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The things you carry: Show and tell

By Michael Saba, Special to CNN
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SXSW shows iReport its stuff
  • Atlanta photographer inspired CNN photo booth at SXSW
  • More than 700 people showed off the things they carry
  • R.E.M.'s front man, Duran Duran share a glimpse of their bags

(CNN) -- The Persona photography series started as a happy accident. Three years ago, Atlanta photographer Jason Travis, 30, took some snapshots of a friend and the contents of her bag.

"I took her portrait and laid out her stuff, and then I realized that the lighting was really horrible," he said. "But I liked the idea, so I redid another one with someone else, and I realized I had gotten the concept and composition totally right with that first one."

See Travis' Persona series on Flickr

It's a straightforward idea for a photo collage but profound in scope: A candid portrait picture, juxtaposed with a shot of the subject's possessions sorted on a flat surface.

"The idea is in the name, Persona, because I wanted to show how we use our possessions to define ourselves, to create our personas," Travis said. "I think a lot of people can relate to Persona on a lot of different levels. Someone looks at one of the photos and they think, 'Oh, wow, look at what he's carrying! I wonder what's in my pockets?'"

Travis' initial plans for Persona didn't go any further than the first few photos he uploaded to his Flickr account. After a handful of hiatuses, the series repeatedly resurrected itself thanks to buzz from a feature in The Atlantan magazine and several viral revivals on photography, fashion and tech blogs. In the process, Persona mushroomed from Travis' hobby to his calling card and showcased portraits from locales as far afield as Costa Rica and Vienna. The series now totals 219 diptychs on Travis' Flickr page, with more than 380,000 views overall.

Gallery: The things you carry, SXSW-style

Travis recently partnered with CNN iReport for South by Southwest 2011, serving as the inspiration for a crowdsourced and data-driven adaptation of Persona. The booth was Persona on a larger scale than Travis had ever attempted; an experiment in both photography and anthropology.

Travis manned the CNN Grill, camera in hand, as the CNN Persona booth at the trade show gave his photo series an interactive, iReport-style touch. More than 700 festival attendees from around the world took pictures of themselves and the things they carried via remote, and shared demographic data at the booth to create a profile. Then, the photos and information were merged, and uploaded as iReports.

Vital stats from the SXSW Persona booth

As a testament to his frenetic pace, Travis still managed to squeeze in a handful of SXSW shows with his electro-throwback quartet, Sealions, after five days of shooting Persona photographs.

"It sounds cheesy, but the standout moment for me was honestly the whole week, just getting to take people's photographs," he said. "I love to do that anyway, and this time I got to do it on a much bigger scale. I'd be exhausted at the end of each day, but I really couldn't wait to do it again in the morning."

The visitors at the CNN booth were as gung-ho for Persona as he was to play shutterbug: "Some people looked skeptical at first and asked, 'What's the deal here?' And I would tell them it's what's essential to you, what's important, what tells me something about you? And then they would get it, and they would jump right in and say 'Well, I've always got my sunglasses on me. Let's put those out there.' Or, 'I have to have gum. I gotta put my gum on there.' "

Check out some top photos of booth visitors

While Travis was behind the lens, CNN gathered and collated data on the possessions they chose to display. The results were enlightening and sometimes surprising; for example, Atlanta ranked as the most "kissable" city, with the highest percentage of participants who showed lip balm and gum or mints. And for all the hand-wringing over how kids these days are less appreciative of the written word, younger age groups were more likely to sport a notebook and writing utensil than older ones.

As befits a festival for cutting-edge techies, gadgets and connectivity topped people's "things I can't live without" lists: More than a third of all participants listed their phone (particularly the iPhone) as their number-one essential.

A handful of VIPs got in on the action at the CNN Grill, like Michael Stipe of R.E.M., John Oliver of "The Daily Show" and Duran Duran members Nick Rhodes and John Taylor. But the project's real draw wasn't the magnetic personalities in attendance; it was the idea itself.

"A lot of the time, when someone saw someone else going through the booth, they would immediately get intrigued, seeing them interacting and taking part," Travis said. "And I don't think it was so much that they really wanted to get their picture taken. They wanted to participate and see what was in their bag compared to everyone else. That kind of interactivity is incredibly cool to me."

Celebrities, musicians pose for Persona

There's a sociological appeal for Travis as well. "I think everybody wants to feel interesting," he said. "I've had so many people tell me, 'Oh, I don't have anything cool in my bag.' Almost as if they feel like they have to top someone else, or be important. I'm always amazed, because sometimes you judge a book by its cover, but the most interesting part is never the portrait or what weird and cool items they have in their bag.

"It's always the connection between the person and their stuff that throws me off. Sometimes, I'll think I'll know what they're going to have in their bag, and then they'll totally throw me off. That's the lesson I'll always take away from this, that you can never judge a book by its cover. I think everyone wants to feel like the things that they carry are worthwhile and essential."