A few years ago, Amy Lombard photographed a pug Meetup in Staten Island, NY. She left the event curious about how the Internet had united a diverse group of people, based purely around their shared interest in pugs. From that point on, Lombard began shooting more and more of these gatherings, evolving the photographs into a long term series documenting Meetup culture around the country. "At a certain point along the way," Lombard tells us, "I kind of had to play the role of therapist on myself: What is it exactly that is appealing to me about the idea of documenting people coming together from the Internet and finding their people?" Lombard's latest book, Connected, designed by Elysia Berman, follows groups ranging from "Parrot and Kimono Lovers" to the Harry Potter obsessed, with a curious, yet non-othering eye, looking to how they use social media to find community in real life. We spoke with Amy to learn more about the series and her inspiration behind it. The project was supported by the VSCO Artist Initiative, and you can buy the book HERE.
You talk a bit about this in your statement – can you elaborate on how your fascination with online subcultures relates to your own experience growing up, hanging out in AOL chatrooms, etc?
The project wasn't something I had planned deliberately going into the first meet-up I was photographing, which was a pug meet-up in Staten Island. Initially I was interested in our relationship with animals--this was around the time I was working on my series Doggies and Tiaras. I left Staten Island that day being more interested in how the Internet had brought together all these people around a specific dog breed. It was pretty extraordinary. From there, I found myself just gravitating toward shooting more and more meet-ups--and really, I was just following my curiosity. It all started to happen fairly organically. At a certain point along the way, I kind of had to play the role of therapist on myself: What is it exactly that is appealing to me about the idea of documenting people coming together from the Internet and finding their people?
For a good chunk of my childhood, I was painfully shy. I constantly felt like an outcast in most social situations. I remember getting my first screen name (Smileygirl726, just FYI) and going into chat rooms for the first time--being able to talk to people in a way I felt like I couldn't in real life. Through various platforms on the Internet over the years, I found my people. I felt like I belonged, even if it was in front of a computer screen. At a certain point, I had this "crew" on AOL where we all coordinated our profiles. I had a family on the Sims Online. When I was 18, I even met my longtime roommate Danielle off of Myspace. I could go on and on and probably embarrass myself to a ridiculous degree! These interactions and communities shaped not only who I was and who I grew up to be, but it shaped my understanding of the world around me. Danielle aside, it was still a social taboo to do these things and to see offline relationships through the Internet. You know, You've Got Mail era.
This project is not only an anthropological study of culture as a result of technological advancements, but in a way I feel like this project is my own personal ode to the Internet to explore how it has affected other peoples lives. Even though these individuals stories and what connects them isn't necessarily always something I identify with, there was still an aspect about it that felt personal.
What is "weird" anymore when you can easily find a group of people who like what you do--not just behind a computer screen, but in real life? These were things I experienced growing up. It's becoming more difficult to be alienated from people. Because of the inherit openness of the Internet and widespread use of social media, now more than ever it's a choice to be alone. There are so many choices and ways to connect with people it's almost overwhelming. As much as the internet breeds bullying, it also helps people connect with each other in the most unexpected interests and commonalities. What I wanted to do was document that societal shift, which is something I've seen over the course of my 26 years on this planet. You constantly hear that community died while we were all busy looking at our phones--when you see these photos, it's just not true.
Were you ever on LiveJournal?
Hell yes. I think I used LiveJournal until 2007/08--so yeah, I really held onto it. Livejournal was sort of like a more underground Myspace for me. I thought the LiveJournal community was really special, and an important safe space for me. It was free from the norms I went to school with. There were two LJ communities that I was a regular in: Madradhair and an indie music one whose name I cannot seem to remember. Madradhair was everything to me. It basically helped me feel like less of a freak. It was full of coon tails, mohawks, mullets, and rainbow hair before it was trendy. I have this one memory of running into a guy who I knew/talked to from Madradhair at a show in Philly. He saw me and recognized me from my gorgeous fashion mullet, and introduced himself. When he asked me my name I said my LIVEJOURNAL USERNAME, then he asked me what my actual name was. Oh dear god. I was not ready for these online relationships to manifest themselves IRL yet.
How does this series relate to your commercial/ editorial work?
This is a really good question, and brace yourself for a bit of a rant/stream of consciousness. This might not be exactly as you intended me to answer, but in recent months I've been thinking about this a lot--the idea of something being your own work (like this project) vs. making it for someone else.
In regards to commercial work, it doesn't relate at all to me on a personal level because the approach with fashion and advertising work is really a different mindset for me. It is actually a fun break for me when I get to do this kind of work. Yet the viewer isn't typically thinking about process--visuals come first. Stylistically no matter what I'm shooting it always looks like my photographs: heavy flash, colorful and upfront. There are a lot of photographers who get similar jobs/clients, but they have more versatility--they can document scenes with a natural light, airy feel or use lighting that makes it feel more vivid and crisp. Stylistically I have no versatility in that respect--and I don't want to. So when you look at my personal work like Connected vs. editorial or commercial, it might not seem that different at face value
As a documentary photographer, regardless of if it's Connected or an assignment, it's always telling a story. Here's the thing though: when I set out to quit my job as a social media editor at TIME and freelance as a photographer, I made that decision that I was not going to compromise my vision and I wanted to build a career as a photographer based on my interests. Otherwise, I didn't want to do this--it wasn't worth it to me. I pitched relentlessly the stories I was finding that I wanted to tell. People didn't take me seriously at first, but thanks to a few key individuals, I was able to document what would have been my personal work and this was how I was able to develop whatever following I have now. This really shaped the type of stories I'm now hired to do that I don't come up with. It's kind of amazing that an editor at the New York Times tells me I was the first person she thought of for a story on reality TV. That's when you know you've done something right.
When I started working on Connected, it happened organically. It didn't seem to fit in the context of everything else I was doing with news outlets, and I had this yearning to want to have something that was just my own--which is why I applied for the VSCO Artist Initiative grant to help see the project through. I guess I think now after this book is done--and as I'm moving forward--the question is where should my work exist? Does it matter if I'm making the work I want for other people? I couldn't help but wonder if it's a bad thing that my personal work like Connected and what other people ask me to do (or if I pitch a story) look similar and both explore what I'm interested in. Then I realize at the end of the day, as long as I'm making the kind of work I'm proud to put my name on, it doesn't matter. The key, really, is to be conceptual and intentional with how and what platforms I use to tell these stories and think about them deeply on an individual basis. (whether book, editorial story, gallery show, etc)
You worked at TIME briefly managing social media -- do you think this plays into your lineage with online communities, and your own work?
Absolutely. You know, Connected technically began when I was working at TIME. To now look at it after the fact with some perspective, given my day to day while I was working there, I don't think it's coincidental that as I said before I went to a pug meetup initially interested in our relationship with animals, and let feeling fascinated by how the Internet facilitated these relationships. This was what I was doing around the clock. It was really my job to understand how the Internet connects people, so this really was my first outlet to do that visually.
How much interaction do you have with each group before you photograph them?
Very, very little. I will lurk online for awhile to observe, but in terms of interaction a lot of the time it's just an email. Sometimes, a phone call. I kind of like to just dive in head first.
My sense is that these communities are pretty open to your presence, they give you a lot, seem like you’re able to be invisible while shooting. Has this always been the case/ have there been any instances where people don't trust you?
For the most part, they have been pretty open to my presence. I can't say that's always the case. Sometimes people were definitely skeptical, or often times when I was not in a major city they were just perplexed that someone with a camera was there in the first place. I can't explain it, but whenever I am photographing--even outside of this project--sometimes people really don't even notice that I'm there. And I'm not being discrete, either. With my setup being discrete isn't possible. It's crucial when capturing these moments or interesting details.
Were you always this comfortable photographing strangers?
Always. I've talked about how the Internet helped me come out of my shell, but photography was a big component in that as well. I am with strangers more than I see my friends or family, so talking to new people at this point is just second nature.
What’s the story behind “The Group That Shall Not Be Named?”
Ah, one of my favorites! They are one of the largest Harry Potter meetups to exist. Ever. They are based in New York.
Amazing. Now that you’ve edited this work into a book, are you still photographing Meetups?
I am. Not as many though--just a few core ones. It's become such a part of my life that it's sort of hard to let go. Aside from that, with some of these, there's friendships involved now. I still go to a ghost hunting meetup in New York. A few weeks ago we did a ghost hunt in a fancy Soho boutique. I wish I had a video of six ghost hunters surrounding a well asking "Are you there? Are you hurt?" as tourists shop for expensive shirts. And the book release party is basically centered around The Group That Shall Not Be Named since it's part Harry Potter cosplay day, part book party. (which takes place November 15 at VSCO NY and is open to the public ;) )
You’ve developed a pretty wide following, and a substantial editorial portfolio. I’d imagine that publishers would be dying to work with you. Why the decision to self-publish?
I haven't met anyone in publishing yet that I felt like could help me see my vision through. Trusting people with my work is really hard for me. I've learned this the hard way. I certainly welcome it and would love to talk with anyone interested though. I think I needed to do this myself. You learn a lot about yourself, your work, and the process of making a book when you have full control. I'm really, really glad I self published, but my next project which is on square dancing in America, I am hoping to be working with a publisher instead.
Bio: Amy Lombard is a photographer living and working in Brooklyn, NY. Originally from Philadelphia, Lombard moved to New York in 2008 to pursue her BFA from the Fashion Institute of Technology where she graduated in 2012. Her bold and colorful work has landed her clients from the New York Times, New York Times Magazine, VICE, New York Magazine, Vanity Fair, the New Yorker, WWD, T Magazine, M Le Monde, TIME, WIRED, Bloomberg Businessweek, Refinery29 to Samsung, Facebook, Barneys and Swatch among many others.