In this time of electronic obsession in which our generation communicates through anything but human contact, one Toronto artist has set out to remind us that connected to the fingers that tick away 140 characters at a time are – gasp – people. His tools: disposable cameras, string and a sincere hope that neither get stolen. His project: Take Picture, Don’t Steal, the interactive yet startlingly human depiction of Toronto’s neighbourhoods and the strangers we share them with. After launching the project in fall of 2009 with one camera in Toronto’s Kensington Market, Greenwood would eventually string cameras up all over the city, noticing with each roll of developed film how unique and often perplexing the results were. Now with cameras set up in England, Spain and the USA, Greenwood, who recently chatted with Sick of the Radio, says he’d like to expand the project even more.
SICK OF THE RADIO: It’s been interesting to see the moods and energies of the people who take photos of themselves in various places with your cameras. Have you been able to draw any conclusions about particular places based on the photos you’ve gotten back from them?
MATT GREENWOOD: I’ve found that the specific location of the camera does tend to dictate the type of photos that are taken to some extent. People are a bit more relaxed if they feel that they can approach the camera without worrying about others around, and are more receptive to the idea if they feel that they can have their own space. Therefore, when I’m selecting a place to hang a camera, I am very conscious of people’s relationship with their surroundings.
SICK OF THE RADIO: While you guide the project by hanging up cameras and instructions and then posting the photographs, the project is more or less kept alive by the people (who are strangers to you) who partake in it. Even having “don’t steal” in the name of the project emphasizes an individualistic, moral quality about it.
MATT GREENWOOD: Quite a few cameras have been stolen (about nine, I think) which is both interesting and disappointing. “Don’t steal” suggests thinking of others and appreciating that I am trusting them not to ruin the project. All this reinforces the positive feeling of participation, and it’s a reminder that it’s meant to be a shared experience.
SICK OF THE RADIO: Any really strange (or funny, or sad, or frustrating) photos that you’ve gotten developed?
MATT GREENWOOD: This photo [below] on the College St camera features a guy who came running out of a bar when I went to collect the nearly finished camera shouting, “Hey! Don’t be an asshole. Don’t ruin the project!!” After I convinced him that I was the artist behind the project, I snapped a shot of him.
SICK OF THE RADIO: Does having so many photos of strangers in your possession make you feel connected or disconnected from them?
MATT GREENWOOD: I feel a connection to the people in the photographs because their response to the camera opens up a sort of interactive dialogue between the artist and the subject. The absence of a camera person allows people to drop their guard a little, and many of the photographs are very honest portraits. I think you do get a sense of what the person is like and hopefully, the viewers of the site can empathize with the individual by recognizing that they have chosen to share something.
SICK OF THE RADIO: A bit of a cliche question – what sparked your inspiration for this? I’ve often stood on a crowded sidewalk (or square, or intersection, or cafe) and gotten the urge to grab a random stranger and have a conversation with them. What made you want to have people you don’t know take photos of themselves?
MATT GREENWOOD: I’m interested in creative experimental photography, and I like to play with the medium. I had a spare camera lying around, and I was curious to see how people would react to this in a public space with minimal instructions . The first camera was set up in Kensington Market, and people seemed to get it straight away. The disposable camera is perfect for the project – non threatening and fun. People feel comfortable around them.
SICK OF THE RADIO: I’ve always thought Toronto possesses sort of a high school cafeteria kind of segregation (there’s the Queen W., crowd, the club district crowd, etc.). Would you say that the photos that you get back from these places resemble this kind of rigidness? Or are you surprised about the diverse kinds of photos and people you end up with as a result?
MATT GREENWOOD: Toronto seems to emphasize this separation which is interesting to me. I’m originally from near Leeds in the UK, and I don’t think we focus on the differences between ‘crowds’ linked to neighbourhoods. Leeds is just Leeds. I think there is some truth in the idea of a certain type of person occupying different areas of the city, but the photographs suggest that we are all mixed in together.
SICK OF THE RADIO: You mentioned wanting to expand the project.
MATT GREENWOOD: I’d like to open up the project to anyone who would like to get involved – if [people] are traveling to an interesting place and would consider hanging up a camera for the project, [they can] please contact me through the site.
SICK OF THE RADIO: If you had to choose one city in the world where you could hang a camera, where would it be, and why?
MATT GREENWOOD: I got an e-mail last week from someone deployed in Iraq with the U.S army who may be able to hang up a camera which would be very interesting. So I’d have to say Baghdad. Hopefully, I’ll be able to keep this project running with the help of people around the world and create a global portrait using disposable cameras.
BY: CARLY LEWIS