Ghosts and Floating Orbs

Visualizing geotagged photos through long-exposure photography

Brendan Seibel


Digital fingerprints are left on everything we touch. Every credit card transaction and bank withdrawal. Each movie streamed and song played. It’s all quantifiable to market research groups and advertising agencies. Each step taken is logged by a mobile device. We have become data.

Schwäbisch Gmünd town center, in front of the library

This world of passive, ubiquitous surveillance intrigued Philipp Schmitt, an Interaction Design student in Germany. For class he designed a method of visualizing publicly available information using photography instead of Powerpoint.

“I’m proud of having completed a project that doesn’t look like most data visualization projects,” says Schmitt. “I didn’t make an infographic poster with bar charts, graphs and a map with markers on it, but situated the data right in the place of its origin.”

Schmitt lives in Schwäbisch Gmünd, a picturesque town outside Stuttgart, across the street from the gothic church, Minister of the Holy Cross. Watching tourists snap photos of a fountain in the square, he was struck by the compulsive nature of travel photography.

“They don’t put their companions in the frame, they’re not capturing memories from their trip together,” he says. “They just photograph the same object over and over again. I started to wonder how often the same picture had been taken at that place before, so I began looking for geotagged imagery and found a whole lot of it.”

Pulling images from social photography sites like Flickr and Panoramio, Schmitt began to build a map. Instead of attractions being highlighted he pinpointed the exact spots where people stood as they snapped pictures. Using this data he set about visualizing traces of everyone who had stopped, shot the monument, and then disappeared.

Schmitt hacked together an iPhone app which kept track of location data from other people’s photos and was programmed to emit a sound pulse whenever it hit those coordinates. At night he set his Leica M8 for long exposures and walked through the frame, pulses from the phone triggering an off-camera flash.

With long exposures in low light, if you move quickly enough the camera can’t see you. But a bright flash immediately imprints itself in the image, either alone or illuminating whatever it’s been pointed at. In the end all that remains are ghosts and floating orbs, the memories of shooters seeking memories of their own.

“The biggest problem was interference from street lights,” Schmitt says. “I usually set the exposure for one to three minutes while I walked around with my light painting device. When the street lights fully expose an area of the sensor during that time, you won’t get any image out of it. Countermeasures like HDR would have made the process lose its elegance.”

Left: In front of St. Johannes; Right: A roundabout near old town

Schmitt dismisses the idea that his light painting is art or that his phone programming is science. This is a combination of the two, a design project, the foundation of his work creating new ways for people and technology to intertwine.

“All too often Interaction Design is equated to web design and making iPhone apps,” he says. “But it’s so much more than that. We’re interacting with computers 24/7, often unknowingly, and with the Internet of Things even your vacuum cleaner will have a powerful computer inside. I don’t believe in a future world full of ubiquitous touchscreens. That’s why I’ve become increasingly interested in designing interactions off screen.”

In front of the Minister of the Holy Cross

How all of our data is, will be and should be used remains in flux. Schmitt is curious whether people are aware that every picture posted to Facebook and Instagram acts as a calling card of where you are. He’s working on a provocative follow-up involving a “Totalitarian Camera.” Visualizing how our spending habits and daily routines can be used to create new devices to streamline our lives, and how those devices will work, is a little more obtuse of an undertaking.

“I have to explain what I’m studying all the time,” says Schmitt. “But do I have a solid understanding of how the work of molecular physicists applies to our lives? No.”

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All photos courtesy of Philipp Schmitt



Brendan Seibel

Interested in the interesting. Been at @Timeline_Now, @wired, @medium, @motherboard, elsewhere.