The Camera Flash Experiment

Digital Video: Agents Adams, Cacy, Caruth, Joseff, Martin, Savage, Schackman, Shafer, Slocum, Winckler
Digital Photography: Agents Fountain, Nicholson, Scott, Sokoler, Brypace, Clgregor, Eppink, Fawnandfauna, Mirka
Waveleaders: Agents Fountain, Spear, Todd
Mission inspired by: Agents Gee, Taliaferrow
edited byJamey Shafer
song byTyler Walker

For our latest mission, 700 agents lined the length of the Brooklyn Bridge a week before its 125th birthday. In the rain and cold we created a wave of camera flashes across the bridge from Brooklyn to Manhattan. Enjoy the video below and then read on for the report and tons of photos.

We get lots of mission ideas emailed in to the site. Sometimes they’re great, and we end up making them happen. Sometimes they inspire us to think of a new idea along the same lines. In this case, we had two ideas sent to us in one week that seemed to work perfectly together. Agent Taliaferrow suggested that we do “the wave” across the Brooklyn Bridge and Agent Gee suggested that we create a wave of camera flashes on a Manhattan street. We put the two together and The Camera Flash Experiment was born.

We would have agents line the length of the Brooklyn Bridge and then film and photograph the mission from the Manhattan Bridge, about 500 yards to the north. We weren’t sure how the flashes would look from that distance, so a small crew conducted a test run about a month before the mission. Agents Shafer, Adams, and I set up on the Manhattan Bridge pedestrian walkway and shot video of Agents Fountain, Walker, Gallagher, and Sokoler creating camera flashes on the Brooklyn Bridge walkway.

We were impressed with how four flashes looked, and were excited to find out how it would look with hundreds more. Still, capturing the flashes on video was going to be a challenge. They looked much more impressive to the naked eye than they did on the camera’s view screen. Capturing the mission via photography was going to be even more challenging, as our photographers would have to use long exposures to show the wave of light.

The biggest challenge of all in this mission was the weather. As Friday neared, the forecast looked worse and worse. We had over 700 RSVPs for the mission and a few agents had made travel plans. Agent Nicholson, our longtime photographer, had already bought plane ticket to fly back from a trip to Los Angeles to shoot the mission. We decided to move forward rain or shine and hope for the best. The mission should still work in the rain, and it would be a crazy adventure either way.

The crowd gathers

Mission briefing
Despite the awful rain and the unseasonably cold weather, 700 participants showed up at our meeting point ready to go. I explained the mission idea and our plan of attack, and instructed everyone to set their cameras to “force flash” (fearing “red eye” or “automatic” mode would put the wave out of sync.) We figured each camera would have a different lag on its shutter button, so we took some practice shots with everyone trying to take a photo at exactly the same time, first holding the shutter down halfway to pre-focus.

1… 2… 3!
The plan was simple (and as it turned out to be, too simple!) We would walk over to the bridge in a single file line with me in the lead. We would line up on the bridge from the tower on the Brooklyn side to the tower on the Manhattan side, single file. I would start the wave by taking a photo and yelling, “1!” Whoever was next to me would then yell “2!” and take his shot, and so on down the line until it got to Manhattan. Just like a wave at a football game, participants would wait for the person next to them to cue them to go. We’d send the wave back and forth a couple of times and then finish with a finale of everyone flashing.

The crowd heads toward the bridge enterance

Agent Nicholson’s pre-mission shot from Brooklyn Bridge Park
When planning this mission, it was difficult to know how many people we would need to span the length between the two towers. It’s also tough to know how many people are going to show up to our missions these days. In many ways, we were lucky the weather was so bad, because had it been beautiful out we could have had 2,000 people show up to participate. Believe me, managing 700 people on a bridge is more than enough to handle. After the front of the line made it to the Brooklyn side, I walked back along the line to see if everyone was in place. Once I got to the other side I realized there were some people who weren’t even on the bridge yet. We had way more people than we needed. With the help of Agent Terracio, I started directing the extra people past the Manhattan tower to walk forward and create a second line, filling in the gaps.

We were excited to see what kind of reactions we would get from the regular people on the bridge who encountered our giant single file line, but I’m not sure if anyone saw us. The weather was just too awful for any sane person to be outside. In retrospect this was probably a good thing. We didn’t need anyone else on this bridge, and we certainly didn’t need any bikers whizzing by us.

It took much longer than expected to get everyone in place, but most of the participants managed to have lots of fun despite the conditions. Many came alone and made friends with the people standing next to them. There were even a few “missed connections” posted on our site and on Craigslist the next day. Strangers and friends alike made the best of this ridiculous adventure.

Some didn’t even have umbrellas!
Once everyone was in place, it was time to start the wave. I took out my camera, shouted “1!”, and grinned excitedly as I heard my neighbors taking their flashes, “2! 3! 4!” Then a few seconds later, looking down the line, I realized it had stopped. The wave only made it to 15 or so before ending. I’m not sure how it stopped, but I guess it was easy to get distracted. It was pouring, noisy cars were splashing in the rain below, and folks were trying to keep warm. I realized it stopped because it hadn’t traveled too far, but how would I know if it stopped 200 people down the line? We had to figure out a better plan. I remembered that waves at football games are usually started by a cheerleader running in front of the crowd. It was time to be a cheerleader. Agent Spear, Agent Fountain, and I devised a plan to take turns running the length of the bridge, screaming “go!” at the top of our lungs down the line. At this point we wished we hadn’t given Agent Spear’s bike to the camera guys on the Manhattan Bridge.

Agent Spear and Agent Fountain take off running

I nearly lost my voice from yelling “Go!” about one thousand times

Agent Spear runs and ducks to avoid covering the flashes

Agent Spear ran so fast he wound up in this photo twice
We had two photographers in charge of documenting the mission from afar. Agent Sokoler was stationed on the Manhattan Bridge and Agent Nicholson was at ground level in Brooklyn Bridge Park. Both were working with multiple cameras and tripods, in attempt to get as much coverage as possible. On one camera, Agent Sokoler took six 30 second exposures, capturing six sections of the wave as it crossed from Brooklyn to Manhattan.

I put together a small animated GIF of the wave crossing the bridge using these photos.

(this animation may not work in all browsers, get Firefox.)
Agent Sokoler got some beautiful longer exposure photos as well.

Agent Nicholson had a tougher time getting good shots from Brooklyn Bridge Park. Being at ground level made it tough to capture the flashes. Here are a few highlights.

Back on the bridge, things didn’t go exactly as planned for the finale. Everyone was so wet and cold that mob mentality took over after the wave had gone down and back twice. Some stuck around and kept firing for the finale, and others assumed it must be over when they saw a few people beginning to leave. In the end, it didn’t matter. We had done what we wanted to do– create a wave back of light back and forth between the boroughs.

Agents looking at their photos as they leave
Some agents convened at a nearby bar for an afterparty. Others got on the train and headed home to dry off. This made for a very wet car of 6-train riders.

We learned a lot at this mission. We learned more about how crowds work together (especially under bad conditions) and how communication does (and does not) work in single file lines. Next time we try to pull something like this off, we’ll be much more prepared.

Although the weather was miserable to deal with, in many ways the night we picked was destined to be the night for this mission. The next night, which was to be our rain date if we had decided to cancel, it ended up thunder storming at the exact time of the mission. Had we moved it to then, an unexpected storm would have hurt us even more, as people would have been unprepared. We also found out that Manhattan Bridge walkway was closed for construction on Saturday and Sunday nights, meaning we wouldn’t have had access for our photographers and cameramen.

Despite the glitches in the plan, we had a blast pulling this off and it seems most of the participants did as well. We never know exactly how our missions are going to work out, but we do know that they will always be an adventure. This mission was different for us in many ways. Most noticeably was the fact that we did not have direct interaction with our audience. In fact, we can’t even be sure that anyone even saw what we did. But we can hope that at least a few folks driving or taking the train across the Manhattan Bridge, living in a downtown apartment, or walking home in the rain looked up at the right time and saw something spectacular.

Mission Accomplished


Agent Sokoler’s Flickr Set
Agent Scott’s Flickr Set
Agent Fountain’s Flickr Set
All photos from all participants
All photos from all participants