News / USA

On NY Streets, Life's Drama Silently Unfolds

Inner dialogues captured by a curious anthropologist reveal the theater of life in New York City

New Yorkers walk across the Brooklyn Bridge.
New Yorkers walk across the Brooklyn Bridge.
A man walks across a bridge. He looks unremarkable, maybe even boring. But he’s thinking of the love of his life, the woman who committed suicide some years ago. He’s silently, urgently thinking the only way for him to move on would be to meet someone who has suffered a loss like his.

No one would know, but anthropologist Andrew Irving recorded the man’s thoughts in an ethnographic experiment and video project called New York Stories: The Lives of Other Citizens.

The video series is a kind of meditation on inner dialogues, the conversations that deafen the “rooms in your head” before falling silent on the city’s streets. 

“Within that single street, you pretty much have all that life has to present, from the trivial to the tragic. The street is this amazingly complex place, highly theatrical except we can’t see or hear any of it that’s going on,” said Irving, who works with the University of Manchester.

New York Stories 1: The Lives of Other Citizens: STREETS (for Scientific American) from GCVA Manchester on Vimeo.

The anthropologist became fascinated with inner dialogues in the 1990s, when he was doing his PhD, trying to understand how people’s perceptions of religion, self-image, and spatial relations changed as they approached death.

New York Stories was a side project he didn’t think would amount to much. Taking his cue from Manhattan Transfer, John Dos Passos’ 1925 novel about individual, overlapping stories in New York City, Irving hung out in different spots in New York and asked a question of the people approaching him.

“I’d say, ‘Excuse me, can I ask you a quick question? It might be a strange question, but can I ask what you were thinking before I stopped you?’”

If the person was receptive, he asked if they would carry a live microphone and speak their stream of thoughts into it, while he followed and filmed them from behind. Wherever the person stopped, he would retrieve the microphone and then ask if he could follow another random stranger heading in the same direction.

“I asked very little information from people because I wanted them to have a kind of facelessness,” he said, adding that people were often more candid because they could slip away after their confessions.

New York Stories 2: The Lives of Other Citizens: BRIDGES (for Scientific American) from GCVA Manchester on Vimeo.

Capturing true inner dialogues is impossible.  The closest thing to it are the fictional accounts created by authors like James Joyce and Virginia Woolf, since our experience interacting with the world through thought is different than our interaction with it through words.

“Our bodies have evolved to give attention to the world so that all the sensory organs are on the periphery. So when we’re walking, we’re processing information across 16 or 17 modalities. The most obvious ones are sight, sound. They’re all being processed simultaneously,” Irving said.

“In the time that you just look out the window, to put what you see into language would be an extraordinary amount of time to be anyway close to the detail of every leaf on the tree, every brick opposite the building,” he said.

The linear stream of speech is representative of the senses, mixed with memories, moods and emotions, but it can never fully capture what goes on in our heads.

New York Stories 3: The Lives of Other Citizens: SQUARES (for Scientific American) from GCVA Manchester on Vimeo.

Irving is working with Ricardo Climent, a colleague at the University of Manchester, and Climent’s PhD student, Ignacio Pecino, to share more of the inner dialogues with the world. They’ve applied for a grant to develop a smartphone app with GPS technology that would play the inner dialogues as you cross the path that person walked before.

Some might not like to hear the inner dramas playing out around them, but Irving expects amateur anthropologists will be curious.

“If you’re an anthropologist, you have to study the human in all its guises, in all its different ways of being,” he said. “So you’re going to be present to all that humans have to offer, which can be the spectrum of the most amazingly sublime, wonderful, generous acts to the most dark, tragic, cruel acts. And that’s the planet we live on. Unfortunately.”

New York Stories 4: The Lives of Other Citizens: CAFES (for Scientific American) from GCVA Manchester on Vimeo.

Andrew Irving has asked that we mention support from the Economic and Social Research Council of Britain and New York's Wenner Gren Foundation made his research possible.

You May Like

Obama: Alaskans Feel Signs of Climate Change

They're seeing bigger storm surges as sea ice melts, more wildfires, erosion of glaciers, shorelines More

Katrina Brought Enduring Changes to New Orleans

The city’s recovery is the result of the people and culture the city is famous for, as well as newcomers and start-up industries More

Magical Photo Slides Show Native Americans in Late 1800s

Walter McClintock spent 20 years photographing the Blackfoot Indians and their vanishing culture at the dawn of the modern age More

Featured Videos

Your JavaScript is turned off or you have an old version of Adobe's Flash Player. Get the latest Flash player.
Colombians Flee Venezuela as Border Crisis Escalatesi
X
August 27, 2015 2:08 AM
Hundreds of Colombians have fled Venezuela since last week, amid an escalating border crisis between the two countries. Last week, Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro ordered the closure of a key border crossing after smugglers injured three Venezuelan soldiers and a civilian. The president also ordered the deportation of Colombians who are in Venezuela illegally. Zlatica Hoke reports.
Video

Video Colombians Flee Venezuela as Border Crisis Escalates

Hundreds of Colombians have fled Venezuela since last week, amid an escalating border crisis between the two countries. Last week, Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro ordered the closure of a key border crossing after smugglers injured three Venezuelan soldiers and a civilian. The president also ordered the deportation of Colombians who are in Venezuela illegally. Zlatica Hoke reports.
Video

Video Is China's Economic Data Accurate?

Some investors say China's wild stock market gyrations have been made worse by worries about the reliability of that nation's economic data. And some critics say the reports can mislead investors by painting an unrealistically-strong picture of the economy. A key China scholar says Beijing is not fudging ((manipulating)) the numbers, but that the economy is evolving quickly from smoke-stack industries to services, and the ways of tracking new economic activity are falling behind the change. V
Video

Video Next to Iran, Climate at Forefront of Obama Agenda

President Barack Obama this week announced new initiatives aimed at making it easier for Americans to access renewable energy sources such as solar and wind. Obama is not slowing down when it comes to pushing through climate change measures, an issue he says is the greatest threat to the country’s national security. VOA correspondent Aru Pande has more from the White House.
Video

Video Shipping Containers Provide Experimental Housing

Housing prices around the San Francisco Bay area are out of reach for many people, so some young entrepreneurs, artists and tech industry workers are creating their own houses using converted shipping containers. But as VOA's Mike O’Sullivan reports from Oakland, the effort requires ingenuity and dealing with restrictive local laws.
Video

Video Arctic Draws International Competition for Oil

A new geopolitical “Great Game” is underway in earth’s northernmost region, the Arctic, where Russia has claimed a large area for resource development and President Barack Obama recently approved Shell Oil Company’s test-drilling project in an area under U.S. control. Greg Flakus reports.
Video

Video Philippine Maritime Police: Chinese Fishermen a Threat to Country’s Security

China and the Philippines both claim maritime rights in the South China Sea.  That includes the right to fish in those waters. Jason Strother reports on how the Philippines is catching Chinese nationals it says are illegal poachers. He has the story from Palawan province.
Video

Video Technique May Eliminate Drill-and-Fill Dental Care

Many people dread visiting dentists because they're afraid of drills. Now, however, a technology developed by a British firm promises to eliminate the need for mechanical cleaning of dental cavities by speeding a natural process of tooth repair. VOA’s George Putic reports.
Video

Video China's Spratly Island Building Said to Light Up the Night 'Like A City'

Southeast Asian countries claim China has illegally seized territory in the Spratly islands. It is especially a concern for a Philippine mayor who says Beijing is occupying parts of his municipality. Jason Strother reports from the capital of Palawan province, Puerto Princesa.
Video

Video Ages-old Ice Reveals Secrets of Climate Change

Ice caps don't just exist at the world's poles. There are also tropical ice caps, and the largest sits atop the Peruvian Andes - but it is melting, quickly, and may be gone within the next 20 years. George Putic reports scientists are now rushing to take samples to get at the valuable information about climate change locked in the ice.
Video

Video French Experiment in Integrating Roma Under Threat

Plans to destroy France’s oldest slum have sparked an outcry on the part of its Roma residents. As Lisa Bryant reports from the Paris suburb of La Courneuve, rights groups argue the community is a fledgling experiment on integrating Roma who are often outcasts in many parts of Europe.
Video

Video Kenyans Turn to Agriculture for Business

Each year Kenyan universities continue to churn out graduates for the job market despite the already existing high rate of unemployment among youth in the country. Some of these young men and women have realized that agriculture can be as rewarding as any other business or job, and they are resorting to agribusiness in large numbers as a way of tackling unemployment. Rael Ombuor reports for VOA.
Video

Video First Women Graduate Elite Army Ranger School

Two women are making history for the U.S. Army by proving they are among the toughest of the tough. VOA's Carla Babb reports from Fort Benning, Georgia as 94 men and those two women rise as graduates of the difficult Ranger school.

VOA Blogs