When Reineke Otten visits a new city, it feels a bit like looking at Richard Scarry‘s children’s books, their pages crammed with the minutiae of daily life. As a “streetologist,” her job is to scrutinize the often mundane details of places like Paris or Shanghai, photographing dozens of window shades, doorbells, and flea market stalls until she’s put together a revealing portrait of the local culture. Though most of Otten’s clients pay her for her sleuthing skills, her new website Urban Daily Life offers the rest of us a glimpse into what it’s like to see the world through a magnifying glass. “The website is a way for me to come out of the closet with my obsession,” she says.
It’s also a way for her to demonstrate how what she does is different from your run-of-the-mill sociologist or urban planner. Having trained as a designer, Otten’s able to not only gather and analyze information, but also to present it in a visual way that’s both striking and easy to understand — it’s one thing to write reports about the realities of impoverished workers in Dubai, but quite another to document the ads they leave in supermarkets seeking strangers to share their beds. “Sociologists think in bigger patterns,” the Rotterdam native explains. “They see people as herds and study how those herds react to each other in a city. They’re not focused on the visual details of what that interaction really looks like.”
While Otten has taken sociology classes at her local university in Rotterdam, it’s having studied at the Design Academy Eindhoven — where her thesis project, undertaken shortly after 9/11, profiled the changing racial makeup of countries by way of gorgeous skin-colored pixel grids — that most informs her practice now. (Not to mention Scarry, whose books she’s loved since she was two, plus a childhood habit of categorizing things that led her to buy dozens of colored nail polishes just so she could line them all up in a gradient.) Since she graduated in 2002, Otten’s done streetology for architecture firms including Greece’s Point Supreme, which hired her to investigate a local Athens neighborhood “with new eyes” before it began a residential project there, and Rem Koolhaas’s research arm AMO, after Dubai’s government asked the firm to visualize the city’s future for a 2008 exhibition. She was once hired to go around photographing and interviewing unsuspecting picnickers for a Dutch cooler company, as a kind of in-situ guerilla focus group. And at the moment she’s working on a project sponsored by the Dutch government, for which she, a documentarian, and a designer are developing an experimental tool that could process crime scene data in a visual way, allowing police to see connections they might miss amidst a huge stack of paperwork.
But no matter what she’s doing professionally or where she travels to do it, she’s always taking pictures, either for Urban Daily Life or for its sartorial offshoot, Uniformals. We asked her to dissect some of the photos from Urban Daily Life for Sight Unseen, explaining how she got the shots and what they told her about the people whose lives she was peering into.
It started with a dead hamster. In the late ’90s, Dutch photographer Danielle Van Ark was living in Rotterdam, reacquainting herself with the charms of the grain-eating, wheel-chasing starter pet. Her hamster expired right around the time the Beastie Boys were coming out with a single called "Intergalactic". “The cover of that single was basically a giant hamster attacking humanity, and it inspired me to have my hamster stuffed,” Van Ark says. “I found someone in a village near Rotterdam who does it, and I loved the place instantly.”
Francesca Gavin is a London-based writer, editor, and blogger, and, like you and me, she’s a major voyeur. For her book Creative Space: Urban Homes of Artists and Innovators, she traveled the world, slipping inside the studios, apartments, and houses of designers, artists, photographers, stylists, curators, writers, and filmmakers to document the chaotic interiors she found there.
Atelier NL’s Nadine Sterk and Lonny van Ryswyck keep a studio in the airy loft of a ’70s-style church in Eindhoven. They live there, too, but you wouldn’t exactly say that’s where they work. More often than not, the designers can be found doing fieldwork, whether that means scouring the area’s secondhand shops for mechanical knickknacks to inspire their more analog designs — like van Ryswyck’s hand-cranked radio — or digging up clay in the Noordoostpolder, an area of reclaimed farmland north of Amsterdam that until the 1940s was submerged under a shallow inlet of the North Sea.