- The Washington Times - Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Next time you step into a taxi or sit down in a restaurant, take a good look around. You might stumble across a digital memory card - not lost or stolen, but left there deliberately for you to find.

Don’t worry; this isn’t international espionage or a drug drop gone awry. It’s a piece of Renaud Dehareng’s latest online creation, a global art project and scavenger hunt called PhotoChaining.

The rules, should you wish to join in, are simple: Take some photos with an inexpensive memory card, then place the card in a clear plastic sandwich bag. Include a note identifying the card (give it a one-word name) and ask the person who finds it to upload one image to PhotoChaining.com.

Once that’s done, the person who found the card begins the process anew, keeping the card’s name but filling it with fresh images to be found by yet another stranger.

“My hope is to make the project universal,” says Mr. Dehareng, 33, via e-mail from his home in Brussels. His goals, he says, are “fun, culture and especially promotion of creativity.”

So far, the project is small. In the months since the site was launched, images from 24 cards have been uploaded. They’ve popped up in European and U.S. cities, and three cards (named Ben, Franz and Lola) have been used twice.

Others may have been dropped and not yet found or perhaps were pocketed by someone more interested in a free memory card than a global game of lost and found.

“It’s nice to know that the same memory card could take a photo of Central Park one day,” Mr. Dehareng says, “and five days later a photo of the opera in Sydney,” Australia.

But will any of the cards get to make that trip? Or will PhotoChaining get lost in the overcrowded marketplace that is the Internet?

At the well-trafficked sites bookcrossing.com and wheresgeorge.com, you can follow the progress of a book or a dollar bill that was once in your possession. PhotoChaining ups the ante by making things more personal. The object that’s floating out there, after all, is your own photography.

That may be enough to draw a healthy audience of those who seek “anonymous intimacy,” says Jeff Ferrell, professor of sociology at Texas Christian University.

“There’s this fascinating tension between people seeking a kind of intimate connection and yet often doing it in a way that preserves that anonymity,” Mr. Ferrell says. “You enjoy and savor an intimate sense of another person and yet also savor the fact that there’s a certain buffer between you and them.”

In our real lives, “we all want to be intimate. But we’re not always in a situation where we can be,” says blogger Romi Lassally. She’s the creator of TrueMomConfessions.com, where women anonymously open up about their worst parenting and marital sins or just let loose with complaints or comments they never would share face to face.

The sad fact, she says, is that “someone is more apt to pick up a memory card with a name on it in a cab than talk to their cab driver.”

Mr. Dehareng has launched two similar viral projects in recent weeks, hoping to create a critical mass. One is MessageinaMemoryCard.blogspot.com, which works just like PhotoChaining but specifies that the images found on the memory card should be photos of written messages.

The other is Namelessletter.com, which asks people to slip bookmarks into their favorite books at libraries worldwide. Nearly 50 have been logged thus far. (In a charming bit of familial cross-promotion, the Namelessletter site includes a link to a page of oil paintings by Mr. Dehareng’s brother Marc, who helps run all three sites.)

“Photography is a wonderful hobby,” Mr. Dehareng writes. “If it can become a game too … well, why not?”

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