Friday, June 10, 2011

See How We Are

What do you look like as you read this now? Maybe something like this?

from Random Strangers by John Ryan Brubaker

Staring at a monitor in some darkened corner, face lit by the LCD glow, focused on another distant world.

When someone in the future writes the history of our time, at least its digital component, this will be its face: the screen looking back at us. In recent years some photographers have made portraits based on the theme:

from Gamers by Todd Deutsch

from Gamers by Philip Toledano

Tosh.0 from Bloggers by Gabriela Herman

George Kelly, 2011

I love each of these projects but in a way they're old fashioned. They rely on a photographer venturing out into the real world with a camera, a process that still works well but is beginning to seem rather quaint. It's so 20th century. The modern way is to have the real world come to you. Just ask Jon Rafman or Doug Rickard.

John Ryan Brubaker has tapped into the Zeitgeist with his recent project Random Strangers. Brubaker, an anthropologist by training, spent last year conducting fieldwork on Chatroulette, the social media site which connects video feeds at random from around the world. You load someone's feed. You chat until you're bored (usually just a second or two), then click "Next". Another feed loads. In some ways the site models a typical Photo Review, but accelerated and done virtually. Few make it to the happy ending.

Screenshot of Random Strangers screenshots

Brubaker perused the site and took screenshots of whoever looked interesting. Most are young multitaskers with short attention spans. Because interactions were fleeting, he had to be quick on the keyboard. Just grab and go. We could argue about whether or not these photos represent "the real world" but it seems undeniable that "Grab and Go" could be a sort of catchphrase for our times, for better or for worse. Just look how Anthony Weiner recently introduced himself:

Anthony Weiner sext message photo

Or how Pete Brook illustrated his post just this morning. Such shots are everywhere. They're the face of our time.

Pete Brook / Aline Smithson, 6/10/11

Like Gamers and Bloggers, Random Strangers is a typology study, but with more variety than either. The photos are framed, cropped and lit in all sorts of ways. The backgrounds vary widely. But I think the thing that gives this series the biggest charge is the pure uncertainty of it. When you click "Next" on Chatroulette you have no idea what's coming, and some of that tension comes through in the photos. Most of the images are downright creepy. A guy with his shirt off?

from Random Strangers by John Ryan Brubaker

A forlorn hipster?

from Random Strangers by John Ryan Brubaker

A pilot in training?

from Random Strangers by John Ryan Brubaker

This guy doesn't look like he's left his room in a while.

from Random Strangers by John Ryan Brubaker

Who are these people? Who knows. Just grab and go. That's the realm of street photographers, and in some ways screenshotting Chatroulette is like walking down a busy street with a camera. Anyone could pop up at any time. It's uncertain, anonymous, fleeting, and exciting, just like street photography, but done from home. It's one of those projects that seems so contemporary, so pre-ordained, that you wonder "why didn't I think of that?"

John Ryan Brubaker self portrait

For me Random Strangers raises all sorts of fun, messy questions about digital culture and photography's role in it. Where is the line online between public and private? What is appropriate to share with strangers? What counts as sexting? Do people online have any rights to their images (Brubaker didn't ask for consent)? What's the nature of voyeurism? Is everyone a narcissist at heart?

I know I am. I can't help shooting myself, sometimes in the foot, sometimes in the head. Next!

B, Photobooth portrait, 9:25 am, 6/10/11


Anonymous said...

Interesting. I knew the project from Gabriela Herman before but I find "Random Strangers" to be much more unsettling, very intrusive and somewhat fascinating.

I had some kind of reverse idea last year, i.e. taking photographs of my monitor browsing various websites: news, merchant sites, porn, online games or whatever, (actually the more the better) to figure out what we can bring at home through a fixed point of entry. I never did it by the way - but there is probably something similar already.

Anonymous said...

Re: "Random Strangers"
Thinking more of it I believe it is arguably a contemporary version of Walker Evans' portrait series in the subway, in the final result as well as the process of making it (both being part of the concept).