Photographing Question Marks

According to some family elders when I was a young kid, although I was generally very obedient, compliant and well-behaved, there was something I would regularly say that disrupted the stereotype. This phrase was, why should I? I remember being teased by some relatives, exaggerating and elongating the way I pronounced “shhhoould”. Decades later, I’m still prone to thinking independently and questioning assumptions.

In this post I’ve gathered photographs I’ve taken that feature the question mark symbol. As opposed to the exclamation mark, which is more commonly seen in graffiti and signage, I’ve found the question mark is not regularly on display in the streets so I tend to take notice when I see it.

On a recent trip to New York whilst waiting for a train on a subway platform I found myself sitting next to a woman wearing a large question mark earring. I asked if I could take her picture and I took it as a sign to sort through my images on this theme.

Question Mark Earring, NYC 2023

Another question mark accessory that caught my eye was a badge, designed and worn by fellow photographer Richard Kaby. Below, a photograph taken at the London Colour Walk in November, 2022:

Richard Kaby’s Question Mark Badge

The other day I was chatting with Richard and told him about the theme of this blog and that I was going to include an image of his question mark badge. We were discussing the concept and the importance of asking why? and he said that for him it also went hand in hand with why not?. Funnily enough whilst in New York I had taken a view from the hotel window precisely because the outside of a building in the distance had been graffitied with the words Why... and to it’s side WHY NOT?

Why… Why Not? Lower East Side View & Graffiti

Below, one of my earliest photographs containing a question mark. I was amused and bemused by this sign, seen in a subway station in New York back in 2010. I googled the reference; the hotline number apparently received many calls but it was in fact an advertising campaign promoting a comedy film:

Still a Virgin? New York subway sign, 2010

The representation of a question mark can come in surprising forms. One day, on leaving my apartment I looked down at the pavement and noticed a hair extension that formed the illusion of the shape of a question mark:

Pavement Abstract: Found hair accessory in the form of a question mark, 2023

Below, a few shots where the question mark felt mysterious:

Red Question Mark, Hampstead Heath, 2010

Red question mark on mossy tree stump, Hampstead Heath, 2012

Question Mark and Llama stencil graffiti, Tel Aviv, 2014.

The mystery of the red question mark juxtaposed with a llama in the image above was solved by my cousin Susi. She explained that the word LAMA is Hebrew for why, so the llama image serves as a Hebrew pun. I should have realised that as I speak Hebrew but I had obviously been trying to decode it from an Anglophone perspective!

Next a couple of examples of Italian graffiti combined with question marks where the language and/or spelling suggest a specific dialect.

Graffiti in Bologna, 2018

Venetian Graffiti, 2017

A couple more images featuring sightings of question marks in Venice. The first image depicts the current mayor of Venice and the text asks where are you?

Brugnaro, where are you? 2017

Venetian Carnival Mask with question mark motifs, 2018

More question marks from my travels. Below, striking graffiti in Paris which roughly translates as I’m leaving, and you?

Parisian graffiti, 2010

Watching Thunderbirds on TV in Tokyo:

TV screen: A moment from Thunderbirds with Japanese subtitles

A couple from San Francisco:

Marry Me? Mural, San Francisco, 2017

Smile looking like Lombard Street?

I didn’t understand the above billboard when I saw it and had to look it up. Apparently Lombard Street is the most crooked street in the world. Aha!

Next, a selection of images shot in London featuring question marks seen on walls:

Above, during the Covid Pandemic this chalk sign was attached to a chipboard wall, asking who will you hug once this lot is over?

Hate? London, 2015

What homeless people? London, 2016

Question on a Rainy Day, 2023

So What? Kentish Town, 2021

And finally, a question mark on a tattoo, the quotation a line from the Abba song Thank You for the Music:


Also published on Medium.

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