Susan O’Brien wants you to put your phone down already.
“We were brought up with technology, and we rely on technology to find out who people are,” she says. “What happened to talking to people? We’re so used to technology in our lives, we’re used to hiding behind computer screens. I think the etiquette on how to communicate with people is gone.”
Today, people curate who they are and how they’d like to be portrayed with social media, which creates a divide between reality and the ideal. That addiction to media also makes it more difficult to conduct conversations in real life — why talk when you can text?
“We’re so fascinated with how other people live now,” O’Brien says. “Before the technology boom we were always interested, but there was a mystery behind it; it was romantic. Now we have an overabundance of people’s personal lives. We’re losing our sense of reality.”
How do we get that sense of reality back? The Strangers Project (part documentary, part installation art, part psychology project), created by Susan O’Brien, is one way to start.
The concept is simple: approach a stranger on the street and learn about them. Not by looking them up on Facebook or Instagram, but by listening.
“One of our thesis statements for the exhibit is that it’s a romantic idea to connect with strangers,” O’Brien, director and producer of the project, explains. “I’ve always been interested by learning about people. I applied that interest to trying to find random people on the streets, figuring out who they really are, not what they show to the world. What really represents them?”
After meeting them, O’Brien got coffee with each of the five strangers before formally filming and interviewing them. Her questions reach to the stranger’s inner personality – what disappoints you about yourself? What is your relationship with your parents like? What are some of your regrets?
Their answers go beyond the usual topics of conversation and reveal who they truly are. But it’s difficult to be vulnerable enough to share your life, especially if you’re the kind of person that doesn’t broadcast it.
“I was nervous they wouldn’t open up, so we had coffee sessions before filming them,” O’Brien recalls. “This is a huge exercise in trust. I tried to get to the root of their emotion. It became more of a conversation, because you can hear in their voice what’s important to them.”
O’Brien and her production crew of over 35 people, including a cinematographer for each person, then worked on creating videos that would go in the stranger’s personal room. Each room, old jail cells in Habersham Hall, has artifacts that best represent the person, like bikes or alligators, as well as the videos and sound bytes from the interviews. There are six rooms in the exhibit, as O’Brien herself is doing a reflective study.
“When people who know these people go into the rooms, they’ll be like, ‘Oh, that’s definitely her,’” O’Brien says. “It’s an immersive experience. It’s very avant-garde, very experimental.”
In today’s world of wearing headphones on the bus and keeping your head down at the store, saying hello to a stranger seems against all social norms.
“When I told people about the project, how I was just going to walk up to people, they all said, ‘How the heck are you going to do that?’” O’Brien recalls. “It was scary, it was nerve-wracking. But people were very receptive to it, surprisingly so.”
How receptive were they? O’Brien only approached seven people about the project. Five are in the exhibition. The two rejections were only due to scheduling conflicts, O’Brien says.
One woman, who was O’Brien’s inspiration to create the project, ended up having to drop out, but her room remains in the exhibit.
“The first person I met, I was so in love with her, but she had to pull out. I wanted to show that when people come in our of your life, if that connection means something to you, strive to keep in touch,” O’Brien explains. “You need to fight for relationships that you think have potential.”
That’s also a problem O’Brien finds with her social media-obsessed, millennial generation: minimal effort.
“We’re quick to go, ‘Oh, I liked their Facebook photo, so that buys me two more months of not calling them on the phone,’” O’Brien jokes.
But The Strangers Project shows the benefit of putting forth more than just small talk in getting to know someone — a deeper, more meaningful connection, as well as a unique documentary, which comes out in May.
The project is very Savannah-centered, right down to the details: local dealers Arthur Smith Antiques, 67 Antique Mall, The Paris Market, and The Amazing Event Rentals have all rented furniture and other pieces to the rooms, and Foxy Loxy and the Bier Haus will cater the reception on Feb. 26. But for the future, O’Brien would love to expand the project into other cities.
“It has been absolutely amazing feeling the support of everyone. I think it would be so cool to take this idea and apply it to different cities around the country,” O’Brien says, “so if anyone could fund me, that would be awesome.”
Attend The Strangers Project opening reception at Habersham Hall (235 Habersham St.) on Feb. 26 from 7-11pm. The exhibit will remain open until March 1. Gallery hours are from 4-8pm. Click here to see behind-the-scenes photos, videos and more from the project.