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Delving into Delsea: Distorted and Desperate

By Diana Riker 1

Most nights of the week last year I would stagger home from class, exhausted from the day, anxious to relax, anxious to eat. I had worked all day and usually went straight to class at night. After finishing at nine, my reserves went down and my vulnerability went up. I wanted to eat anything. Anything that would fill my stomach. Anything that would curb my hunger and provide immediate satisfaction. I did not want to cook. I just wanted to get to the strip as quickly as possible. What’s the strip? The strip is a section of Delsea Drive that runs through Glassboro. For a few years of college, that strip was my provider, the only place where I felt like I had control and support. I could choose what to eat, where to eat it, and it would be there. No questions asked. The only wait was the line at the drive through, which I was happy to be in since it meant the end was near, the close to my day. I was minutes away from greasy satisfaction. Tacos and fries, and burgers. Oh my. This strip of highway is unlike anything I had encountered before living at college. The food possibilities were endless. If you like burgers you can find McDonald's, Burger King, Wendy’s, and Checkers. Mexican more your style? There’s a Taco bell and a Mexican take-out place. Are you feeling pizza? Papa Johns, Pizza Hut, Dominos, and three or four local pizzerias little the highway. What about breakfast? Check out Dunkin' Donuts. Craving deli food? Arby’s is right down the road along with a Wawa and two other local delis. In addition, there is a Chinese buffet, three Japanese restaurants, a local tavern, a Friendly's, an Italian restaurant, and a soft pretzel shop. If you’re looking for something healthy, your options are limited—Saladworks, Subway, or a well-chosen meal at one of the delis. Unfortunately, the healthy options close early. Saladworks closes at nine p.m. and Subway at ten p.m. Any time past that and you are left to choose from any of the gleaming fast food joints that populate the area, their neon signs assuring potential customers 2

that yes, they are still open. Some, like McDonald's and Dunkin' Donuts, are open for twenty four hours. All others are open well after midnight, which they are quick to advertise in the signs that populate their windows. To me, these restaurants were inexpensive, satisfying( if only for a few minutes), quick, and most of all convenient. For me, the drive to get to these places took longer than the service, and I was more bothered by that than waiting in the drive through line as I sped off in search of my perfect calorie ridden meal. These photographs were taken with a Samsung Pl200/Vluu PL200. The photographs were carefully chosen in order to put the viewer into the passenger seat of a vehicle when reading through them. The set was arranged in order to communicate the notion that the driver is traveling north on Delsea Drive, makes a U-Turn in the Domino’s parking lot, and then proceeds to drive south. It begins and ends with an image of Burger King in order to denote the completion of the driver’s journey in search of food.

















Analysis: Originally, I began photographing these establishments with a NikonD3000; however, after being pulled over the police I realized that the large camera was a bit too noticeable. It was also a bit difficult for me to maneuver because I had not been trained in its use. I then switched to a much more manageable point and shoot camera, the Samsung Pl200/Vluu PL200. This camera is small, which made it much less conspicuous than the Nikon. It also felt much more intuitive to me since I have primarily dealt with small personal cameras when photographing. The intuitive nature of the camera, coupled with its convenience matched that of the subject matter that I was capturing. I was reluctant to take any pictures with people in them because I agreed with Susan Sontag’s (1973) assertion in her essay “Photography." “Still, there is something predatory in the act of taking a picture. To photograph people is to violate them, by seeing them as they never see themselves, by having knowledge of them they can never have” (p. 7). I felt uncomfortable taking pictures of the buildings or signs themselves when I was in the parking lot, let alone the employees. I felt like I was trespassing on an unspoken code of conduct. It felt like a violation to photograph the employees and customers since they had no control over the image and were unaware of the purpose for my photographs. Almost all of the pictures were taken as I was being driven down the highway or slowly moving through a parking lot. Only one of the images, the Pizza Hut sign, was taken while parked, which suggests the dual nature of the establishment I will discuss later. However, I did move the camera while shooting the Pizza Hut picture to establish the feeling of movement that is universal throughout


this set. Ultimately I found that the multiplicity of the signs created through movement in the photographs suggests the ubiquitous nature of these restaurants. In all of the images, I used the night setting on the camera. This setting was perfect for two reasons: it was night, an appropriate time for the subject, and the night setting also delays shutter speed and adds to the pictures’ sense of movement and distortion. To construct my set of images, I chose an image of each of the fast food chain restaurants on the strip. I arranged the images in the order that the restaurants appear on the passenger’s side if he or she begins by driving north on Delsea Drive, which was the direction I began driving most often when I was in search of food. I wanted viewers to feel like they are in the driver’s seat when viewing the photographs. I chose images that I felt gave the impression of urgency, which I believe is representative of both the consumer and the chains themselves which focus on quick service, drive-throughs, and delivery. I believe that this method supports Susan Sontag’s assertion that “Photographs really are experiences captured, and the camera is the ideal arm of consciousness in its acquisitive mood” (p. 1). I wanted my photographs to capture the frenzied experience of the driver. The images become more distorted as the essay continues, which I believe is a reflection of the driver’s mindset while searching for food. I believe that the inclusion of several photographs of restaurants in plaza or strip malls along the highway (p. 6, 9, 11-13) allows for a perception of transiency throughout the piece. The photograph of Papa John’s and the No. 1 Chinese Restaurant reinforces this idea and supports Sontag’s statement that “To take a photograph is to participate in another person’s (or thing’s) mortality, vulnerability, mutability. Precisely by slicing out this moment and freezing it, all photographs testify to time’s relentless melt” (8). 20

The shopping center itself is vulnerable, mutable. Just last year it housed a Blockbuster, but now the dark space next to Papa John’s lies dormant. When constructing the image set I was extremely cognizant of what was written on the signs in the pictures because I felt that it would affect the viewer’s interpretation of the text. For instance I chose the first image of Burger King because it advertised “Rowan Cards Welcome Here". The decision to include this particular sign supports Sontag’s contention that “There is aggression implicit in every use of the camera” (p. 3). I believe that the inclusion of this particular image provides viewers with an awareness of pervasive marketing that these restaurants target towards college students. It assures them that they can use whatever money is on their Rowan card to purchase food there. Many students may have money on their Rowan card because their parents put it there before the semester began. They don’t have to use their own debit card at these restaurants. Burger King will take care of them. It accepts the only form of payment that some students even have. I saw multiple instances of this type of marketing during my outings, including one Dunkin' Donuts sign that advertised “Welcome Back Rowan Students” after spring break. Also, when choosing images I was careful to consider how the lines of light were affecting the image and if recognition of the object was essential to its interpretation. For instance in the image of Taco Bell the sign appears like it is surrounded by bolts of electricity, making the restaurant appear powerful. Only part of the words "Taco Bell" are shown, but the iconic bell leads viewers to make the association between it and the chain. I believe that my choice in photograph, as well as my interpretation support Victor Burgin’s (1977) assertion that photographs are read as texts, which are considered “sites of complex intertextuality, an overlapping series of previous texts ‘taken for granted’ at a particular cultural and historical juncture” (p. 131). Viewers must activate their prior 21

cultural and historical knowledge to make the connection with the photograph and the chain based on the text, color, and shape of the sign as well as an awareness that this is a restaurant which would appear along a highway. I chose to include several images that had the highway itself in them in order to insert viewer fully into the mentality of a passenger in a car by including images of the car facing the highway. This mentality is especially present in images present on pages 4, 5, and 16 which feature signs for McDonald’s and Dunkin’ Donuts. In the photographs the lights are gleaming in the distance, and McDonald’s golden arches appear almost like the promised land. Though I tried to employ the rules of composition in all of my images, it was difficult to do when driving. I feel that highway image on page 16 most effectively embodies the rules because of its adherence to the rule of thirds. The sign for McDonald’s is located at the point where the lines intersect on the rule of thirds grid. The entirety of the logo is actually located along the second line in the grid. The lines from the light guide the viewer’s eyes to the focal point of the image, the logos of the businesses, especially McDonalds. The Dunkin Donuts sign appears to create a "halo" of light around the McDonald’s sign. The image uses a large depth of field to place the signs in the context of the highway. I believe that the photograph effectively inserts the viewer into the viewpoint of the driver which was my intention when shooting it. It was important for me to keep in mind the viewers’ perceptions of the images itself and how they would be affected by my deliberate distortion. In Roland Barthes’ (1977) “Rhetoric of the Image” he states that all photographs contain a linguistic message. He explains that “In fact, it is simply the presence of the linguistic message that counts, for neither its position nor its length seem pertinent…” (p. 274). In the image I chose for Wendy’s, the child’s affable face is no longer as easily recognizable as viewers are used 22

to seeing. However, even though it has been multiplied and distorted viewers are still able to read her name. The letters styling familiar to readers as is the iconic pig-tailed girl. By distorting the image I am trying to express that Wendy’s is not the jovial family oriented establishment that Dave Thomas marketed it to be. It’s open late into the night to fulfill anyone’s cravings. Its burgers grow larger and larger every year as they pile on more and more bacon. The thin redheaded little girl is not its consumer. It’s the overweight adults and obese children that we hear about on the news. When the viewer receives this linguistic message, Wendy’s name, they are able to associate the photographs with the commercials and advertisements they have seen of the restaurant in order to interpret the tension I have created by blurring the image. Though some of the images are severely blurred and distorted to the point where the signs may not be recognizable to viewers I found that these photographs convey the urgent nature of the trip that the viewer is taking as well as depict the speed at which these images are being seen by both driver and passenger and their uncertainty about what to choose. The distorted images complement the distorted mindset of the hungry driver and passenger, trying to end their day with some type of sustenance that will fill them and provide some sort of joy, if only temporary. In the image on page 13 the blurred signs and melting lines on the dashboard suggest to me that the trip is slowly sucking away at the driver’s soul in the search for the restaurant that will fulfill this overwhelming need for both food and comfort. I think that the image creates a sense of tension as it suggests that rather than a kitchen, which is normally seen as a tool or place for locating or preparing food, the car is being used as the driver’s tool in the caloric quest. The last image in the set is the most distorted image of them all. I took this photograph while stopped at a traffic light. In the photograph Burger King appears like it’s in an intense haze, which is how the pictures were arranged. It imparts onto the viewer the 23

driver’s mindset at the end of the journey, murky and disoriented, but still focused on the goal, food. Burger King feels like it is the final stop for the car. The quest is over, and the momentary reward near.



Barthes, R. (1977). Rhetoric of the image. In A. Trachtenberg (Ed.), Classic essays on photography (p. 269-285). New Haven, CT: Leete's Island Books. Burgin, V. (1977, 2003). Looking at photographs. In A. Wells (Ed.), The photography reader (pp. 130–137). New York, NY: Routledge. [PDF] Sontag, S. (1973, October 18). Photography. The New York review of books. [PDF]


Delving into Delsea: Distorted and Desperate  

This is photo essay for my Visual Rhetoric and Multimodal Composition graduate course which explores a strip of highway, populated with chai...

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