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ATM machine in Varna, Bulgaria.

An ATM machine in Varna, Bulgaria, at which Andrew Schroeder had money withdrawn from his account twice.

Mob mentality

Fellowship helps student get creative with his stolen identity

By Steve Anderson

From M, spring 2007

For five weeks last summer, Andrew Schroeder was a Bulgarian mobster. The second-year visual arts M.F.A. student traipsed around the Balkans, hanging out in seedy hotels, decrepit resorts, and smoky taverns--all in the name of research.

Schroeder was on the trail of thieves who had stolen his identity off the Internet. The crooks, probably part of organized crime, created a credit card and launched a spending spree through Macedonia and Bulgaria. Because of lagging technology, they were able to ring up more than 60 transactions over a two-week period before Schroeder's bank canceled the card.

"After I was done moping around, I realized it was actually an opportunity," recalls Schroeder, who decided to turn the experience into a documentary photo project. "Part of my interest was a sense of voyeurism, to see what I could learn about someone through something as trivial as a financial transaction."

Using credit card statements, he drew up an itinerary that included shops, hotels, restaurants, and ATM machines--places at which, according to bank records, he'd already been. A prestigious Judd Fellowship helped fund the project. Established in 2002 by a gift from the Walter H. Judd Fund of The Minneapolis Foundation, the program has already given more than 100 graduate and professional students the chance to study and conduct research abroad.

Since Schroeder's goal was total immersion, he checked his personal preferences at the border. In restaurants, he ordered dishes that matched the charges to his account, which led the vegetarian to choke down many a meat-based specialtiy, including one featuring pork neck in a boiling clay cauldron.

Another aim of the research was to explore the notion of identity in today's digital world. "I found that it's a really eerie, amazing thing when your paper trail and your conscious, physiological being smack into one another," says Schroeder, "especially at an over-60 resort on the Black Sea."

View images from Schroeder's project and read his diary entries.