Have you noticed a disposable camera tied to a random park bench or light post around the city? This is what you should do with it.
It’s February 2013. Mark Serrano walks through a snow-covered High Park and stops at the first bench he sees. He pulls out a disposable camera enclosed in a Ziploc bag, along with a poster, and ties them both to the bench with a string. He walks away, almost certain this would be the last time he’d lay eyes on that camera.
But four days later, Serrano returns with his friend Michaelangelo Yambao and, to their shock, the camera is not only still there, but its film was all used up. “Well,” Serrano grinned to Yambao. “Faith in humanity restored.” It was the first of many such sociological experiments to come.
Serrano and Yambao created the Disposable Camera Project (DCP) along with their Vancouver-based friends Nick Hill and Paul Nuestro to involve everyday people in capturing moments of the city that would normally go unnoticed. Here in Toronto, Serrano and Yambao leave the cameras in different parts of the city along with a poster—simply stating, “Take the Camera. Snap a Picture. Put it Back. Toronto by Toronto”—in hopes that curiosity-seekers will take part in capturing their surroundings, be it the bustling Yonge-Dundas Square, or the serene High Park. The same goes for Hill and Nuestro in Vancouver, and a growing network of partners that’s since spread across the world.
The impetus for the project came when the founding quartet were brainstorming ideas for an interactive art initiative that could involve random passersby. “What we thought of is disposable cameras,” Serrano says. “They’re cheap and you can leave them outside. So with that, the idea kind of grew.”
DCP debuted as a mere installation in the Toronto Urban Photography Festival earlier this year. Since then, DCP—which formally launched last July—has expanded into an international street-photography phenomenon in cities including Vancouver, Montréal, Amsterdam, Auckland, Los Angeles, Jakarta, Tokyo, and Brooklyn.
According to Serrano, DCP coaxes out the latent creativity in people. “We had people taking pictures of their dogs, their babies,” Serrano says. “This one guy took off his boots and stepped in the snow and took a picture.” Sometimes, however, Torontonians just take selfies—though Serrano doesn’t mind. “We get to see the different faces of Toronto,” he reasons. “It’s better than seeing 10 pictures of the CN Tower.”
Selecting an ideal location for the camera bait can be tricky. Serrano has gone from waiting four days for people to finish a film roll to as quickly as two hours, depending on foot traffic. As such, the local DCP crew tend to leave their cameras in places that many Torontonians frequent, or one that boasts a particularly nice view. However, in the latter case, the results can easily turn monotonous when people take pictures of the same object or view from similar angles. “People think, ‘Oh it’s a nice view,’ and they think no one took a picture of this yet,” Serrano says. “But just be creative. Take a picture and have fun with it, take anything you want.”
Sometimes, the pictures turn out too dark, and in rare instances they come out overexposed, but most of the resultant photos are clear and polarized, with a certain vintage hue familiar to Instagram users. But in all cases, the photos are spontaneous, unfiltered, and raw. “[An ideal picture] is one that doesn’t say much, but at the same time it does,” Serrano says. “Like a father-and-son moment.”
Around one in 10 cameras left on the streets is stolen or ruined, but Serrano accepts, and even welcomes, such inevitabilities. Take for instance, a camera in Vancouver that somehow—presumably during a drunken stupor — got soaked in wine. It could have been a write-off, but the pictures came out with an alluringly artsy purple tint, and random violet blotches here and there. For Serrano and friends, it’s this very sense of uncertainty that’s made the Disposable Camera Project a permanent fixture.
Click through the gallery at the top of this page for a look at photos from the Disposable Camera Project.