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Gavin's Underground

A People's Picture

by Gavin Sheehan
- Posted // 2009-08-05 -

A couple weeks ago City Weekly printed a 5 Spot article from Greg Wilcox that revolved around Matt Jorgensen and the website he recently started. Which was interesting since the interview and the site both caught my eye the same day. So of course, I wanted to know more.

A People's Picture is an innovative new art project, where people are encouraged to use cameras spread across the city and state in public places, and take a picture of whatever they'd like from the area to go up on the website. Those nameless photographers who have participated in this casual undertaking have produced some interesting shots, all with varied prospectives and interests that catch the eye and make you wonder just what the idea was behind the picture they snapped. I got to chat with Matt about the project, the results he's received so far and plans for what he has in mind for both.

Matt Jorgensen

http://www.apeoplespicture.org/

Gavin:
Hey Matt! First off, tell us a little about yourself.

Matt: I like to think of myself as a knowledge junkie, a guy with an insatiable curiosity. Others tend to see me as a compulsive pedant or a pompous asshole. Maybe I am something in between. Anyways, my curiosity has kept me close to science and led me to many hobbies… one of which is A Peoples’ Picture.

Gavin: What drew you to doing writing, and how have things been going for you?

Matt: Pursuing a Ph.D. involves an endless amount of writing. I found myself enjoying the writing more than the science, so I started authoring a couple of anonymous blogs and then A Peoples’ Picture. In honesty I am only a freelance writer in the most amateur of ways. I do a little writing for money, but I only make enough to have one or two good dates a month.

Gavin: You're also a Chemistry student at the U, what's the program like and how are you enjoying it?

Matt: A graduate degree in the physical sciences can be pretty grueling. The first year was non-stop studying. I specialize in physical chemistry so my course load included lots of quantum mechanics and statistical thermodynamics. You learn to absorb knowledge quickly. Once you get past the course work the research isn’t so bad. You work at a level proportional to your desire to leave quickly. I have learned that my interest in science is broader than what is offered by research. I study novel materials called photonic crystals that interact with light in bizarre but useful ways. To make progress in photonics you have to focus on a very narrow area, an area so narrow that almost nobody in whole world knows what you are doing or cares.

Gavin: How did the idea for the pictures come about, and why the specific name for it?

Matt: I like to just sit and watch people, imagining what their story is. It isn’t ethical to study people by rummaging through their garbage, peeping in on them through a window, or going through their computer. So, if you want an honest look at people you need a different strategy. A peoples’ picture is an ethical method of indirectly getting at that. I think the first name I came up with was “A Peoples’ Photographs Project”, too much of a mouth full. I am glad I settled on “A Peoples’ Picture”, which is supposed to imply a representative image of a group of people just as Zinn’s “A Peoples’ History” implies an historical representation of a people.

Gavin: When setting things up, how do you decide the location for the camera?

Matt: Location is everything. Enough people need to find it, but it needs to be shielded from the elements. And, you need the right kind of people. You don’t want people who are in a hurry or lots of unsupervised kids.

Gavin: Is there a specific time frame you leave them around for, or just when you're free to get it?

Matt: Depending on the foot traffic the camera may fill up in just a few hours, other times it is out all day and only comes back with five photos. Generally, I leave them for about six to ten hours.

Gavin: How did the first set of pictures go for you, and were there any changes you made to the process since?

Matt: I left a camera on a busy sidewalk in the shade at the university. Nobody picked it up; they were all in too big of a hurry. For the second attempt I left it in the university library by the tables where everybody just lounges around. This time it spent the day in the lost and found. I then left the camera at Sugar House Park and I included a handwritten note informing the finder that the camera definitely wasn’t lost. That time I got just two photos because the camera was a bit too well hidden. I have had good success after that. The trick is how you write the handwritten note and leaving it in just the right place.

Gavin: Aside from the website, are there any plans for the pictures down the road?

Matt: I have had people suggest that I do a gallery or whatever. The problem is I have a limited amount of time that I can invest in the project right now if I ever want to graduate, and I don’t know the first thing about showing these unusually acquired photos outside of the blog. If there is a reader out there with a bright idea, I am open to suggestions.

Gavin: Will you take the project outside of SLC into other cities?

Matt: At the time I am writing this I know of cameras operating in Montana, Alaska, and the Philippines. I have collected pictures from Logan, St. George, and Garden City. Some readers have shown interest in collecting photos for the site, and many people have downloaded the instructions to do so from the site.

Gavin: Any plans to expand with what you're doing or keeping things simple for now?

Matt: I am trying to encourage readers, especially outside of Utah, to use my method of photo collection in their hometown. It is a fun weekend activity. Undeveloped disposable cameras may be sent to me for use on the site. Hopefully this way the site will grow to include photos collected from all over the world.

Gavin: For those interested, do you have any specific spots planned out in the future you'd like to give a hint to?

Matt: I want a representative portion of the population to find the cameras, not just artsy people who would seek the cameras out. I did publish a hint once, when the Salt Lake Tribune ran a story on the project, and for whatever reason that was the first (and only time) a camera has been stolen.

Gavin: Is there anything else you got planned or would like to plug or promote?

Matt: I want to thank Madzia Widén of Dare Design in London (
www.londondare.com), who I met through the blog. She has provided excellent graphic design help. A super nice choir teacher, Sara Lemcke, from here in town contacted me out of the blue offering free disposable cameras. Stephen Gelb, the guy who took my picture for City Weekly, does some fine work (www.stephengelb.com) and has been generous with his help. Finally, I encourage interested people to help spread the idea by collecting some photos of their own. Like I said, it makes for a cheap fun activity, and I would be more than happy to include the photos on the site.

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