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:
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.
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:
Or how Pete Brook illustrated his post just this morning. Such shots are everywhere. They're the face of our time.
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?
A forlorn hipster?
A pilot in training?
This guy doesn't look like he's left his room in a while.
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?"
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!