Spain in a glass
Join Australian-born photojournalists John Cokley and Pip Hanrick on their adventures in Spain, Portugal, Denmark and Singapore. Including "A Mapas of Tapas" and "Foot Photos on the Run" (March 29), and others already published.
As Spain struggles with coronavirus, we remember our travels there one year ago ...
The tiniest patch of Spain on a foggy, rainy day high in the mountains north of Barcelona in April becomes part of an artwork in a new craze that’s taking off among travellers: foot photos.
We were at the Benedictine abbey of Santa Maria de Montserrat, waiting on the forecourt of the medieval cathedral, glistening with water, while the resident monks finished their mid-morning worship.
Umbrella aloft and head bowed against the dripping rain, I noticed I was standing on the large round black dot in the pavers which recalls the spot centuries before where an image of the Christian Virgin Mary was found by villagers.
So, reaching into a pocket of my jeans, I pulled out my iPhone, held it in one hand pointed downwards at my feet … and snapped. Runners, wet-slick pavers, some jeans and the shadow of an umbrella all superimposed on the historic black circle of the Madonna: that’s all the image shows.
But when displayed as part of the growing sequence of “foot photos” we had been collecting during our European wanderings, it was another link in a wonderous chain.
Foot photos in Madrid, Santiago de Compostela, Valencia and Copenhagen … and we were not alone. Around the world, other travellers were taking to photographing their feet and what lies beneath as a new way of saying “I was there”.
German researchers Alexandra Schneider and Wanda Strauven (in 2018) described these as “foot selfies” and have traced them to 2015 when two baby girls (aged 17 months and two years) in different countries played with their mothers’ smartphones.
Both – apparently accidentally – took photos of their feet. Schneider and Strauven also write about an emerging fad of celebrity women photographing their feet “showing new nail polish, marks of tight high heels in the flesh of the naked foot, to name just a few”.
What’s in common among these? The framing of the photo clearly shows “the foot on the picture clearly belongs to the body of the person who has taken the picture”, write Schneider and Strauven.
They also suggest that this practice is “probably due to the current ubiquity of smartphones”, something which was not a thing less than a decade ago.
Even the word “selfie” is new, and they point out that the Oxford English Dictionary only began listing it in 2014. The dictionary also notes that the word “selfie” seems to have originated in Australia as recently as September 2002, a whole new twist on the notion of “Down Under”.
One globe-trotting Australian photographer Louise (Lou) Gilbert started her foot photo collection in 2011 as part of what she calls “a 365 photo project”.
“It’s a good way to establish a daily practice,” she said. “I posted every shot to Facebook.
“Shot 2/365 was my first foot photo. I was on a pedestrian crossing and wearing red shoes. I liked the graphic look.
“During that year-long project, whenever I had forgotten to take my daily pic or saw an interesting collection of colour and pattern on and at my feet, I would grab what I now refer to as a ‘footie’. It’s my version of a selfie.”
Gilbert said airports provided particularly interesting floor patterns which coordinated well with her shoes.
“I had not seen anyone else do it, though I’m sure someone must have. I was new to photography, travelling often and it was one fun way to document my travels which I’ve continued to do to this day.”
Polar photographer and Arctic travel guide Earle Bridger says he has seen plenty of examples of the genre.
“I have produced my own collection also,” he said.
“I shot similar images in the Arctic two years ago showing my boots against a variety of textured and coloured surfaces.”
Glasgow-born photographer James McEwan has a variation on the theme.
“I have a photographer colleague who takes pictures of various locations from helicopters through his feet.
“I do the same (without the helicopters) I have just had an exhibition called Underfoot.
McEwan puts it down to the photographer saying: “I was there.”
Not everyone’s a fan. Australian photographer David Kapernick admits: “I don't do it (and) never had a client ask for it.
“I think it’s kind-of interesting, however it doesn't excite me.
“I’m sure some people will appreciate it; we all like different things.
“I’m not one to criticise people’s ideas or work. As long as they are enjoying what they do I’m happy for them.”
Former newspaper photographer Sharyn Rosewarne says she’s never heard of the term “foot photos” but quips: “although I must say I’m not surprised!
“I was expecting the feet to be bare … probably a bit more interesting.”
Television journalist Caitlyn Gribbin sometimes uses foot photos to accompany her reports for the Australian Broadcasting Corporation ABC News bulletins and website.
“As a journalist, I’m always looking for different angles and ways to tell a story, whether it be through pictures or words,” Gribbin said.
“I try to take our audience with us on the journey, which is why I shared some so-called ‘foot photos’ during a week of special drought coverage for ABC News.
“In the central west of (the state of) New South Wales, I wanted to illustrate the dry, cracked landscape and personalised this by including my favourite pair of boots in the shot.
“In Guyra, in northern New South Wales, we awoke to a very cold and frosty morning. Again, photographing my boots on the frost made the picture just that bit more interesting and a point of difference to other photos taken that day.
“I’m certainly not an expert in the ‘foot photo’ fad, but I think I might prefer it to a selfie!”
There is even a Facebook site, Foot Photos (https://www.facebook.com/FootPhotos/) founded in 2012.
Lou Gilbert has published a book of her foot photos called Patterns of Place and sells it online here: https://www.lougilbertphotography.com/work#/patterns-of-place/.
Schneider, Alexandra, and Wanda Strauven. "The Kid Selfie as Self-Inscription: Reinventing an Emerging Media Practice." In Exploring the Selfie: Historical, Theoretical, and Analytical Approaches to Digital Self-Photography, edited by Julia Eckel, Jens Ruchatz and Sabine Wirth, 327-50. Cham: Springer International Publishing, 2018.
Australian-born photojournalists John Cokley and Pip Hanrick toured Spain, Portugal, Denmark and Singapore and some of their collected notes, advice, new stories and original images will appear here, our Shop Your Way to Success brand and in other travel publications (see links as they're published). Contact John and Pip by email through their publisher, Small Batch Books.