Two Women In St. Louis Develop A Camera Triggered By The Literal Beat Of A Heart

 In Culture, Feature

Is it really possible to capture the ‘heart’ of a city? Further, is it possible to do so literally? St. Louisans Kristin Slater and Neeti Kailas are prepared to tackle the latter. They’ve developed a wearable camera with a shutter triggered by the heart rate of the wearer—and, if the two of them are right, it’ll show us a version of St. Louis we’ve never seen before.

Kailas and Slater have embarked on an ambitious new project they call The Heart of St. Louis, which will take the two of them and their cameras out into each of the city’s 79 neighborhoods to track and observe what gets heart rates rising in the Gateway City. And while the two women aren’t visual artists by background—they met as designers and brand managers for the pet food company Purina—they’re confident the images they’ll capture will serve as a powerful, on-the-ground portrait of a city that’s too often photographed from a news helicopter capturing violence and frequently called one of America’s most dangerous places.

What’s even more exciting about The Heart of St. Louis project lays beyond the potential that it has to reshape the city’s public image. It’s all the things Kailas’ and Slater’s device might someday do in cities around the world, in disciplines as diverse as photojournalism and public health—all guided by the simplicity, or perhaps the enormous complexity, belied by a simple heartbeat.

We spoke with Neeti over coffee about the project and how you can take part.

What’s the difference between an image that’s captured in response to an increase in heart rate and an image that you might take on, say, your iPhone, just because you’re feeling moved?
First, there’s something extremely beautiful about these images being involuntary and being able to say that they were taken through my heart. There’s a poetic element to that. I mean, St. Louis is in the shape of an anatomical heart! [laughs] And the second aspect is that it’s almost more truthful, because you’re not putting your own biases and filters on it. You’re not thinking, “I’m going to take this picture because this is what I think people want to see.”

Practical question: How will the device tell if your heart rate is accelerating because you’re feeling moved versus just walking up a steep flight of stairs?
With the software, we can actually tune it to the specific person. It’s very easy to do that—it’s not new science to remove the ‘noise’ to get to what you’re seeking. Potentially, as we get more funding and as we try this out more, we could even distinguish what kind of heart rate it is. We can ask what kind of excitement you’re experiencing and what that means. We’d love to go one level deeper if we get the funding to do it.  

Who will wear the cameras?
We just have the two prototypes right now, which Kristin and I will be wearing. But depending on how much funding we get, there’s a section in our Indiegogo campaign where others can sign up to be wearers, too. We absolutely want to have more people join the project. We’d love to do this in other cities that are seeing troubled times, or [with] different types of people. What excites me or Kristin might not be the same thing that excites you.

But for now, yes, it’ll be just Kristin and I. The agenda is for us to hit up every neighborhood in the city and have experiences in every neighborhood.

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How did you and Kristin meet and become collaborators?
Kristin and I actually met working at Purina. We started there at around the same time as designers, and later I moved into brand management. [Kristin] had this really cool technology that she’d developed as part of a school project back in the day that connected a camera to the heart rate of the wearer. We got to talking about applications for this technology. We were trying to find something that felt very useful and doable, that we thought would create dialogue in our community in a way that would make a real impact.

Around the time we were talking about this, the decision regarding officer Jason Stockley [a St. Louis police officer found not guilty in the fatal shooting of Anthony Lamar Smith] had just been announced. Kristin and I participated in the protests after that happened, which was kind of cool—it was largely peaceful. People were expressing the way they felt in a visible way, and it was passionate, but it was peaceful. We realized that we wanted a way to collect the way we felt personally, when we felt passionate or excited like that.

You talk about this piece in terms of providing an alternative to the way St. Louis is portrayed in the media. What myths about St. Louis could this technology help debunk? 
Kristin and I both individually moved to St. Louis in 2013. I came from India—that’s where I grew up—and at the time, no one in my family knew where St. Louis was. But after the killing of Michael Brown in 2014, everyone knew about St. Louis because it was always in the news, even all the way in India. And it seemed like they knew it for all the wrong reasons. They only saw the riots and the controversy. They had this sense of, “It’s not safe in this city.”

And then I started an executive MBA program at Washington University in St. Louis, and I found that even some of my classmates here who commute from just a few miles away think that this city isn’t safe. I found myself spending a lot of time convincing them that that’s just not true.

Would you still consider the project successful if it confirms some of the stereotypes about St. Louis? Fear can raise your heart rate, too.  

That’s something we’ve talked about. It’s a little scary, because it’s a little experimental, and it’s an experiment with only a sample size of two right now. It could confirm that we’re really biased. But then, part of this whole project is that we want to be able to look past those biases, and we want to be able to see what’s really there. Because if we don’t look at it, how can we change it? Who can take what we’re gathering and run with it? We can have a dialogue after we gather information about what needs to be done, if anything.

It sounds like you’re framing this as both an art project and, to a lesser extent, a public relations tool for the city. But I can imagine some fascinating applications of this technology, from journalism to community health initiatives and beyond. What are your ambitions for The Heart of St. Louis project as it grows?
So many. I can see this being an installation piece. I keep thinking about the Old Courthouse for that. And then over time, I could see this being almost like a live feed. You could see everything as it happens in real time. There’s a question of, “How big can we make it when it’s not just a two of us, or even when it becomes a physical presence not just on a website?” There are so many stories that need to be told about cities across America that are different than the public perception. It could be a living, breathing art project that changes perceptions.

And we’d also love to work with institutions and organizations around St. Louis, whether that’s an art institution or something else. I can think of so many ways in which we can partner and make this bigger, how we can bring it to life and do more. I’d love it if someone reached out to us for that.

Cover image: Annie Spratt via Unsplash

Additional images and video courtesy of The Heart Of St. Louis


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