Archive for the ‘Interviews’ Category

Talking to people who take pictures of people who take pictures of themselves

One thing about the internet that continues to captivate me is its ability to connect someone with an interest, regardless of how absurd it is, to millions of people who share that hobby. As someone who grew up with all sorts of shamefully geeky interests, getting an internet connection reiterated that I was far from the only person who enjoyed stuff like scripted athletic soap operas (professional wrestling).

Such niche interests tend to blossom within the confines of an online community. It’s here on these messageboards that dozens, hundreds and even thousands of people can engage in expansive discourse about these niche subjects without fear of persecution. That is, of course, unless you get entangled in a good, old fashioned flaming war, a time-honored tradition as old as the internet itself. These generally involve one other person, lots of name-calling and the foregoing of other activities over several days so that you can devote your life to “winning” the war, thus attaining temporary online glory. But I digress.

The Cliffnotes version of the first two paragraphs is that the ‘net connects someone with millions of other people who share similar interests. Though I don’t promote it, I spend a decent chunk of online time on forums centered on clothing. Like other online communities, these sites bring together people from all corners of the world in the name of a common interest. With a category as visually imperative as clothing, it’s natural that these forums have at least one section where community members can toss up a picture or two of what they wore that day. These threads exist for a variety of reasons, but it’s a safe assumption that most people never bothered to ponder the cultural significance of them. Sidney Lo isn’t “most people.”

Lo, a graduate of New York’s Tisch School of the Arts, bucked the norm and decided to delve under the layers of these “what are you wearing today” threads. The 23-year-old photographer dedicated several years and traveled thousands of miles to personally photograph regular contributors to these threads on the more prominent online forums (namely Superfuture). The result was Taking Pictures of People Who Take Pictures of Themselves, a 112-page book that exhibits the eclectic blend of individuals who regularly convene in the same online destination because of a shared passion.

I had a chance to catch up with Lo shortly after his book hit the shelves in May.

Alex: What prompted the project?

Sidney: I was studying art/photo history and learned about different performance artists. Prior to that I struggled to find concepts that motivated me to shoot. When I discovered the performance art of Tehching Hsieh and made the connection to my online habits, it became a worthy experiment (to mix the WAYWT hobby with something that could be considered fine art).

Alex: A lot of your previous work and projects have a tie to fashion like this one does. What’s the reason for that?

Sidney: I didn’t have a fine art or photography background; in fact, my first darkroom experience was my freshman year at NYU (can you believe that?). It was my natural inclination to mix together non-related interests and try to incorporate it with photography. I also went to an Irish-Catholic high school with a dress code (although I’m not Catholic myself) so maybe I was tired of the same khakis and polos every day.

Alex: What sort of theme or message were you hoping to convey by taking on such a project?

Sidney: I wanted to see if I could really make something out of nothing — to create a product made out of a hobby that has taken root amongst various fashion-oriented communities and give it a home in the real world. Along the way, while creating this book, I ended up collaborating with a few people on Superfuture. The peripheral theme is definitely that the message board stuff can lead to great things and, like a lot of other hobbies, have the potential for real success if it’s taken seriously.

Alex: Is that the message or theme that is ultimately conveyed in the book, or did it take you down a different path?

Sidney: I think that message is peripheral to the content of the book. It’s still about the people, the community, the act of WAYWT, and the homogenous aesthetic we can create with digital media and the web. The fact that it is now a physical product may still represent my own personal message about the book, but it isn’t important to me if that is a central idea for a person who flips through this book.

Alex: This was a three-year project. Go into some detail about undertaking such a daunting assignment.

Sidney: It was incredibly slow and arduous. There were a lot of five-to-six hour bus rides on the Fung Wah from Chinatown to Boston, Philly, and a lot of hours hauling equipment into small bus seats and train spaces. I photographed subjects in New York, Boston, Philadelphia, Toronto, Montréal, Vancouver, Victoria, Seattle, San Francisco (and the greater Bay Area), Los Angeles, and Singapore. It’s incredible how generous people on the Internet can be when you start with an honest proposal, complete transparency, and an earnest intention to follow through on an idea. After a few collaborative WAYWTs in New York (where I was living at the time), word got out I was doing this project and there was an immediate level of acceptance. Without it I don’t think it would have been possible to have even taken a third of the portraits I ended up with.

Alex: A lot goes into creating something like this. What was the most difficult aspect of the project?

Sidney: Putting in the final payment for the book. It’s not the financial aspect of that transaction, but rather the acknowledgement that whatever risks I was about to take had just become a reality. Even with the support of friends and family, I was the only one pushing the project along to completion, and when it’s my own responsibility — the money and the success of the project — it’s a real intense feeling of ownership, fear, and pride.

Alex:  Anyone who followed the project is aware that this book was self-published. Was this by design or was it a matter of being unable to find a publisher?

Sidney: I sent a proposal or two but they were shot down. I got tired of hearing “no” and went ahead with completely self-publishing the project.

Alex: Self-publishing is an entirely different beast. Can you go into some detail about what going the self-published route meant?

Sidney: Find a printer, a middleman, create (final) prints of each image, proof them alongside samples from the printer, play tag with quotes, rates, and materials/details, and waiting a shit ton every step of the way. I also had to consult a friend (and fellow Superfuturian) who works in print and design for advice on laying out the book. And then the self-promotion is a whole other entity that I could probably touch upon but, you know, it’s kind of a dirty thing to talk about self-promotion. At least, for me, I was least excited about being a salesman, but that’s an inevitable part of the job.

Alex: Superfuture, if not a number of other fashion-based messageboards have sort of become this beast with its own subculture that outsiders are not aware of. Is this something you wanted to convey through the book? What are the core templates of SuFu’s subculture?

Sidney: Yes. I wanted to convey some of that sentiment, but also the opposite — that there are many similarities to this niche activity that many who are not privy to can still appreciate and get into. A lot of people who have been picking up the book aren’t really even familiar with Superfuture. There’s a lot of cursory fashion interest that this book addresses. It’s important to me that this book has some sort of universal appeal rather than become an inside joke that only the forum kids can understand.

The core templates change and vary over time. They evolve from denim to (ugh) Americana, trash to trash porn to trash banning to trash talk, Dunks to Vans to Rick dunks, etc.

Alex: You traveled to a lot of places to make this happen. Tell me some of the places or moments that stick out from your three-year journey to complete this project.

Sidney: Eating about 25 meals over the course of five days in Singapore; taking the train across Canada from Toronto to Montréal (the time spent alone between bouts of heavy shooting was really nice); meeting people who’ve I’ve befriended beyond the book itself; and seeing old faces and reminiscing over shared past experiences on the message boards. Many of those memories are fleeting, but I’m thankful that what has remained is a long line of friendships from people all over the world.

Alex: Do you have any other projects lined up for the near future?

Sidney: Not really. The book is somewhat of a finale for this iteration interplaying the web and reality. Maybe it’ll happen again in the future, but not in the same format and definitely not for a while. I’d like to reach out to the people I’ve befriended through Superfuture and create something awesome in real life. This book is proof that it can happen.

Alex: If the book is something of a finale, where does your photography take you from here? More books?

Sidney: Create more images, use more willing models (as opposed to poaching them from message boards), and perhaps evolve my style toward something more fine art. Photography is a field that has grown increasingly difficult to succeed in, but I hope the unorthodox method of approaching projects and promotion will yield better results than what the current market is reflecting. There also seems to be a hunger amongst a lot of the creative folks who are barely getting by (and I definitely fall into that category), but 2010 has proved to be successful for a lot of people post-Superfuture (so to speak). In the spirit of making something out of nothing, the long-term goal is to make it in the creative field without the one-in-a-million luck that a lot of success stories seem to have.

As for books, I loved the experience of making my book and would jump at another opportunity in a heartbeat.

Alex: You live in SF (Editor’s note: Sidney has since moved back to NYC), but you attended college in NYC. Can you discuss how living in both big cities influenced you or altered the way you may look at something such as fashion?

Sidney: It’s accessibility. San Francisco is decent. New York City is far better. The way I view fashion is more informed by my own set of parameters rather than what is advertised to me in real life. I can filter out content online and choose to follow the evolution of particular brands, lines, or styles. A community like Superfuture gives you access in many instances where you may not have the same options in your hometown. Maybe, in that way, branding and advertising doesn’t work at the same level any more. The Internet is viable and powerful enough to resonate and affect the fashion industry at large, so what city you live in doesn’t really matter (unless you’re actually trying to shop in person).

Taking Pictures of People Who Take Pictures of Themselves is available now.