Oh Snap! Sneaky Photos of Zombie Shoppers

Slate's Culture Blog
Sept. 28 2011 5:03 PM

Oh Snap! Sneaky Photos of Zombie Shoppers

Oh Snap! is Brow Beat’s weekly photo feature. Have you spotted a project that’s worth profiling? Pitch to ohsnapidea@gmail.com.

A strange thing happens when people shop. Their faces settle into a trance, eyes glazed, as they focus on finding the perfect fishing rod, pair of heels, or box of condoms.

Slideshow of Ulrich's Photos

Although anyone can observe this state by standing in the corner of a store in dark sunglasses, it’s rare to find visual documentation of the phenomenon. This is in part because big box stores like Wal-Mart and Target, breeding grounds for shopping hypnosis, generally bar photographers.


Fortunately, photographer Brian Ulrich is not intimidated by rules. After being denied permission to shoot freely in these locations, he simply did it anyway.

The photos above, which are featured in his new book, “Is this Place Great Or What” (and which were also showcased in the “Copia—Retail, Thrift and Dark Stores, 2001” exhibit at the Cleveland Museum of Art), were taken covertly in major franchises. He’d enter a store as if he were just another shopper and plant himself in one spot with his camera at waist level. Then he’d wait for a great shopping moment. Though his handheld camera was in full view, shoppers rarely noticed it. It was if he were invisible, he says.

Would his subjects mind if they knew their retail excursions had become art? We can’t know, but while many of Ulrich’s photos are funny, they are not cruel.

“I try to be respectful. I’m not trying to make fun of people,” he says, adding that he hopes his subjects would understand why it was impossible for him to work any other way. The photos must be candid. That’s the only way to capture what he calls the “true experience of these places” that are so careful about controlling their image.

After several years of surreptitious documentation, Ulrich was ready for a more open setting. He found it in thrift stores, which have fewer restrictions, he says. Although he started out photographing all comers, ultimately he found that he was less interested in thrift store shoppers than in the people who work there, sorting through the castaways of the privileged.

Cover image for Is This Place Great Or What

“I think of those people as noble characters,” he explains. This view comes through clearly in these more formalized portraits. Even amid Britney Spears posters and musty purses, there’s something elegantly heroic about these salvagers.

The final stage of what turned out to be a 10-year project for Ulrich was dark stores. These are retailers that have gone under, killed by the recession or oversized ambitions.

Presented in a sequence, these empty ghost malls look postapocalyptic. Only a stray survivor listening to his walkman emerges from the stairwell of once-thriving mall.

No matter how much you dislike chain stores, there’s something tragic about these photos. It’s hard not to wish that a handful of friendly shopping zombies will enter the frame, reanimating failed consumer dreams.



More Than Scottish Pride

Scotland’s referendum isn’t about nationalism. It’s about a system that failed, and a new generation looking to take a chance on itself. 

IOS 8 Comes Out Today. Do Not Put It on Your iPhone 4S.

Why Greenland’s “Dark Snow” Should Worry You

Three Talented Actresses in Three Terrible New Shows

The Human Need to Find Connections in Everything

It’s the source of creativity and delusions. It can harm us more than it helps us.


Happy Constitution Day!

Too bad it’s almost certainly unconstitutional.

The Ungodly Horror of Having a Bug Crawl Into Your Ear and Scratch Away at Your Eardrum

My Father Was James Brown. I Watched Him Beat My Mother. Then I Married Someone Like Him.

  News & Politics
Sept. 17 2014 2:57 PM ISIS Helps Snuff Out Conservative Opposition to Government Funding Bill
Business Insider
Sept. 17 2014 1:36 PM Nate Silver Versus Princeton Professor: Who Has the Right Models?
Sept. 17 2014 1:59 PM Ask a Homo: Secret Ally Codes 
  Double X
The XX Factor
Sept. 17 2014 1:26 PM Hey CBS, Rihanna Is Exactly Who I Want to See on My TV Before NFL Games
  Slate Plus
Slate Fare
Sept. 17 2014 9:37 AM Is Slate Too Liberal?  A members-only open thread.
Brow Beat
Sept. 17 2014 1:01 PM A Rare, Very Unusual Interview With Michael Jackson, Animated
Future Tense
Sept. 17 2014 12:35 PM IOS 8 Comes Out Today. Do Not Put It on Your iPhone 4S.
  Health & Science
Bad Astronomy
Sept. 17 2014 11:18 AM A Bridge Across the Sky
Sports Nut
Sept. 15 2014 9:05 PM Giving Up on Goodell How the NFL lost the trust of its most loyal reporters.