This past July, my friend and muse Clara decided we should have an impromptu photoshoot. We stepped out of her Allston apartment into the hot, late afternoon sun, and proceeded to walk around the block. Normally, I wouldn’t consider the outside of a CVS an attractive shooting location, but when I looked over to see Clara sitting in a shopping cart, I thought it too hilarious not to work with.
I don’t know if I was aware of what I was seeing at the time, or if I even liked it, but there was something incredibly fascinating about her flailing limbs, too long to fit inside such cramped quarters, trailing cigarette in hand. It felt rebellious, off kilter, and unexpected, like the self-titled album cover for some obscure band you happened to catch live one night you were out drinking.
Still, neither of us was particularly proud. It was art created in jest, and still isn’t something I would ever include in my professional portfolio. But something weird happened. The photo wound up getting published in a relatively popular internet magazine (this after a difficult year of having my “real” work constantly rejected). It was spread widely around instagram. And then, slowly, but surely, an ever increasing number of other photographers’ model-in-shopping-cart pictures started appearing on our social media feeds (one obvious example can be found here). Even the December Issue of Teen Vogue features its own version, with models clad in designer clothes. Whether Clara and I are being directly copied in all these cases is up for debate, but what isn’t is the bizarre phenomenon that this has become. Just what is it about a model in a shopping cart that is so appealing?
To be clear here, I’m curious about the popularity of shopping-cart photos, not any actual fondness for riding around in them in real life. Even if you have, from time to time considered rolling down a hill in a stray cart, the vast majority of us haven’t sat in a shopping cart since we were about three years old. For an image this ridiculous to be compelling enough to start a trend, it must be evoking an emotional response that goes beyond our earliest memories of reaching out for a box of Kellogg’s Frosted Flakes while our moms pushed us around. It’s not conscious, mind you. When I took the “original” photograph I was more interested in the colors, shape, and light than anything. But it was clearly something people liked looking at, and that, in at least a few cases, they wanted to copy. I wanted to know why.
The traditional route to take when attacking this question would be to follow in the footsteps of Jean Kilbourne who, through her “Killing Us Softly” series, has spent over thirty years analyzing advertising and fashion images for underlying messages and their overall affect on society as a whole. Since what we expect to see in shopping carts is something we intend to purchase, she would likely argue that replacing canned goods and shampoo with a model would put the concept squarely into the category of images that objectify women. I would be the first to agree, but I would go further since I’ve seen photos of men in shopping carts as well. I would argue that what we’re actually seeing is a visual representation of the commodification of the human being.
It’s not such a huge leap when you consider our newly formed dependence on social media. We are no longer affected by advertisements, we are the advertisements. We’re no longer people, we’re brands. When we share our outfit of the day, photos of our lunch, latest project ideas, and our 140 character deep thinks, we receive feedback whether we want it or not. Likes and hearts are addicting, and you don’t get them when you exist too far outside-the-box. We forsake individuality for more retweets. We unknowingly acquiesce to group think, believing we are becoming better versions of ourselves. Even our politics have been compromised by our craving to stand out and be significant. It’s probably not a coincidence that the same Teen Vogue article featuring girls in shopping carts also contained the quote “I am constantly trying to check my privilege. I sometimes get worried that my feminism is, like, too American.” It’s one small example of what has become a standard holier-than-thou, one-upping of social justice-driven media. Virtue signalling is just another commodity. Oppression is social capital. Say the right thing, no matter how strangely ignorant, and gain followers. Say the wrong thing and risk excommunication. Lena Dunham gains points for having thrown a vegan-dinner party, meanwhile Peter Theil, the openly gay founder of PayPal, is outed as “not gay” by The Advocate because he expressed support for Trump on Twitter. If you’re an artist, you face an even more immediate existential dilemma. A photo of a model in a shopping cart that took under sixty seconds to produce gets more of a reaction than something that took months to conceptualize. Which do you make more of?
For the most part, we do and post what we think others will like. We rebrand when our social circles demand it, not when we want to. Our daily lives have become as much a victim of a consumer focus group as the newest flavor of Skittles. These images of people in shopping carts aren’t incredibly ridiculous at all, they are incredibly relatable. There is a part of us that recognizes that we have, in fact, been branded and sold. These photos, though superficially goofy, speak to us.
And I’d like to think that we don’t really like what they have to say.