By Jessica Churchill
I decided that for one day I would take a picture of every brand that I physically came in contact with. It was like a social experiment—a very poorly conducted one, since I was the control, the experiment, the experimenter, and had no hypothesis. But I did have a conclusion; one that you will only read about here since the Journal of Science rejected my proposal.
What inspired me to do this was a piece of contemporary art I saw at the Museum of Modern Art in New York City. Ashley Bickerton’s Tormented Self-Portrait (Susie at Arles) (1987-88) is an aluminum backpack-like structure decorated with brands the artist uses often. The piece itself is branded, with the artist’s own name plastered on it like a corporate logo. Bickerton said, “What exactly constitutes our notion of individuality? We wake up in the morning and select our individuality from a finite catalogue of readymade possibilities.” Throughout my project I often wondered though, are these brands defining me, or am I defining these brands?
Surprisingly, when I told people about my endeavor, nobody asked, “Why?” They only said, “Oh, what a great idea.” Maybe that’s because all of those people work at a branding agency too. In the case of KHJ’s Creative Director, Adam, I think he just really enjoyed throwing Sweet N’ Low and Swiss Miss packets at me so I’d take pictures of them. (The Swiss Miss I dodged with remarkable accuracy; I was not so lucky with the Sweet N’ Low despite it having considerably less surface area.) Regardless, I was glad nobody asked “why,” because I wouldn’t have had a response yet. That was step two. Pictures now, answers later.
The process of documentation was inconvenient and unnatural. I took my phone everywhere and had to pick just the right effects on Instagram. I looked strange to the FedEx man when he walked in on me taking a picture of the back of my jeans. I had to admit to eating a bag of chocolate-covered pretzels after returning from the gym. I overestimated my intelligence by drenching my phone while photographing the logo on an automatic faucet. Luckily, I actually learned a few things from this project:
- Brands are awkwardly personal. From seeing the brands we use, someone could guess our age, sex, job, income, likes, habits, hobbies, and eating preferences. You now know that I’m a caffeine addict, obsessive note-taker, avid tooth-brusher, and gym hypocrite who doesn’t get enough sun.
- Everything was designed by somebody. Before I began my photojournalism adventure, this point may have seemed obvious to me—as obvious as the fact that an automatic faucet will turn on if a phone is under it—but it really didn’t hit home until I did it. Your computer, chair, clothes, coffee mug, car, house, carpet, lights, SpongeBob toe socks—each is the result of painstaking effort put in by one or many humans over the course of weeks or years.
- Taking a picture of every brand I came in contact with was next to impossible. I decided that a brand could only be photographed once, and only if the logo was in full view. Even still, was I supposed to photograph every door handle once I grabbed it? Every pen or pencil that I wrote with? What about when the office’s cabinet full of miscellaneous tea poured its contents onto my head—was I supposed to photograph every bag? (That says something about the advertising industry, by the way. We require a whole cabinet just for tea.) Nevertheless, I put in an honest effort to record my daily brand intake, and avoided photographing the tag on my underwear. What more do you want?
By focusing my attention on labels and brands, I realized how big of a role companies and advertising play in our everyday lives. Almost everything we touch is a commodity. This may seem saddening, but the point illuminates how hard people have worked to construct the world they live in. Because of this project I now see the physical mark of a brand as I would a signature on a piece of art, a reminder of the piece’s human creator.
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