Love in the time of social media
People You May Know, Chandan Gomes's photo novella on love, identity and online relationships, is the only Indian work on display at the Rencontres dArles
In early 2016, New Delhi based photographer Chandan Gomes received a message request on Facebook from a user named Tara Banerjee: “Hello, Gomes". When he checked her profile—which had no display image and little in the way of identifying information—he saw that they had 25 friends in common, all photographers. So he accepted the request and the two quickly struck up a discussion about photography, starting a conversation that continues till date, traversing such diverse terrains as art, philosophy, pain, loss and love. But these exchanges of confidences and intimacies were complicated by the fact that Gomes didn’t really know who he was talking to. Banerjee, as he quickly found out, is a pseudonym. “That pissed me off initially, but it also intrigued me," says Gomes over the phone. “The cheekiness of a person who says that I could be anyone, I won’t tell you who I am, but I still want to prick you, provoke you."
A few months later, Gomes started taking screenshots of the conversation. The idea was to create an archive as insurance, in case Banerjee was an elaborate prank played by his friends, or a stranger catfishing him for more sinister purposes. Those screenshots—and the conversations they document—form the basis of his latest project People You May Know, which has been selected as the only Indian work to be showcased at the prestigious Rencontres d’Arles photography festival in France, alongside work by such greats as William Wegman and the late René Burri. The photo novella, as Gomes calls it, consists of a selection of 38 images, interspersing the screenshots with film stills and posters, pages from his journals, images he was making at the time, as well as those taken from his archives. It is photography as prose, the images engaging with text and other media to tell a story about romance, obsession and doubt.
The title, People You May Know, is an ironic reference to the feature on Facebook that suggests people you can add as friends, using algorithms to determine who you may or may not know. But it also hints at one of the big questions that Gomes tries to tackle through this project. What does it really mean to know someone in this age of information (and misinformation)? As social media increasingly dominates our relationships and bleeds into our offline lives, how do we tell sincerity from deception over a stream of ones and zeroes?
“There are so many people I know on Facebook—photographers, artists—whom I’ve never met," says Gomes. “We’ll congratulate each other on our shows, share each other’s work. They feel like friends, but they actually aren’t. And that feels very dangerous sometimes. You believe that you have a friend who isn’t actually a friend. And then you kind of lose grip on the people who are actually there in your life."
In People You May Know, Gomes uses his conversations with Banerjee as a jumping point for explorations into how the internet has reshaped identity and “our understanding of the self". In doing this, he touches upon the tension between anonymity and authenticity that is at the heart of the online experience. In the early days, when the internet was still largely a playground for geeks, anonymity was the norm. Strangers from all over the world would pour their hearts out to each other on forums and in chat rooms, comfortable in the assumed safety of pseudonyms. Once Facebook and Google turned social media into a digital public square, that changed.
The social network business model depends on linking your online activity with your non-anonymous, “authentic" identity, so your Facebook profile and Google IDs now had to be connected to real names. But this interlinking of online and offline identities isn’t foolproof, as in the case of Banerjee. And there is more to identity than the name you use.
“With the internet, I often feel that it works both ways," says Gomes. “Either you want to be everything that you can’t be in the non-virtual world. Or you are actually who you are on the internet, because of the anonymity it allows you, and in the non-virtual world you’re always pretending. I think we all live through this dichotomy because of how identity plays out on Facebook or Twitter or all these spaces."
But Gomes is quick to point out that this fuzziness of identity isn’t just an online phenomenon. The curation of the self that we see on our social media timelines is an extension of who we are in the offline world. “One thing that this work has done is make me question this divide between the virtual and the real," he says. “Human nature, at its core, cannot change. Even if you’re something different online, if you’re projecting an image, that might come from your need for attention, which is a very normal human trait that is present in everyone to different extents."
Even as their online conversation deepened and grew more intimate, it continued to be tinged with suspicion and anxiety. One minute, Gomes would be sharing his deepest secrets—his “trysts with self-harm", his mother’s struggles with a memory disorder. The next, he would be wondering if Banerjee was laughing at his confessions, or pleading with her not to break his trust. He worried about finding out-of-context screenshots on the Facebook therapy groups he had seen, where people post conversations with friends or loved ones that they feel have betrayed or wronged them. Part of his motivation for putting People You May Know out there, he says, is to pre-empt that possibility.
“This fear that led me to put out this work, it also made me turn the lens on to myself," he says. Trained in the documentary tradition, Gomes started out as a stringer covering the crime beat for a local newspaper. But, as time went by, he felt guilty about photographing other people’s suffering when he lacked the courage to confront and acknowledge his own.
People You May Know, then, is also an act of catharsis and exorcism. “I thought if I could put these things out, then the next time I turn my lens on someone who’s suffered, I would know to what extent to go in my images and where to stop. I’ll have no guilt in putting that work out, and I don’t want to have that guilt any more."
Two years on, Gomes’ conversation with Banerjee—whom he still hasn’t seen or met—is still on, and he is still adding to his archive of screenshots. The show at Arles isn’t the end of the People You May Know project, but a turning point. In the future, he wants to expand its focus to include the many other people he has come across or interacted with online, but never met. “There’s also the idea of what happens when I put out all these conversations with a person I’m still having a conversation with," he says. “What does it do to the relationship, what does it do to identity?"