This article was first published on March 31st, 2016.
Have you ever stared at a photo of your ex on Facebook or Instagram looking really happy with the new you? That was the starting point for artist and photographer Imogen Freeland’s beautiful book, with a pink cover, called Your Companion In Silence
. The title works on many levels, the most immediate being: you’re not the only one who’s seen an image that hurt you online, had to silently swallow the pain, and get on with your day. Imogen’s ex of five years broke up with her on Facebook chat, and then ceased all contact. “I watched his life carry on, without me, online,” she writes in the foreword to the book.
A month after the break up, Imogen learned that her friend had died via a post on her Facebook wall. “It’s as though you’re watching the world through glass; you can see, but you can’t touch. Life through the online lens feels like fiction.” Disturbed by the chain of events, and in a genuine attempt to reconnect with the people she once knew in real life, Imogen started sending Facebook
messages, and began a home visit portrait series.
Some of the pictures are accompanied by anecdotes of the interaction; sometimes it was weird, sometimes it just started off weird, and, in one particular instance, she didn't find what she was looking for. The project – on the surface a smart set of portraits – is a heartfelt, motivated response to our generation’s giant flaw: the digital disconnect.
Click through to see the portraits alongside Imogen's captions, and read our interview with Imogen below.Why did you call the project ‘Your Companion In Silence’? What is the silence?
The name has a lot of important meanings in it for me. I think with my ex, specifically, the sudden absence of online communication felt like it spoke more poignantly than its presence ever had. I guess the only relationship that was left between us became one of silence and that silence resonated.
By the time I finished making the book it felt like my diary. It had been such a personal journey; I'd had little time to consider what other people would make of it and very suddenly I was aware that those I'd photographed would read it too. In that sense, it was as if I was speaking to them directly in the form of a letter. So the comma at the end: Your Companion in Silence, is me signing out.
Your Companion in Silence,
How did you choose which people to photograph? What was the process?
A lot of the relationships I chose to explore through the project were ones that I felt anxious thinking about. I came to realise that this was because I have some anxiety about the nature of transitioning relationships – people moving on, friendships constantly changing and losing people to this. I was at a point in my life where I felt I needed to push myself out of my comfort zone. I started with a girl I went to school with, who I barely knew, and of course I didn't know how she might think of me now, and that didn't sit very well with me. I was interested in a dress she'd posted a picture of repeatedly online… It felt like an excuse to reconnect, to collaborate, so I sent her a message online. That idea continued and I found other reasons with everyone else.I read the description about how you felt when you saw the photo of your ex’s new girlfriend and thought it was so beautifully put. Then I realised the girl in the picture that goes with this caption is you, not her. Why are you wearing the pink dress?
It's a self portrait that I curated based on a picture of my ex with his new girlfriend. The dress is what she was wearing and my stance is similar to hers in the picture. The text that goes alongside it is something I wrote as a reaction to first seeing the photograph online. It came from a very honest place, how I felt at the time, but it is not meant to be anything personally directed at her. It is a statement about the role social media plays in our lives and relationships and the voyeuristic nature of it, that I believe people are able to relate to.
How do you think we can avoid feeling bad in those situations? Leave Facebook?
I think it's a natural reaction and I think it's important to be able to acknowledge that. The book hopefully normalises these feelings that we are often too embarrassed to tell anyone about. I've had a lot of emails from people who have seen the project and shared their own stories with me, saying they feel relieved they are not alone, and it's incredibly clear to me that they have struggled to admit these feelings even to their closest friends.
Probably because of the mere fact I've made a book about it, a few of my friends have spoken to me about struggling with similar feelings and my advice is always to avoid looking at them online or to block that person to avoid the temptation of doing so. There seems to be this incredible habit we have to indulge ourselves in the things that hurt us. I have one friend who listened to the advice when she was going through a breakup and I really admire her strength. She made a conscious decision not to dwell on things and to do what was best for her, so she blocked him. There was still this deep desire for her to know what stage he was at in his life; if he'd met anyone else, and she missed him of course, but she stood by her decision because she knew in the long run it wasn't a healthy platform to have access to at such a time. I honestly believe she moved on a million times quicker because of it. It's very unhealthy to continue to see the person you are trying to move on from on social media every day – it's impossible to think that wouldn't negatively effect you, when it gives them such a presence. I think I learnt that the hard way, but tried to create something positive from the experience, which was one of the main drives of the project for me.
How do you think your ex boyfriend’s new girlfriend feels when she looks at you on Facebook/ Instagram? What do you think she sees?
I think it's probably the same feeling with most ex's and new partners, it can feel uncomfortable. Nobody wants to imagine their partner having ever been with anyone else prior, but I don't think it's ever anything personal. I can certainly relate to it from both sides – my partners have usually had ex girlfriends too!
Did you achieve what you set out to achieve with the project, and was it cathartic?
It was an incredibly cathartic experience and at times a real roller coaster. When the project was finished I found the thought of sharing it initially very daunting. I didn't have much time to digest that at the opening night of the exhibition. However, the entire experience of making the work turned a time where I was really struggling into something I am very proud of.
Why didn’t you Photoshop out the stain on that lady’s pants? [Click through for image]
Not Photoshopping the stain out and including this in the series was to address this idea of being able to construct how we're seen through photography and online. Being able to retouch our flaws and present ourselves perfectly to the world causes a lot of the problems within social networking. It allows us to think everyone else is better off, happier, more together than us and leaves us with a constant sense of inadequacy. Personally I think being able to show your weaknesses is a strength. The friend in the photograph is an amazingly strong character, who I know is also incredibly comfortable with themselves, so despite them asking me to edit it out, I knew they wouldn't be too disappointed that I hadn't.
Why did you want to photograph your ex? How do you feel about that picture now?
If you'd asked me at the time, perhaps I would have had a better answer for you. I think I always knew the project would end with him. I wanted answers for how we'd ended and I'd imagined he'd be able to give them to me.
Your point in the introduction about social media being like watching the world through glass is so interesting. Personally, I think it contributes to our generation’s feeling of stress, because it rises up in us, and there’s no real life outlet for it. We have to just silently swallow everything we see on social media that hurts us, because of this “stalker” shame. We’re not allowed to react. What do you think about that?
It's something I feel that we haven't particularly been able to culturally address. It seems as though we're all a bit overwhelmed by the power of social media and we struggle to manage its direct impact on us as individuals and on our relationships.
I think the internet can have an incredibly empowering social and political presence for voices struggling to be heard. However, for many of us in the western world, the internet has become a platform on which we create and maintain real life relationships at the same time as self promoting, alluding to a version of ourselves that is impossible to depict from reality. From the comfort of my own bed I am able to post a picture of myself standing on top of a mountain, as if in real time. When everybody is doing this and appears to be living such polished and exciting lives, we all suffer from a constant state of inadequacy. When you see this for the artificiality of it all, you realise in reality it is often the most active online presences that perhaps have the least genuine lives. And perhaps by acknowledging this, we are able to participate without being consumed, and we can release ourselves from its negative grasp.
What are you working on now?
At the moment I am working on a new series exploring my relationships with my sister (a painter) and my boyfriend (a writer) as we transition through each other's work via the interplay of fact and fiction. An impossible question, but what do you think makes a good picture?
For me a picture is about a feeling that it conveys, I can look at a composition and be blown away, but for me an interesting picture is one that raises questions.
You can follow Imogen on Instagram @imogenfreeland