notes of a techno-voyeur

Sally Stein

© August 2001

How to introduce this thing for people on cell phones? (How to parse within these scenes curiosity, obsession, fetish and phobia?) Of course I hope that the pictures, if not self-explanatory, provide part of the answer. But in case they don’t, let me offer some provisional remarks.

I have spent considerable time studying the work and life of Dorothea Lange. In a number of interviews, she recalls as especially formative a day in 1935 when she first witnessed an early group of Depression-era migrants from Oklahoma crossing the border into California. From this moment she felt destined to chronicle the massive exodus from the heartlands of the U.S. At the risk of mixing the sublime with the ridiculous, my parallel moment took place a half decade ago on arrival in Italy. When y ou are visiting an unfamiliar place, so much feels new and fresh (or else plain odd), but the very strangest part of that trip for me was the number of people walking in the streets and shouting to nobody in particular, “Pronto!” (which is the Italian way for beginning a phone conversation).
Surely it wasn't the first time I had seen people on cell phones. But at this early date of cell phone usage more people in Italian cities seems to have bitten by the bug, or else the unfamiliar purr of “prrronto” amplified the growing dissemination of these telecommunication novelties. As someone who always worried that she might be caught speaking to herself in public, I spent the next week laughing at this mass display of postmodern pseudo-psychosis.

click above to enter the first gallery

click above to enter the second gallery
At the time, I didn’t have available a point-and-shoot camera, but then and there I vowed to begin using one in pursuit of these new mobile postures that teetered between private and public, between absorption and theatricality. Everybody seemed to be hearing voices, and with such acute attention that they seemed deaf and blind to those around them.

My frequent companion who also takes a good share of photos never ceases to be amazed how close I manage to get without getting popped or, for that matter, even noticed. Gender may have something to do with it but more relevant in this case is the absorbing nature of having somebody whisper sweet (or even sour) nothings in your ear. Being on the receiving end of such sotto voce communication has an almost erotic effect. Alright already, I confess that I have always loved Garry Winogrand’s promiscuous probing vision, and the states of transport that cell phones seemed to produce encouraged me to emulate his boldness.

You might be inclined to wonder whether in the intervening years I have been bitten by the cell-phone bug. Nope. Actually, I’ve never been a big fan of telephones; even traditional phones struck me as fairly invasive instruments, which given the way the voice is siphoned from the body seem strangely intimate for ordinary use. Nowadays I prefer to communicate with most people via email. Maybe it's also relevant that I still don't feel as if I've mastered this new related art of multi-tasking. I readily confess that what used to be said about Gerald Ford applies equally to me: can’t walk and chew gum. I’d rather stick to looking and photographing (though admittedly that’s an older form of multi-tasking). As it happens, my point-and-shoot (tech info: Yashica T4 & Kodak 200 color negative film) is about the size of the older, thicker cell phones, and I much prefer it for occupational therapy. At least regarding this study, I probably belong in that retro category of non-participating observer: eyes blindered, fingers poised to balance the camera and release the shutter, but ears unencumbered…as I track this new migration to self-selective (& self-delimiting) virtual environments.

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