If You Can’t Take a Walk in Someone Else’s Shoes, Try Taking a Good Look at Them

A pair of shoes on display at Toronto’s Bata Shoe Museum, which houses the world’s largest collection of shoes and footwear-related objects..

When my family first moved to Asia, I seemed to see Americans every time we rode the subway. Later, I lost some of my cultural myopia and realized that a lot of those “Americans” were Europeans, or South Africans, or . . . . Of course the biggest giveaway was to hear them speak. Hairstyles and clothing helped, too.

Then I started looking at shoes. There’s just something telling about our shoes. Maybe it’s flip-flops vs dress shoes, or Nikes vs a brand of indoor soccer shoes I’ve never heard of. I’m no expert on footwear, and I can’t always put my finger on what’s different, but I know it when I see it.

You can tell a lot by looking at people’s shoes.

Take, for instance, the “array of worn-down, ill-fitting, and jerry-rigged shoes” worn by refugees fleeing military campaigns in Sudan, escaping into South Sudan in 2012. Shannon Jensen chronicled their journey by photographing their shoes. Her series of photos, “A Long Walk,” won an Award of Excellence from Pictures of the Year International (POYi).

Take, for instance, Yuxin Horatio Han’s Unifold shoes. Han grew up in China and developed his “origami” shoes, inspired by Indian moccasins, at Pratt Institute’s School of Art and Design in Brooklyn. Each of Han’s shoes—he’s created two different prototypes—are made from a single piece of foam rubber. After the pattern is cut with a die, the shoe can be folded together in a two-minute process. Han is currently tinkering with the design and looking at alternate fabrics, and when he’s done, cheap, easily assembled shoes could become available to the world market.

Take, for instance, the thousands of pairs of footwear on display at the Bata Shoe Museum in Toronto. If you’re in the area, check out their exhibit “Collected in the Field: Shoemaking Traditions from around the World.” Or online, browse through “The Shoe Project,” a collection of stories by 14 women who have immigrated to Canada from several countries, including Nigeria, Panama, Pakistan, Afghanistan, and Turkey. Each contributor, aided by novelist Katherine Govier, writes about a significant pair of shoes and how they help give insight into a special occasion in her life.

Konsentrasjonsleiren KS Auschwitz I
Some of the over 110,000 shoes at the Auschwitz-Birkenau Memorial and Museum.

And take, for instance, the 110,000 shoes of Holocaust victims on display at the Auschwitz-Birkenau Memorial and Museum . . . or the pile of 4,000 shoes exhibited at Washington, D.C.’s United States Holocaust Memorial Museum—shoes collected by the Nazis in the concentration camp in Majdanek, Poland. According to the museum’s website, visitors often say that seeing the shoes and smelling the shoes “is the most searing memory from their time in the Permanent Exhibition.” Also from the site:

When Soviet troops liberated the Auschwitz-Birkenau and Majdanek camps, they discovered huge mounds of shoes, hundreds of thousands of pairs, but very few living prisoners. At the sight of these inanimate witnesses, veteran CBS News correspondent Edward R. Murrow commented, “One shoe, two shoes, a dozen shoes, yes. But how can you describe several thousand shoes?”

You can tell a lot by looking at people’s shoes.

(Andrew Lampard, “Check Out These New Origami Kicks!” Yahoo! News, November 22, 2013; Katherine Boyle)

[photos: “Crocodile Shoes,” by Sheila Thomson, used under a Creative Commons license; and “Shoes from Prisoners – Auschwitz I,” by Jorge Láscar , used under a Creative Commons license]