Strangers Superpost: Follow Your Nose

Yield to my photoshoppery.

Yield to my photoshoppery.

I usually consider myself quite brave when it comes to interacting with strangers. I can strike up a conversation with just about anyone, however, I’ve never been inclined to follow a complete stranger in the manner described in detail in this weeks’ reading. The author, Sophie Calle, gives the reader an inside perspective of her many secretive, fascinating exploits through a character she calls Maria—who follows Calle’s own explorations of identity, personality, and privacy.

Initially, the format of her journeys is a bit jarring, because it is written in the same format you’d expect in a personal journal, but filled to the brim with minutiae about her sluething for Henri B, or cataloguing the contents of hotel patrons’ rooms. What sets her stories apart is the addition of photos she has to accompany each entry. Its one thing to see a drawing next to an image in a fiction novel, but quite another to see real photos next to personal diary entries.

The first part of the reading revolved around her fascination with the ever elusive Henri B in Italy. I can’t imagine dropping everything I have going on to follow someone for days that I know next to nothing about, but after reading her account, it sounds fascinating, because she took up multiple personae, drew upon the kindness of strangers, and took risks, just to catch a glimpse into the life of someone that simply caught her attention. Her attention to detail throughout this observation was astonishing. She took the names of everyone, everything, and everywhere she went, and provided amazing photos of it all, which added that third dimension necessary to put yourself in her footsteps. Her Squinter attachment to her Leica camera sounds like something worthy of investment for my own stranger observations, because it allowed her to capture moments that people were in, unobtrusively,without becoming a part of that moment and spoiling it.

Her use of wigs was particularly interesting to me, because she found there was something special about being blonde. She noted the special attention she received for simply donning a different color of tresses for a day, which made me think of what it would be like to be blonde for a day myself. She made it seem very easy to become someone else, if even for a while. I want to be a stripper like her for a day too, she made it sound really exciting, and for her, therapeutic.

When she finally finds the hotel of Henri, and impatiently waits for him to emerge, she says, “I refuse to think about my being in this place. I must not think about it. I mist stop pondering possible outcomes, wondering where this story is leading me. I will follow it to the end.” That self realization of hers makes the whole story come together, because you realize why she has gone to such great lengths to observe undetected and compile her findings extensively. In my own head, I said, “She isn’t mad, just a bit caught up in the moment–indefinitely,” then continued reading her story.

She later remarked that she was afraid of actually meeting up with Henri B because she feared the encounter would be “commonplace” and it would spoil the story she had imagined up of him would never live up to his reality. She did not want his reality to taint the fanciful story she had dreamed up of him. I found this to be interesting, and I think that I should try and come up with stories for some of the people that I photograph. Wait, I do that already.

When she followed him on his own photographic travels through the city, I noticed she said that she tried to take the same photos as him. Personally, I don’t like the idea of that as a photographer. Like a piece of literature, each photo has its own focal piece, but that is different for each photographer, and each viewer. She would never capture the same instant, angles, action, as him. His moments are his own, she just happens to watch them happen, and thinks because of them, they are hers as well. On page 103, she refers to the walk she takes behind Henri B and his woman, as “our journey,” signifying her shift from remaining objective in his life to shifting towards attachment and wanting to become a part of his experiences.

When she finally did cross paths with him, and spend time with him, she seemed to be at a loss as to how to react appropriately when caught. She probably had a million questions for him. Surely, her flood of details of his life would have disturbed him, yet he remained cool even after realizing she must have been watching for a while. Once she gave in to her desire to be a part of his experiences and became careless enough to get caught, she was not the unconscious victim of his game, but rather her own where she gave the reigns of her paths to him at the beginning. This led to a rather abrupt and uneventful end of her story of Henri B. I wanted her to cross paths with him just one more time after her last photo of him getting off the train in Paris, and I know she wanted that too, even though her objectivity was spoiled.

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The second part of her writings were far less interesting to me than her story of following Henri B. Aspects of her time as a hotel cleaning woman interested me, but there was not any one focus of her attention as there was before, so it was a bit disappointing in that regard. On the bright side, her photos of the guests’ belongings were quite entertaining. The photos of each bed were a bit much, but the ones of the odd toiletries, sex toys, and carnival masks were fascinating. I liked that she took the time to arrange them neatly for photos, then replace them. I wondered if anyone noticed things moving around. I also made a mental note to pay special attention to that the next time I stay in a hotel.

Her fascination with the guests when they posted “Do Not Disturb” on their doors was pretty hilarious. She desperately wanted to know what was going on when she was not permitted entry into their lives and their belongings, which was understandable. Her fascination with the quality of clothes, luggage, cameras, and perfume was interesting. I wondered how much work she actually got done when she took down all these details.  The one encounter she had with a male in his room, she wanted him to whisk her away. I thought that was amusing, because since she was good looking, I expected it to happen at some point. People kept asking her for drinks, so I figured why not. Her tasting guests’ drinks and eating their chocolate was a bit much to me, but it was all done in the taste of her observations.

The final part about the chain letter was the most powerful to me, because when I first thought of a chain letter, I thought of getting them in my email box back when I had AOL and a dial up modem, and angrily deleting them en masse. However, when it clicked that the one that was before her was on paper, it took on a different meaning to me, and I don’t know why. Maybe that made it out to be that much more legit, or feasible, but for some reason, maybe I wouldn’t throw out a handwritten chain letter, and I would actually follow directions.

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I do not claim to be not surprised by things usually, but I was caught quite off guard with my latest stranger interaction this week. I was headed to 34th street to meet a new friend of mine for a late night snack at a diner we like at around 1:30 am on Sunday. Yes, I am a fat kid at heart, and I will go eat then. No, I do not feel remorse.

Anyways, I went to the  Jay Street/Borough Hall station to catch the next F train. When I got there, the train was already there, stationary, but it was flapping its doors open and closed wildly. Because of service on the line between there and Utica, Jay St. was the last stop, so it was preparing to go back uptown now. I hopped into the last car and noticed I was the only other person in there, besides a plain looking blonde guy sitting across from me. He looked nervous when I asked to make sure the train was going uptown now. He scooted closer to a blue duffel bag that was beside him. I eased back into my seat and kind of zoned out for a minute since I was tired.

I watched the boy look around some more nervously. He was no older than 25, about my height, and fairly clean cut. Nice shoes. Blue eyes. He spoke.

“Hey, man, do you mind if I take a bump?”

I looked up, a bit puzzled at his question, thinking he said something about a blunt. I wondered why he would wanna smoke some weed on the train, but said, “Sure, knock yourself out.” He replied, “Thanks man, I am going to a party, and I need to get loose, but I don’t wanna get caught by someone on here. Thought I was gonna be the only one on here, but yeah…” Then he looked at me, then the floor. I wasn’t exactly sure what expression I had on my face, but out of habit, I just put in my headphones and turned on some music and pretended to listen.

The boy then pulled out his wallet, and two dollar bills. I was puzzled, expecting him to pull out some weed and roll a blunt or something. However, that was not the case. He laid one dollar bill flat across his seat, and started rolling another up tightly. Immediately, I knew what was going on. Wow, I am slow. He said bump, not blunt. Intrigued, I kept my eyes on his odd ritual, and tried to pretend to rock my head some to music. He pulled out a small container from his sock, and then poured the white contents on the flat dollar, and proceeded to snort it up with the other rolled dollar in hand. For some reason, I really wanted to take a photo of what was going on at the time, simply because it was so alien to me, aside from seeing it in movies. I take photos of bums and street performers all the time, why not coke heads? I resisted my urge to take a photo, because I was not sure how he would react.

When he was finished doing his line, he sat back, closed his eyes, and slowed his breathing. He looked across and smiled an odd smile at me, and then zoned out at the window behind me. I was wondering what was going through his mind at that moment. Just what kind of party was he going to? He was not a bad looking guy, so I could not figure out the need for him to do some hardcore drugs in preparation for a party,  even if it was probably a sex party.

When we got to Broadway-Nassau, he bid me goodbye and flew out the door. A flamboyant gay boy and his female friend entered and sat a few seats beside me. They were noisy and I wondered where the boy went. As soon as I thought of him, he came back just as the door started to close. He was caught in the door. We all looked confused, and he forced his way in. The other two ignored him, but he came back to sit across from me. He asked if he was close to Grand Central. I said no, and that he should take the F up to 42 and then take the shuttle if its still running, or otherwise walk from there. He thanked me and sat back down. The other two riders eyed him suspiciously, then went back to cackling.

When my stop came, I reminded the boy to get off at the next stop, and to be safe. He smiled and nodded at me, and I was off the train. I took a moment to absorb everything that went on. I thought I was crazy for worrying about a complete stranger like that. Should I have been like Reagan and just said NO drugs are bad, told him he didn’t need all that foolishness, or should I have ignored him?  Should I have moved cars? All those questions ran through my mind, but at the end of the night I was happy I at least got him on the path to where he wanted to go, whether it was good or bad.

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