All day long, the same lovely, bizarre triptych of photos has been circulating on Twitter and the blogosphere. The photos depict a sad couple in grungy, unflattering clothes. The visual style calls to mind everyone’s favorite portrayal of the Pacific Northwest: the 2008 film Twilight, directed by Catherine Hardwicke.
According to the accompanying text on the original tweet (which several viral rip-off tweets have loosely mimicked), these are break-up photos. As in, a spinoff from the familiar, joyful genres of Wedding Photos, Engagement Photos, Baby Announcement Photos, and Alright, Now You’re Just Being a Dick, We Get It Already, You’re Happy Photos.
My buddy from wmu took "break up photos" ?? Like they broke up. And took photos pic.twitter.com/4G4HnagVeH— (((William Depew))) (@williamwdepew) February 21, 2017
The initial replies to the tweet (and its various imitations) revolve around a few core themes:
I haven’t responded to any of the tweets, but I think this is beautiful! The boy in the photo, 22-year-old Western Michigan University student Harrison Bach, did a Cosmopolitan interview this afternoon. He explained that the photos were actually taken about a year after he and the girl in them (Jackie) ended their four-year relationship. They took the photos as an “ironic project,” but according to Bach, they weren’t acting: “It was like, put your mindset back when we broke up."
Love is the main reason anyone is alive and working hard to stay that way, so it makes sense that even the chaotic, often meaningless, amoral world of memes would end up dabbling in it, too. People tend to label anything that’s “viral” a meme, and the fact that these photos have been retweeted thousands of times does not automatically make them one. But the definition of a meme is that it can be spun off in some way, with the addition of new text or the application of a new setting. These photo can constitute a meme because they can be supplanted into other contexts of love lost. Everyone has them.
Bach also told Cosmo that he and Jackie are on pretty good terms, because they have to be — their parents are “besties,” so he and Jackie still see each other on visits home from school. He hedged that statement, saying he doesn’t know if she’s seen the viral spread of the photos yet. And he concluded the interview with this sweet little tear-jerker: "Now, when I open my phone, I see her everywhere, literally. It's funny. I get it, but after reading everyone else's comments, it's like, oh no, all these real emotions are coming back."
The photos were an art project in the first place, but not one likely to garner attention from many people in the real world. Online, they have a new life — a viral power enabled by the absurdity they take on when they’re stripped of context. This isn’t anything new. We’ve seen the same with hundreds of photos of real-world people who had no real desire to become part of the language of the internet. From this blinking dude to a tearful Michael Jordan, it’s not really the person or the situation that matters. All that matters is the impact of the image in a vacuum.
I like knowing Harrison’s backstory mainly because I’m a freak, and a sucker for romance, but I don’t need the story to get why the photos are funny. These images are very believable as break-up photos (even though it looks like there’s some face-licking going on in the first one) and break-up photos are very good as dark comedy.
If people can mine their lives for literature or music or painting or whatever else, they should certainly be able to mine their lives for memes, an art form with ever-growing cultural reach. It’s risky, and implies some of the same consequences of writing about your love life or adapting it into song. ("We're on pretty okay terms right now, or at least maybe. I don't know how she feels about this thing blowing up.”)
There are also the same ever-present questions of who “owns” the story of a relationship and who has the right to say what about it. (Diaristic and confessional art has always been more critically acclaimed and well-received when it’s coming from a white male, so it’s lucky for Harrison that he’s both.)
But I don’t find this artwork ridiculous at all. I’m actually busy finding it pretty thrilling, so please don’t email me to the contrary.
Here’s a poem I wrote in Slack, by accident, in honor of these young ex-lovers:
memes are an art!!
going viral is recognition of your art!
you gotta break a few eggs including your own heart : (