Cowbird sets photos to song

Correction: An earlier version of this article identified the plane in Sebastian Meyer’s photograph as a NATO plane. It was a plane controlled by Moammar Gaddafi forces.


The Pilpani family from Svanetia dances and sings together in their kitchen. (Aaron Huey)
February 10, 2012

‘Listen to this photograph,” Aaron Huey wrote to his friends on Facebook.

The National Geographic photojournalist was not conflating technologies. A link to the new site Cowbird opened onto a huge black-and-white photograph of two women bending and curving their bodies toward each other. Between their outstretched arms, more women crowd on a couch, one mid-guitar-strum. As soon as the page opens, an audio track begins to play. The melancholy voices sing a ballad, as a guitar is strummed slowly in the background.

The still image without sound is beautiful, playful and spontaneous. With sound, it turns the photograph — a scene frozen and out of time — into a living moment. The dancers feet stomp the ground, the guitar plays, an unseen man chimes in.

Although technology has allowed photographers to experiment with layering sound over scenery, it’s most often used as audio slideshows. Cowbird whittles down the posting to just one image, with sound and words. It may make the occasional foray into audio-visual diaries a more regular occurrence. The new site is still in beta-mode, it requires people to request an invite; but award-winning photographers have joined, making it a growing space for multi-dimensional, longer form photographic storytelling.

Not all of the images are accompanied by sound. Some just have a short written descriptions, others long essays. It’s almost as if a blog, a photo-sharing site such as Instagram, and a podcast were merged into one.

The site states its goal is to “build a public library of human experience.” It groups stories in somewhat opaque categories. Huey’s dancing women appears in “Family.” Other multimedia stories fall under headings called “Sorry,” “Balloon” and “Loved.”

Sebastian Meyer, a freelance photographer entered a submission in “Survival.” The image is jaw-dropping on its own: a huge cloud of smoke billows into the air — Meyer caught the moment a bomb dropped out of an airplane onto the dry dusty ground of Libya. It’s a powerful photograph. But turn on the sound captured in a recording device Meyer carried with him and suddenly you’re sucked into the scene: An alarm horn sounds, the whistle of the falling bomb closes in, then the explosion fills your eardrums. War is suddenly, viciously present.

The stories can be found by their categories, their dates or their locations. For example, in April 2008, Jordan Bower traveled along a highway in the Kutch region of India; Huey danced with Sufis in Cairo, and a man sold roses in New York.

Amid the clamor of most social media sites, on Cowbird everything slows down. It asks its viewers to linger over the single image of the women dancing and listen to their songs. There's no rush. With that kind of beauty, why should there be?

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