the first night I slept in this place, the 4:30 sun was having none of my sleep-the-day-away foolishness. It made me laugh, but it also means I’m going into this night with only 3 hours of sleep. Not ideal.

But … going in I am. Me and a legion of other folks. There are nearly 4,000 people across  more than 1,200 cities and almost 160 countries signed up to participate this year! I’ll be doing my usual thing of writing tiny stories to go with each of my photos. You can follow my progress from midnight to midnight by checking me out on instagram (or in the sidebar of this page), or on FB if we’re friends there.

I’m off!