Indagare’s Perrie Hartz interviews Benjamin Grant on his just-released book of satellite photographs called
Overview, which capture previously unseen parts of the world—and moments in time.
It is a bright but cold Sunday morning in New York City’s West Village. I push through the doors of the tiny Dominique Bistro, apologizing as I maneuver around the crowded tables to the back, where I am to conduct this interview. I find my subject at the bar with a cup of coffee, an iPad and a copy of his new book, Overview: A New Perspective of Earth, on the countertop. I slide onto the next stool and, as we exchange greetings, notice that from this vantage point, the room, which just a few seconds ago seemed so confining, is actually pleasantly spacious, with large windows looking out on the bustling neighborhood. Perspective, you see, makes all the difference.
That is the very concept that I’ve come to discuss with 27-year-old Benjamin Grant, creator and founder of the Daily Overview, a Web site and massively popular Instagram account devoted to high-resolution satellite imagery of the world. His stunning 288-page compilation of these images, accompanied by in-depth descriptions, was recently published by Penguin-Random House UK.
The photographs—of everything from industrial sites, to farms, architecture and wilderness—are jaw-droppingly spectacular. But neither they nor Grant’s ever-expanding social media presence are responsible for Overview’s sensational success, although both certainly contributed. Rather, it is the concept behind the book—Grant’s inspiration for the project—that makes it so compelling.
Grant explains that the term “Overview Effect” was coined by science writer Frank White in 1987 to denote the singular sensation astronauts experience when looking down at earth from outer space. Grant came across a film explaining this phenomenon in 2013, while researching satellites for an upcoming discussion at the Space Club, which he started with his then-coworkers at a consulting firm. Aptly titled Overview, the movie contains interviews with astronauts and scientists who describe this shift in perspective as a state of sudden mental clarity, a completely newfound awareness of the world as a whole.
“One thing that really resonated with me was the realization of how linked we all are, to each other and to the earth,” Grant says. “There is a lot happening in outer space and on our own planet that we aren’t even aware of but are connected to.”
Curious, Grant settled down with his laptop at this very café one afternoon and, using Apple Maps’ satellite feature, typed in “Earth,” wanting to view the planet from an astronauts’ perspective. “What I saw,” he says, “was the exact opposite, but it astounded me.” He had accidentally zoomed in, not out, on the earth—on Texas, to be exact. He pulls up the image on his iPad and hands the tablet to me. On the screen is an abstract composition of green hues and circular patterns. I grip the iPad and stare at the image, trying to comprehend what I’m seeing, but I can’t. It’s like viewing a painting that is both striking and utterly perplexing. I feel big and small all at once. Grant says he felt the same way. After doing some research, he figured out that what he was looking at were pivot irrigation fields and crop circles. “I was amazed at how it looked like a piece of art,” he says. “I put it in iPhoto and composed it. Then I became obsessed with finding other images that were just as fascinating” — and composing these as well.
“I was creating them in all my free time,” he recalls. “I looked at my computer one day and thought, ‘There is infinite unseen content to tap into here. I should do something with this.’” So he decided to formalize what he was doing as a project that he called Daily Overview, posting one image with an accompanying description per day on a Web site he created with the same name and on Instagram. He chose images of man-made structures or sites to produce new perspectives on humans’ impact on the earth.
Grant knew that on social media, the most interest is generated by images that inspire awe and wonder. “Overview taps into something so beautiful and unique that your brain has to actually readjust to understand what you’re seeing,” he says. “It’s essentially relearning. It’s pulling itself apart, putting itself back together in a completely different way.”
His Daily Overview Instagram account immediately garnered attention—so much that just a couple years later, Grant had a book deal with Penguin-Random House UK. I ask him why he thinks it’s so popular, and he pauses. “Instagram gave me the ability to connect to people all over the world and show them new places from a new perspective,” he says, leafing through the copy of Overview on the counter. He lands on a page and slides the book over to me. It is open to a satellite image of Delhi. “I was not only showing them but teaching,” he says. “When you’re standing in the midst of a huge city, there is no way you can understand or be aware of the bigger picture.” He’s right. I stare at the dizzying photo, which looks like a chaotic puzzle, almost unrecognizable as an urban center. I knew Delhi was crowded, but I’ve never before been so aware of its enormous size and density. “Overview shows you the bigger picture,” Grant continues. “It takes you out of your comfort zone. It literally expands your horizons.”
published an article on Grant’s project and mission that included seven of his images challenging people to see the earth from a new viewpoint. Suddenly, Overview was everywhere. “People started picking it up all over the world,” Grant says. “And I realized, ‘Wow, it’s not just me.’ Everyone craves connections with other people, cultures and places. And I have the ability to give them that.”
The desire to connect with other cultures is one that I, as a self-proclaimed wanderer, am very familiar with, and one that we at Indagare understand is a key factor in peoples’ passionate interest in travel. We know that collective intelligence creates not just wisdom but awareness of the world around us. Just as Overview strives to demonstrate the sublimity and uniqueness of our planet by urging people to step outside their comfort zones and evaluate the world from a new viewpoint, so Indagare believes that despite today’s conflicts, there is still beauty to be found everywhere, if one is willing to take the voyage to discover it. Overview works to shift peoples’ perspectives and reshape their understanding of the world through images; Indagare believes that travel can affect you in profound and permanent ways, altering your outlook on life.
Grant is also keenly aware of the role that travel plays in transforming people’s perception of the earth. I ask him whether he’s seen more interest in travel among his readers and Instagram followers. “Oh, absolutely,” he says. “It’s amazing. I scroll through the comments on an image, and I see so many people tagging their friends, commenting things like ‘Our next trip, we MUST go here!’ ‘Did you know it looked like this?’ I get messages from followers telling me that a certain image motivated their trip.” I remark that it must be wonderful to inspire people that way, but that this confers a responsibility. Grant agrees. “I’m helping to infuse people with a spark of curiosity,” he says. “It’s the reason I started all of this. Once you’re inquisitive, it leads to awareness. And awareness leads to action.”
So, has seeing the world from this perspective changed his own outlook? His answer is a resounding yes. “When I started Overview I thought I knew a lot about the world,” he explains. “But soon I realized there was so much I didn’t know. Every day, it’s instilling in me this new inquisitiveness and showing me all these places I now want to go to and see for myself.”
This is why Overview and its mission are important, why travel has been and always will be so essential . Both have the ability to ignite in people a yearning to see the world and connect with foreign cultures and customs. Both break down the boundaries we have all subconsciously placed around our perceptions and demonstrate just how far-reaching mankind’s impact is, how interconnected all beings sharing one planet truly are.
“Perspective can be relative,” Grant says. “We all have such narrow world views. We only ever see what’s in front of us. What Overview does—and what travel does too—is rid people of that mind-set and broaden their insight about the world by showing them how others live in comparison.” We have to defy our preconceptions of what is normal. We have to break out of the bubbles we inhabit, be open to different viewpoints, be aware of how big yet fragile the earth is, and of how greatly we impact it every day.
Later that afternoon, I find myself wandering around the Village, a bit lost. I turn a corner and look up at the street sign, then above that and still farther up, until I’m craning my head back and staring at the sky. I try to visualize what my surroundings would look like as a satellite image. Where would these cobblestone streets wind together? When would I become just a dot amid a sea of colors and shapes? I mentally zoom out until I’m looking down at the island that is Manhattan, then the East Coast, North America, and finally, the earth itself. And I think back to a few hours earlier when, for a brief moment, sitting in the back of a tiny cafe in the West Village, I held the world in the palm of my hand.
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