I was on an assignment yesterday for Business Week shooting one of their four-country Man-on-the-Street gigs. The job used four photographers in Cairo, London, Tokyo, and New York to shoot street profiles of people rapt in Apple Inc. auditory bliss. The article addresses Apple products on a global scale, but we were simply tasked with capturing their headphones. These types of assignments are never particularly exciting from the production or even the creation standpoint but often fascinating studies in street behavior.
It's an examination of how rarely people truly help an elderly person cross an intersection, of how infrequently people look up or behind them but exist while powering forward. It's a closer look at how the masses avoid collisions with atom like precision without ever lifting their gaze from mobile devices. A ceaseless stream of fashionistas, titans of commerce, and student dreamers blended through encounters, machinations, and circumstance all standing on the corner together for a fleeting moment waiting for the little green lit walking man.
I spent my afternoon on Shibuya corner attempting, in that moment, to pry into public rhythmic cocoons for permission to document their personal soundtrack. It’s funny how things come full circle. My first forays into the art of the Man-on-the-Street shoot date back to high school. It was my regular gig for the Fort Worth Star Telegram to stand in front of Borders (R.I.P) every Thursday and ask the lifestyle editors’ question of the week. There were days we stood for hours attempting to get the right five people to fill the mandated demographic. You begin to sense those who will brush past you, ignore you, glare at you, or at last acquiesce to your request. It was a regular job because no staffer wanted it but I think on many levels it was an early study in puncturing people’s personal bubble in a public space. Now, years later dehydrated, sunburned and feeling incredibly creepy staring into peoples’ ears (ensuring their headphones were an apple product) I found myself smiling at the circling nature of it all.
I know I do it too. I drive those headphones in and crank the beats that make crossing the city seem like some bass driven cinematic action sequence. The right song epitomizes a part of town or memory seeped section of it. It all fits into my über personal urban soundtrack. However, next time you stand at a busy intersection analyze the crowd around you with headphones in mind. I estimated 3 of 5 people yesterday were plugged in. It was amusing watching them fiddled for their next song, constantly switching between phones and iPods or simply lip synching while waiting. It made actually connecting with people so much more difficult than those days in front of the bookstore. Cell phones are ubiquitous for more than a decade now but the sheer quantity of hanging cable beards was fascinating. The longer I watched the more I identified with the etiquette of it all: With a friend - take off and wrap up cables after leaving the train station. Waiting for someone - just one ear bud in. See approaching photographer quickly insert ear buds and look down.
People get so engrossed in that audible insulation that when I approached I actually made 3 different people standing in a huge group in the middle of the city in the middle of the day jump as if I pounced on them in a dark alley. I never wear music when I shoot because it disconnects me from my surroundings but yesterday I felt on some level the disconnection was made for me. Entire crowds were walking through the city staring at the fourth wall and living in a concert between their ears. Looking into the oncoming crowd I was ignored if not invisible and after breaking their personal cocoons examined as an oddity at best. It was a strange day behind the camera.