Cooler weather might slow down the hunt for wild Pokémon, but augmented reality seems here to stay. The shift in perspective that’s come with Pokémon Go is the subject of Mike McGregor’s new series “Explorers,” which looks at the new technology as the frame through which kids now experience nature. After his son convinced him to install the game, McGregor was intrigued by the way playing it pushed him to visit new places, and fascinated by how different his children’s experience of nature was from his own. Writes McGregor in a statement, “I created this series to document the destinations and distances gamers experience while on quests. People who view nature through a Thoreauvian lens may be uneasy with these images. I was. But the reality that users are experiencing is one where an app can provide new impetus for them to venture into new places, explore, and get some exercise. These are our modern explorers.” In an edited email interview, McGregor tells PDN about making the series.
PDN: How did the series develop? Did you recruit subjects, or are these kids you found at Pokémon spots? Did you know how you wanted the series to look before you began?
Mike McGregor: The series started after one of my son’s first explorations, where we kept getting deeper and deeper into a state park trying to find a Pokémon he had heard about. Pretty soon I found us scrambling up rock piles and going to places I had never been. After coming home and reflecting on the day I realized how augmented reality had opened up a new hybrid world that combines physical exploration with technology. That day had been so cool, I realized, so I decided to document the experiences in wild environments. My goal was to focus on the exploration, so visually I knew it was important to have a wide variety of places, all of which I would want to visit with or without technology. I started talking to my kids’ friends about cool places they had been and then retraced their steps looking for good backdrops. In nearly all the frames my kids are off frame as we were actually on a hunt. As the project progressed I started talking about it with friends and often got eager referrals. These were all planned shoots, when working with children I prefer to arrange permission prior to showing up with a camera.
PDN: What were some of the challenges you faced? How did make sure the images looked different from each other? There is an irony that this beautiful landscape seems to be ignored by the kids in it, but it doesn’t feel like your pictures condemn the practice. Was that a hard balance to strike?
MM: The biggest challenge with the project, and one I have not completely personally resolved, was trying to come to grips with the presence of technology in the wilderness. I have a deep love for hiking, climbing and biking and am trying to instill those passions in my kids. We still hike regularly and spend a lot of time without screens in the outdoors but what piqued my interest in this particular phenomenon was the experiences that I saw my son having while playing the game. He was actively involved in his environment and was not ignoring it, as I had expected him to do. When we came home he could graphically recall the colors of mushrooms we stumbled across and how cool the textures of the stones by the ocean had been. I have come around to the realization that my children’s relationship with technology is going to be completely different from mine. I remember a time pre-cell phone, when you had to make the deliberate decision to go online and then go offline. There was a forced dichotomy. This idea a having to choose between being online or offline is not something they will ever experience, and thus the inherent tensions I feel make no sense to them. I am trying to come around to a stance that as long as they are actively engaged in their environment then their experiences are valid. I feel like devaluing the expeditions we went on because there was tech involved and dismissing the new places we discovered would not being honest to how kids see the world. For me there is irony in the pictures but my kids don’t see it. That is what I wanted to explore with this work.
PDN: Were there any technical challenges you faced in the series? What kinds of equipment did you use?
MM: Keeping the backdrops different was challenging and working with kids is always a delicate dance but being able to say “Hey want to go play Pokémon” made this series a much easier sell than some other projects where they have modeled for me in the past! Also hulking my Canon 5D MIII kit on a 10K hike that included rock scrambles required some stamina. I also used a bounce reflector that my son can now handle nearly as well as my normal crew. I expect an assisting invoice from him any day…