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What Can We Learn From Photos Taken in Cities?

Photography is one of the simplest, yet most effective ways to condense information within a few pixels. In the past, visual documentation of the present was either a purely private matter or left to professionals. With the emergence of smartphones and social media, however, it has become accessible to a broad demographic, thus democratizing the quality and quantity of information preserved for posterity.

Now, everything we create is the product of an interplay between our subjective eye and the outside world. What is within meets what is outside. A photograph is a link between the external world and the photographer; a picture tells as much of a story about the person behind the camera as it does about its actual content. Based on this assumption, a collection of photos by different people who are part of a group can reveal a certain amount of information about this group in the context of their social, cultural, and geographical setting. As our surroundings influence our output, our social circle affects us just as much as our neighborhood or the city we live in. The people make the city, but the city also makes the people.

Travelettes ask:
What can we learn from photos taken in cities?

Phototrails answers:
Seizing the image of a city is a perplexing task. Formed over years of individual experiences, anchored within physical places and influenced by local cultures, the urban setting is affected by a flux of socio-economics, geography, and personal biographies. What then is an image of a city but a coalescence of subjective representations?

Urban social media data, created by a mass of individuals, opened up new opportunities for sociologists, geographers, and artists to reimagine city life through peoples’ actual flows and rhythms, their collective mental maps, or even their sentiments. However, there is one aspect of social media data that remains to be adequately addressed from these perspectives: social media photos. How can we visualize millions of photos taken in New York, Bangkok, or Tel Aviv in a way that reveals the cultural differences between these cities? Or what are the urban “stories” documented by these sequences of publicly shared photos?

With our Phototrails project, a collaboration between Lev Manovich, Jay Chow, and Nadav Hochmann, we offer possible answers to these questions.

For the first stage of the project, released in July 2013, we downloaded and analyzed 2.3 million Instagram photos from thirteen cities around the world (such as New York, Tokyo, San Francisco, Bangkok, etc.) and created high-resolution visualizations that display tens of thousands of photos from each of these cities, arranged in different ways. Once aggregated, each visualization reveals a particular “image of a city” that is slightly different from all other cities in our data set.

For example, one set of images compares 50,000 Instagram photos from Tokyo and San Francisco:

Another visualization of 23,581 photos shared in Brooklyn during Hurricane Sandy captures the dramatic narrative of that day and also reveals a change in the number of shared photos corresponding to the area’s power outage. This sudden and dramatic visual change reflects the intensity of the human experience during the event.

A radial plot visualization of 23,581 photos uploaded to Instagram in Brooklyn during Hurricane Sandy (29–30 November 2012).

A radial plot visualization of 23,581 photos uploaded to Instagram in Brooklyn during Hurricane Sandy (29–30 November 2012).

While our methods allow us to trace the collective visual “signature” and rhythms of a city, we can also identify particular visual routines of individuals in that city. For example, we visualized individual users’ social photo traces in the city of Tel Aviv, Israel, over a three-month period. The result clearly retraces various users’ activities: While some take many photos in one area, others move rapidly across the city. Some take more pictures during early mornings; others only take photos in the late evening.

 

Matrix plot comparing the activity of Tel Aviv’s 289 most active Instagram users. Each plot in the matrix shows locations of photos shared on Instagram in the Tel Aviv area over three months. The green-to-red color gradient indicates the time when a photograph was shared (green/morning, yellow/afternoon, red/evening). A line connects two photos (i. e. dots) taken within the same hour.

Matrix plot comparing the activity of Tel Aviv’s 289 most active Instagram users. Each plot in the matrix shows locations of photos shared on Instagram in the Tel Aviv area over three months. The green-to-red color gradient indicates the time when a photograph was shared (green/morning, yellow/afternoon, red/evening). A line connects two photos (i. e. dots) taken within the same hour.

The Phototrails project explores social media photos as a set of subjective experiences that also reflect a slice of larger, shared, urban practices. Instead of relying on a physical or “objective” image of the city – like the one offered by services like Google Earth or Bing Maps – social photography provides us with new ways to explore the world of everyday, subjective experiences. As our visualizations demonstrate, we can now mash together contesting “aerial” and street level perspectives in a single, condensed representation; zooming in and out while exploring individual experiences as part of larger urban, social entities.

All images, incl. the header image, by Phototrails

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