Why this artist asked strangers for their most recent phone photos

Greg Keraghosian

Here’s a novel way to explore a city the next time you travel: Approach a random stranger on the street and ask him or her to reveal the most recent photo on their phone and tell the story behind it.

As strange and perhaps terrifying as that might sound, it’s exactly what artist Ivan Cash has done in three American cities this year. The result is a video series packed with entertaining, goofy and touching stories – stories that are all around us if we care to ask.

“To me, this project really keys in on the tension behind our phones having lots of amazingly rich, personal, social information that allows us to connect, to an extent, but then also serving as a hindrance to connecting with the people around us,” Cash told Yahoo Travel.

“We live in an era where so much of our existence—from ad campaigns to Facebook profiles—is meticulously positioned to make things seem so shiny and perfect. By focusing on the ordinary and sometimes mundane parts of life, I hope people can get a sense of how interesting real life is, and maybe become more engaged and curious with their surroundings.”

Some of the people’s responses play into local stereotypes – for instance in Cash’s first video, based in his hometown of San Francisco, a local shows a picture of the dismembered crab he put back together while taking drugs on the beach. Or in the Los Angeles episode, a woman shares the selfie she had to take to apply for a modeling job.

But there are also stories that would be relatable regardless of the city, whether it’s gifts for a man’s wife, a 47-year reunion among Peace Corps volunteers or a tattoo to signify a woman’s recent struggles. And many are just plain silly, like a gingerbread house assembled with duct tape. That last one is in the New York episode, released a week ago.

When asked how often people refused to show Cash their photo, he said it often depended on the neighborhood.

“On Abbott Kinney in L.A., 9 out of 10 people I approached refused to show me their last photo,” he said. “That is an overwhelming "hip" area, and everyone felt closed off. Then I went to Venice which felt more laid back, and almost everyone was willing to share their photos.

“In N.Y., it was nearly impossible to get anyone in Times Square or on Fifth Avenue to stop and chat and share their last photo. It was just too busy and so people went on auto-pilot. But then in West Brooklyn, Lower East Side Manhattan, and even Harlem, everyone was really friendly and so the majority of people I talked to were into it.”

Using technology to connect, rather than disconnect people has been a passion for Cash. Earlier this year he made a video called “What Are You Texting About?” where he approached San Franciscans to find out their most recent text. And he had a project called “Snail Mail My Email,” where volunteers transcribed emails into handwritten letters.

As for where Cash’s next photo eavesdropping will happen?

“I have a few places in mind, all of which I've never been: Detroit, New Orleans, Dallas, Nashville, Birmingham,” he said. “These places all feel foreign to me and so I'd be excited to get a taste of the city through talking to its people in this unusual way. If anyone reading this knows people living in these cities that would be interested in helping out, drop me a line.”

To that end, you can find Cash’s contact information on his website.