Monday, August 31, 2020

GeoGuessr in the Time of Covid-19

What is a street photographer to do when it's been five months since Covid-19 shut things down?
by Laurie Allee

Burbank in The Before Times

Before the pandemic, being a street photographer in the U.S. came with a few negligible risks: sunburn, dirty looks, and the ever-present threat of drivers texting instead of looking at pedestrian crosswalks.  In Los Angeles, occasionally  someone would think you were part of a film shoot second unit and ask what movie you were working on.  (You'd get great shots if you said something like, "I'm not really allowed to talk about it...") But as long as you didn't trespass, get caught in a street fight, try to take pictures of a crime or wander into too many dark alleys, you were usually pretty safe to meander around in public with your camera. 

Covid-19 kind of changed things...  

Anyone with one of the common coronavirus health risk factors knows that contracting the little-understood, errant-behaving virus is a potentially deadly and likely life-altering experience that is best avoided.  
(It's not a selfie if you use a DSLR)

My hat is off to the photojournalists covering first responders, frontline healthcare providers and essential workers.  I salute my colleagues chronicling the historic civil rights protests, marches and rallies.  To my photographer friends out there in everyday life taking pictures of all the people in masks (and especially those taking pictures of the ones refusing to wear them) I appreciate and applaud your work.  

I, however, have spent the last five months off the street.  I've taken far too many self-portraits, and slice-of-life family photos.  Inspired by legendary street photographer Joel Meyerowitz, I am attempting to get the hang of still life photography.  (The metaphor is not lost on me.)  For my birthday in July, my husband surprised me with the megazoom Nikon I'd had my eye on for a few years.  I have spent long, awe-filled summer evenings standing at an open window or in my garden, shooting the craters of the moon, or the squabbling parrots in the camphor tree across the street.  

South Pasadena sky, from my bathtub

I've poured over photography anthologies and I've watched a lot of documentaries about photographers.  I'm grateful to have the privilege of staying safe at home to work, to study, to create, to reflect, to be with my family and to focus inward for a while.  

But I miss capturing ordinary, everyday images on the street. 

I also miss all the ordinary activities on those everyday streets.  So many things have receded into the past: seeing old friends and running up to hug them, laughing riotously with pals over coffee at a crowded cafe, saying "bless you!" to a stranger sneezing in line at the grocery store and not once worrying whether I was going to die.

What I really want is a time machine to take me back to shoot those streets...those beautifully typical, fairly uneventful streets.   I've always  thought of a camera as a little time-snatcher, preserving moments in celluloid amber or a digitized time capsule to be revisited and relived.   Sure, a camera is great for capturing the big, important things -- a flag raised over Iwo Jima, tragic victims of war, an extraterrestrial leap -- but I really love a camera for grabbing the little, unremarkable details of human life  Historic photos impress me, but the faded kodachrome picture of my dad and me at the beach when I was four can move me to tears.
Beach bums, long ago on South Padre Island
I miss the public places where our lives played out in all their inevitable frailty and glory without an ever-present whiff of impending doom.  I miss the streets that led to adventure, comfort and opportunity.  I miss the streets that led to better places and the ones that brought us back home.

Living in a time of so much loss and turmoil makes me miss an ordinary trip to the store.  I would grab a shot of the guy feeding pigeons on the corner, or the kid riding a scooter on the sidewalk.  When I'd get home, I probably wouldn't even wash my hands.

Photography for me has never been solely about art.  It's always been my way to seize as much life as possible, saving it for later, going back to savor details I missed in the rush of things.       

So, a few months ago I started playing GeoGuessr.

For those of you who don't have a kid who watches YouTube gaming channels, GeoGuessr is a popular web-based "geography discovery game" created by Anton WallĂ©n and released in 2013.

Turns out, it's Lithuania.
(Image: Google Street View)
The game utilizes random Google Street View and Mapillary images, requiring players to guess where they are based only on what they see.  One of the most interesting things about Google Street View is the way it makes you feel like you're driving around the location, able to stop and look around, zoom in and out, backtrack and turn around.  It's a lot like taking road trips or Sunday drives, stopping to frame shots in your iPhone or look through your viewfinder.

GeoGuessr takes it to another level by dropping you into a Google Street location, but telling you nothing about where you are.  It's one thing to search "Eiffel Tower" and then look at it in Street View, knowing all along that you chose to go to Paris to look at the landmark.  It's something else to randomly find yourself on a dusty road, approaching desolate farmhouses with spooky storks perched in huge nests atop telephone poles.  Where are you?!

When I go to Zadar someday, I'll be able to find this beach.
(Image: Google Street View)
If you grew up reading science fiction or watching Star Trek, this is one of the coolest things ever.  

While a lot of players try to figure out where they are as soon as possible, I have taken a completely different approach to GeoGuessr.

Given the seemingly magical ability to transport all over the world through my iPhone app, I'm not about to cut my time short in any setting.  In one round, I followed a street sign with an arrow pointed to a place called Zadar.

 I "drove" for almost 20 minutes until I ended up in the Croatian resort town.  Eventually I was able to actually find my way to the beach.

Finland has a thing for red houses.
(Image: Google Street View)
I started sending screenshots to my sister in Texas.  She also downloaded the app, and our phone camera rolls now look like we jetted around the globe for most of the summer.

"I think this is London!" She'd text, with an accompanying photo of a huge ferris wheel.

"Lucky you," I'd text back. "Wherever I am, every single house and barn is painted red!"

Waiting and waiting. 
(Image: Google Street View)

Later, I started editing the screenshots, as if I were going through a regular day's real photos. It became not only a connection to the places I hadn't actually been, but a collaboration with the countless Google Street View photographers who had captured the world.  It became my Covid-19 meditation and my connection to the global community.

Photos always feel a bit voyeuristic, but playing GeoGuessr has an eerie, almost haunted quality.  I can visit tucked away, far off places I will probably never see again.  The 360 degree views are frozen moments, unmarred by passing time or the effects of a global pandemic.  The woman  sitting alone on the side of a forest road in Poland will wait forever.  The garage and tire shop in Mato Verde will never close.

Forever sunny in Brazil
(Image: Google Street View)
Unlike regular photographs -- one frame, finalized -- Google Street images are almost infinite, viewed from multiple directions.  When I am arbitrarily transported to a street, I can zip about like a supersonic being from another dimension.  I can pass, ghostlike, through almost limitless spaces.  It's the next best thing to accessing a time machine while wearing an invisible cloak.  When I play GeoGuessr, I'm back to a world where nobody is wearing a mask, and most people are less than six feet apart.

I can capture many views of all those wonderful, ordinary streets ... entropy paused, unchanging, frozen.

I can shoot another kind of still life.

As fun as it is, there is something achingly poignant about playing GeoGuessr.  With every round of the game, I hope the people in those images are safe in this ongoing crisis.  I hope the shops are still in business and the people at those cafes aren't now hungry.   

GeoGuessr has been reviewed a lot.  It's hailed as everything from "a tool to build observational and social skills" to an "platform for higher order thinking through geography."  Gamers have complained about various upgrades, and there is a lot of grumbling about the free vs. pro versions.  To me, however, it's a virtual gift for grounded street photographers, and a poetic meditation for anyone who misses moving freely about our former world.  Play it for yourself here.  (If you see a bunch of red houses and barns, go ahead and guess Finland.)

Take a look at a compilation of my GeoGuessr travel photos in the video at the top of the post.

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