In the annals of effective self-promotion, Sweden’s tourist association pretty much killed it. Last April it concocted a phone number anyone around the world could call — and have a conversation with a "random Swede."
The idea exploded — some Swedes who signed-up to take calls receiving some 10 calls an hour, with questions ranging from 'do you have Swedish fish?' to 'what kind of animal would you be if you could choose one?'
But certainly the tourist association never imagined anyone falling for the promotion as hard as Oakland photographer Jennifer Leahy.
The first day the phone line opened, she called the number. She spoke to a man named William who told her about his town and life. Leahy called the number every day that week, speaking each time with a new Swede. She called again the week after. And the week after that.
By the time the promotion ended a few months later, she’d spoken to dozens of random Swedes about their lives. Then she took things a step further. She flew to Sweden.
"What if I saw a country through that sort of serendipitous connections?" Leahy wondered before taking the travel plunge.
Leahy etched a plan to meet up with the "random" Swedes she’d talked to. She’d photograph the people, their celebrations and the geography they inhabited. After landing in Stockholm, she made her way from town to town contacting people from the road to arrange meetings. She met Ali for coffee. She visited Helene, a Waldorf school teacher who invited Leahy to stay in her home.
"Just had fun conversations," Leahy said back in Oakland. "Just hung out with them at their home for a day."
Her human itinerary lead her to the home of fellow-photographer Anders Andersson in Halmstad where she stayed with his family.
"She told me she had a ticket booked to Sweden and wanted to know if she could come by?" Andersson said from his home in Sweden. "And I said, 'Sure you can.'"
Leahy spent two days with Andersson’s family and was invited to a traditional Swedish crayfish party — where people donned bibs adorned with the victims' caricatures and went to town devouring the crustaceans.
"Great that she fulfilled her dream and actually came here," said Andersson, who fielded dozens of phone calls from strangers during the promotion. "I though it was really cool."
During her travels, Leahy clicked-off pictures of farm houses, churches, fields, birthday parties and cafes — not with the fleeting eye of a tourist, but rather that of a consummate storyteller. She marveled at how people, whose previous connection to her had been a mere phone call from a stranger 5,000 miles away, could welcome her into their homes and their lives.
"Just the generosity of strangers," Leahy observed, "and how many of us want to connect with each other."
In the way the experiment was an anomaly — in an era knee-deep in social media, a plain old-fashioned phone call could lead to a travelogue of purely human interaction. It set Leahy’s mind wandering about all the missed connections in the routine of daily life.
"Then it makes you think about everybody else on the street or in the world," Leahy said, "and how like they’re just a connection waiting to happen."
Leahy lamented the hardest part of her journey was saying goodbye to newly formed connections within a day of meeting in person. But such are the demands of a hastily unfolding itinerary in a foreign land. She says she’s stayed in contact with most of the people she met and has most their photographs.
Leahy is still trying to figure out what to do with the photo project. In the meantime it’s back to photographing weddings and corporate affairs.
As far as the Swedish tourism association and its unusual promotion — Leahy professed her admiration for its simple genius — "Their number totally worked."