Washington Heights photographer Mike Fitelson is taking Facebook status updates and instant photo sharing and turning them upside down.
That is, he is taking the process of sharing thoughts and photos online and slowing it down and simplifying it dramatically — and bringing the whole thing off line. It’s part of a year-long project he is unveiling tomorrow at a street festival in his neighborhood.
The effort began last June at the Carnaval del Boulevard festival uptown. Fitelson, previously an associate publisher at northern Manhattan’s community newspaper, the Manhattan Times, stopped neighborhood residents passing by, took portrait shots of them, and asked them each a simple question: “What’s on your mind?”
He then had them write their responses on a dry erase board, which they held up in the portrait shots. After two street fairs, he had collected a total of 75 photos with accompanying responses in several languages.
“I was really thinking about Facebook when I was doing this,” Fitelson, 42, told the Voice earlier this week. “So many people consume so many photographs…What’s the value of a photograph when there’s 50 million of them shooting around the internet everyday?…There’s not much depth to it.”
So he decided to wait a full year to reveal these photos and their responses in a project he’s calling “Message Delayed.”
“I wanted to see what sort of a value a single photograph had when it wasn’t shared online,” he said. “It’s really about the anti-instant gratification.”
And he’s been working to get a lot of the subjects of his photographs to actually return to the street festival and see themselves and their messages one full year later. He’s been emailing and calling them and says that he expects at least half to return tomorrow to see their photos printed on 17×26 inch canvases.
“I wanted to see if [a photograph] had the power to bring a person back in a year to see what they looked like,” he said.
Messages ranged from “Thinking big + kicking!!!!” to “I want to get a job, but I am 65 [years] old.”
“I’ve worked for newspapers for a long time. I love being able to report on community events…[but] I still felt I was missing my subject’s voice. You want to make sure you feel like they’re really represented,” he said. “I wanted to give this a shot to see how I felt using this mode of representation…random people giving what they were thinking about, what occupied their mind in a given moment.”
He’s also going to try for a second round of shots tomorrow, of the same or different people, which he will reveal in 2013.
He said he hopes the project represents some part of the neighborhood and communities that make up Washington Heights. “We are very fractured by language and culture and class and basic geography…[but] we really are community-minded and we really do have a sense of living together up here.”
And it’s not quite the same as getting tagged on Facebook, but the folks who show up tomorrow will get something out of it — an 8×10 copy of their photo.
“That’s the gratification,” he said.
The project can be viewed tomorrow (Saturday) at the Carnaval del Boulevard at Saint Nicholas Avenue near 181st Street, from 12pm to 4pm.