It's easy to go about your day absorbed in your own thoughts and troubles, traveling through the city you live with your phone out and your head down. But do you ever look up and think about how the 100 people around you have 100 different stories?
That's the lesson of a fascinating video project, which asks dozens of people around the United States and Britain to share the last photo on their phone.
Ivan Cash, an artist and filmmaker who now lives in San Francisco, is making a series of videos in which he invites people in different cities to share their last photo and the story behind it. The project offers some fascinating glimpses into people’s lives — as well as a lesson about the amazing encounters you can have when you break a taboo and engage with strangers around you.
So far, Cash has shot short films in eight places: Detroit, London, New York, Chicago, Alabama, San Francisco, Miami and Los Angeles. His videos capture fascinating portraits of ordinary people. There is a New Yorker who collects photos of clouds, a sorority girl in Alabama who sings a few phrases of opera, a Marine who remembers a man that he served with, a dog who tends bar for the Detroit Lions, and many more.
Here are a few of the people Cash interviews along the way:
And here are a few of the “last photos” that people showed him:
The project started in San Francisco, where Cash said he immediately hit fascinating-stranger gold. You can see the photos he captured in the video below (caution: some of the videos include a little skin and racy language). The photos run the gamut, including a beloved dog excited to go to the airport, former Peace Corps volunteers reuniting again after 47 years, a young man panhandling and a shot in a unionized strip club.
The stories he captures are about love, drugs, friendship, hobbies and tragedy.
Cash said the most memorable interview for him in San Francisco is the final one in the video: a man’s beloved van going up in flames. “The silver lining of the story is the kindness that people shows us, people offering us rides, people offering us money, the truck stop giving us showers and letting us do our laundry. It was heartwarming,” the man said. Here is the photo of the van going up in flames, and the van's owner recalling the story:
Cash said he sees the huge variety of photos as a reminder that “you never know where people are at, ever. You could share a subway with 100 people, and those 100 people could have 100 different experiences going on in their lives. I try to remember that people are all in their own worlds, and some of those worlds are beautiful and great, and some are really dark and sad. We just don’t know.”
Cash said the most memorable story overall is from Alabama — where he shot in Opelika, Auburn and Montgomery — and it was a very emotional one.
“There was one woman where we were crossing the street, going by a gas station… This woman was walking by, and I was intrigued by her,” Cash said.
The last photo on this woman’s phone happened to be a blurry photo she had saved of her mother, pictured below, who committed suicide by setting herself on fire.
“Look after your mom and your daddy,” the woman says in the film. “You know, I know you got your life to live, but then again, keep on checking on them. Don’t just throw them away. Because you know what? There can be a lot of people around, and you still can be lonely. But you know, God don’t make no mistakes. So what happened, happened.”
Some of the memorable moments are funny as well. Cash said he’s become friends with one guy who oozes character in the film in New York. The man, who has a heavy Brooklyn accent, spews obscenities as he shows a photo of himself at the spa holding cucumber water (photo below).
“I’m over there with the cucumber water and all that [expletive]. You know what I’m saying? You gotta live your life on the weekend. [Expletive] steak and shrimp on the weekends, you know what I’m saying,” the man said in the video.
In Miami, the city’s party vibe was on full display. People had pictures of alcohol, partying, and were showing off their bodies and their bathing suits.
But then Cash ran into one man whose hobby was a little different — incubating quails. “Then without asking me to, he starts to impersonate the quails’ mating call,” Cash said.
Cash shot other videos in Chicago, Detroit, London and Los Angeles. His videos have spawned other projects, with people repeating his concept in their home cities in Slovenia, Brazil, Argentina, Germany, Korea, Netherlands and France.
Cash said the videos capture something unique about all the cities — the very different characters of each city are on display. But they also capture the universality of our interests. “Every city has photos of pets, or food, or children. Everywhere I go that’s the case.… And I think there’s a uniqueness to every city, too,” Cash said.
Cash said the project explores one irony of using a mobile phone in public: They connect people while simultaneously dividing them. “When someone is using their phone, they’re connecting with another person. But by being on our phones, we get shut off from the people around us,” he said.
The project has taught Cash to take more changes and talk to strangers. "The interactions have been rewarding enough to encourage me not to be shy about talking to the person next to me, if I’m so inclined, without the fear of rejection. The fear of rejection prevents a lot of things in life,” he said.
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