For the 15th anniversary of the Aurora Photos agency, President Jose Azel wanted to do something different. He could have published a book, or curated a gallery retrospective, but instead he created a living photo essay — a photographic version of call and response.
The resulting "Action:Reaction" project is an online photo gallery that grows every 48 hours as photographers add images to the sequence — each new photo being connected to the one before it.
"It's a sort of photo chain letter," says Atlanta-based photographer Peter Essex.
The end result is a clever visual essay tied together by theme, color, shape or, in some cases, simply an expression.
Aurora is a photo agency and stock library that represents more than 200 photographers around the world. NPR.org occasionally uses its services. Azel recruited more than 70 Aurora photographers to participate in the project, which will end after everyone has contributed.
By its nature, "Action:Reaction" is filled with surprises — not just for the viewer but for the photographers and the editors as well. The participating Aurora photographers are chosen at random by a computer program and e-mailed the current photo. They then have 48 hours to shoot and submit three related images to that week's guest editor.
The editors are a mix of photo professionals from various publications including National Geographic,Rolling Stone and Time magazine. They select the best match from the three submitted; the photo is automatically added to the Aurora Web site; and the next photographer is notified via e-mail that it's his turn.
"There's a kind of rhythm to it," says Azel. "When someone gets creative, there's a very good chance that the next person will meet the challenge."
Guest editor Madeline Yale, executive director and curator of the Houston Center of Photography, describes the project as having a trickle-down effect. "What's so unique is seeing how photographers interpret the images," she says.
The first photo in the project is of two white-water kayakers. The next, of two children with kayaks in their yard. The connection between the two images is easy to spot, but some of the following pairings are more subtle.
A photo of cyclists leads to a photo of a pink bicycle, which leads to an image of a melting pink ice cream bar. From there "Action:Reaction" really takes off on its quirky visual voyage.
"It gives photographers a chance to experiment in ways they might not usually be able to," says Yale. "It's one of the most successful online projects I've seen."
Todd Korol is an Aurora photographer based in Calgary, Canada. "I'm captivated by the scope of this project," he says. "What happens when you see a photograph? How do you react?"
He says photographers were told only to shoot a photo based loosely on the previous photo and were given complete creative license in how they interpreted it and what style they used.
"You have to react quickly; you don't have a week to plan. This project was designed so that you can make your photo wherever you are. You see it, and then you react. There are no excuses," says Korol.
He says the project has also had the positive effect of connecting him to other Aurora photographers internationally. "Because Aurora photographers are all over the world, it's brought us closer together."
Some of the photos have a journalistic feel, some are portraiture and some are pure art. But as a whole, the project takes the viewer on a journey of motion, body language, light and color, with each image paying homage to the one before it.
"My hopes were that we would see some really brilliant segments," says Azel. "It's exceeded my expectations."