André Hermann, a 38-year-old photography instructor at San Francisco’s Academy of Art University, has a rather interesting pastime: After creating 20 photography booklets filled with street images taken from his iPhone, he hides them all over the city, posting a clue to his blog each time. Why? To get people outside, of course, and to have them experience something new in their own home turf. With over 100,000 followers on Instagram and a huge fan base that covers several continents, the project has evolved into something much bigger, something that Hermann plans on expanding. We sat down to talk with him about how this project came about and where he sees it going in the future.
Q: So did you do this project to get to know the city more?
A: I actually know San Francisco really well. I made it my mission to walk all around. It’s finding the pulse of the city, finding its beat. You connect to it as a photographer and you find places that are overlooked, places that are new and or that you knew of already and had passed it, without ever exploring it. It’s street photography. I like watching people and look for things that catch my eye: similarities, contrast, contradictions. Thing like these moments that are overlooked because we’re too busy with our noses buried in our phones.
Q: How did you come up with the idea to create these books and hide them? What’s the purpose?
A: I was starting to notice something: What happens to these images once they’re taken? No one prints them anymore, only emails them. Nothing physical ever comes from them; they never leave the digital realm. And I did this photo exhibit in San Francisco and they told me I could hang my camera phone pictures. So I came up with this idea, where I’m going to make 20 of these books and I’m going to send them on an adventure to get it. I’m going to see how many people are going to get up, get out of their houses, and break from the norm. I’m trying to redefine how people interact with their public spaces.
Q: Where did you determine where to hide the books? What factors play into the decision?
A: That’s the challenging part. During my lunch break, I’d be like, “I have an hour to hide this book.” It can’t be too difficult to find, but it has to be new or have something to look at that’s visually appealing—like graffiti or a view. Two, it has to be where the general public can’t find it or stumble upon it. I’m also paranoid that people are watching me, so I had to get creative with how I hid the book. I took a SF Weekly—that’s a weekly newspaper here—and I would stash it in the paper.
Q: What’s the response been?
A: When it first started, I had people from many different states saying, “You have to do this in Texas,” or, “You have to do this in Maine,” or Florida, you name it. Once I had someone say, “Can you come to Australia?” They also ask, “Can I buy this book?” and I say no. It’s limited, it’s not for sale. Another book might be produced that will be available someday, but I want this to be something that is special because it’s rare, because I created it for you. Once you find it, it’s almost like a trophy: It’s engraved with a memory, a book of stories surrounded in stories.
The woman from Book 17, the one who couldn’t find it in the Mission District, said thank you and was like, “I went to this new place and talked to people I would have never talked to and did things I would’ve not experienced otherwise.” Even though she didn’t find it, she discovered something new. And I said, “That’s the whole point.”
Q: So what’s your new favorite place in San Francisco as a result of this project?
A: Well, I discovered something new in a place I have a love affair with, if that counts. It’s in Chinatown, in the middle of it are all these alleys. I decided to walk up this alley when I was walking around—I had never gone up one before—and there were all these windows and doors, all apartments. I decided to sit there for a bit, it was completely still and completely silent. And then 15 or 20 minutes later, it suddenly came to life and there were all these old Chinese people coming in and out. It was amazing. I hid one there and the woman who found it emailed me saying, “I would’ve never have thought to explore any of these alleys before.” I had told her to sit and wait like I did and she thought it was really cool too.
Q: What are your plans for New York City in August?
A: I’m going to hide 20 in a marathon session—one week. That’s like four a day. I’m flying to New York specifically to hide these books.
Q: Do you have any plans to continue this after the initial 20 books are hidden?
A: Right now, I’m in the middle of a Kickstarter project, so I can take the book project around the country. I’m still fashioning it, but I plan on having people tell me where to visit and maybe where to hide them.
Guestblogger Kirsten Stamn is a New York City-based writer and regular contributor to TravelandLeisure.com.