Google Street View to the rescue

Illustration by Katy Lemay

Today I roamed the streets of Paris. And Tijuana. And Manila. And Ulaanbaatar. All before lunch.

No, I wasn’t breaking physical-distancing rules or travel restrictions. I was at home, sitting at my desk, on my laptop. I was exploring these cities using Google Street View. Users of Google Maps will be familiar with this feature: It provides users with a 360-degree street-level view of city streets, back alleys and dirt roads around many parts of the globe.

Aegean Islands (Greece) / Aqaba (Jordan) / Manila (Philippines)

With much of the world on lockdown and residents confined within their own borders, many institutions have started to heavily promote “virtual tours” of famous cultural landmarks, museums and heritage sites. Enjoy the artwork in the Louvre! Explore Museum Mile in New York City! Take in the panoramic views of Machu Picchu! All from the comfort of your sofa.

With long-distance holiday plans all but cancelled for the foreseeable future, many of these tours are tempting. But what I will miss the most, besides immersion in cultural and culinary experiences, is the street photography.

Beyond simply its aesthetic appeal, there’s a certain rush I get in the act of photographing the elements that make up urban life: the mixture of people, buildings, signage and infrastructure. Street photography has the unique ability to capture the essence of a place in the briefest of moments: a person’s quick glance, a flurry of activity or a flash of life.

Kyrgyzstan

This is what’s lacking in the virtual tours offered by globally renowned institutions. They are all very well and nice — and they can be educational and entertaining — but they’re also a bit too cliché, a bit too sanitized. If I’m going to take a tour using nothing but my WiFi connection, I’d much rather see something more unique in the “real world”: a roadside market in Senegal; the densely packed Shibuya district of central Tokyo; the souqs of Doha; the mountain villages of Bhutan; my hometown of Saint John; or one of the many small fishing outposts dotting the Greenland coast.

This is why I’ve turned to Street View. While it can still be used to virtually visit famous cultural landmarks such as the Great Pyramids of Giza, I’m much more interested to see what’s happening at the parking lot in its shadow. The Eiffel Tower is nice to look at but photos of the structure itself are a dime a dozen; I’m more curious to see what’s happening at the bus stop around the corner from the icon.

This is where Street View excels. The camera mounted to the top of the Google car (or backpack, scooter, trolley or snowmobile) collects images in increments every few metres. Billions of photos are then stitched together to create a vast visual library of the minutiae of the built environment, capturing the banal and mundane moments of everyday ordinary life.

Paris (France) / Saint John, New Brunswick (Canada)

Street View can be a surrogate for street photography and urban exploration at a time when we are advised to do anything but. But it also raises some unique philosophical questions about ethics and creative freedom for anyone who, like me, uses it as an artistic medium.

Are screenshots captured from Street View and posted to Instagram a gross form of aesthetic consumerism? After all, “to photograph people is to violate them,” claimed the cultural critic Susan Sontag in her 1977 classic On Photography. “It turns people into objects that can be symbolically possessed.” To this end, I wonder how many millions of people have been symbolically possessed by Google’s Street View database.

Am I exercising any sort of creativity or have I simply outsourced much of my creative freedom to an algorithm? Art is always a balance between the tensions of freedom and constraint. With Street View I have ultimate freedom in that I can visit almost any street on Earth. But I am limited to what Google’s cameras have already captured — for example, I cannot achieve better lighting, get a different angle or wait for a more interesting subject to wander into frame. I must work with what I’ve been given. I must use the system’s inherent constraints as a tool for my own unique creative expression.

Tijuana (Mexico) / Saint-Louis (Senegal) / Kampala (Uganda)

In a world of increasing physical and logistical constraints, Street View serves as a digital time capsule, a reminder of public life before the pandemic: Kids walking to school; a traffic jam; a queue for noodles at a street vendor’s cart; construction workers on break; an overflowing trash bin; an elderly woman behind a counter in a small town. (It also seems to reveal some surprising facts, such as how the 1980s Mercedes-Benz S-Class is the most popular car on the roads of Aqaba, Jordan, or how vending machines can be found along every sidewalk in Kyoto, Japan.)

Being on lockdown makes me realize that I miss not only the “good” parts of city life: the vibrancy, energy and social interaction. I also miss being immersed in a world of the mundane, the banal and the ordinary; the normal everyday objects, infrastructure and services that make up a city that many of us take for granted most of the time.

“Today everything exists to end in a photograph,” Sontag observed. While it was meant as a critique of the growing aesthetic consumerism of the 1970s, her criticism still resonates, perhaps even more so today. But from the confines of a small apartment in the middle of a pandemic lockdown, I, for one, am grateful that this is so.

Originally published in The Globe & Mail.

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