As a street photographer, I steer away from capturing the candid moments of strangers and tend to focus more on the environments in which those strangers exist. I do this because I have noticed it is somehow easier for people to relate to the idea of a place than it is for them to relate directly to other individuals. I have found this to be the case in an immeasurable number of situations, but it has been especially obvious in those where substantive dialogue is not immediately an option (see: photography).
Places, whether we are intimately familiar with them or not, conjure memories — ones which allow us to remain comfortably within the confines of our personal mind space. People, on the other hand, force us out of that comfort zone. People are dynamic, complex, and, unfortunately at times less authentic than places. To appreciate the idea of another person, one must move beyond his or her own past experiences and be receptive to that which seems contrary to expectations. I have always found it a shame how seldom we are genuinely willing to do this.
In a world that forces us to balance time constraints with limitless desires, it is no surprise to me how frequently we take shortcuts in thinking and succumb to judgment. But, I can say from personal experience, that the moment we use place as a proxy for character, we only sell ourselves short of a true story.
More often than not, our associations with places are circumstantial – they are the byproducts of decisions that we ourselves did not make. Our attire, tastes in music, how and with whom we occupy our time is much less random than location itself. These deliberate choices send more accurate signals about who we are or want to become, and let’s be honest, they are more interesting to compare anyway.
The premise that there is a distinction between active and passive personality signals is one of the reasons why I love The Underground New York Public Library, a new project by New York native Orit Ben-Haim.
On a simply composed Tumblr, Ben-Haim creates a visual library, featuring the reading riders of NYC subways. By concealing the subway line and stop at which she snaps each of her candid photos, Ben-Haim forces viewers to focus solely on active signals given by her subjects in order to determine whether a featured book is of interest.
At a time when e-readers are quickly making obsolete the printed word, it is a wonder how Ben-Haim still has managed to personify literature. If you are in the market for some new reading material, or are simply into people-watching, pay a visit to the Underground New York Public Library. You will walk away having judged a book by a lot more than its cover.