Jeff Mermelstein is a distinguished photographer with decades of experience documenting the streets of NYC as well as teaching at ICP. Some of his recent work on Instagram, however, has been attracting attention for its daring point of view; it seems Mr. Mermelstein has been been spending some part of his days peeking others’ cell phone screens, sneakily photographing these bits of reflective glass while in use.

“a compelling insight into human nature”

The “overheard” text-based sentiments range from the risque—”She likes ruff sex”—to the confessional—”I miss you”—to the just plain weird—”reminder to make mega thread nobody will read explaining Peircean semiotics.” Others display not messages but recreational activities: Grey’s Anatomy, an article, Instagram.

Scrolling back on Mr. Mermelstein’s feed, the first such image appears to be from last October, explaining the variety. That image, meanwhile, was of a hand with bright red nail polish Googling something we can not see, while the search engine offers that perhaps they are looking for “died and left no will.”

“leave them feeling cheated, anxious, and uncomfortable”

The series has garnered enough attention that Business Insider even decided to run a story on it, calling the series “a compelling insight into human nature.”

On PetaPixel, meanwhile, an opinion article published by a fellow street photographer appears to chide Mermelstein for his invasive practices. “I’m sure if one of the subjects were to see [their messages on Mermelstein’s feed] it would leave them feeling cheated, anxious, and uncomfortable.” He concludes by comparing screen-peeking with Facebook’s massive misuse of user data, saying that if we “blast the likes of Facebook for spying on us,” while commending Mermelstein’s work, “are we not just making ourselves part of the problem?”

“This is photography as a contact sport”

That Mr. Mermelstein would be the one to break down the fourth wall on photographing other people’s screens (and let’s not pretend that we haven’t all, at one point or another, taken a peek at another’s private messages whilst riding the subway or waiting for the bus) shouldn’t come as much of a surprise. In a blog post from January, the Cleveland Museum of Art’s Curator of Photography, Barbara Tannenbaum wrote that despite “never want[ing] to see another street photograph,” she found herself enchanted by Mermelstein’s somehow-still-surprising images. The reason? While the distance and shortness of encounter between a street photographer and their subject typically removes the photographer from harm and/or intimacy, she says, it is “Not so in Mermelstein’s daring photographs.”

“This is photography,” she says, referring to Mermelstein’s work, “as a contact sport.”


Feature Image Courtesy rawpixel