Social media is a major part of modern life, but it has created a paradox. Think of all those celebrities or friends you follow, retweet, and like. You know what they're doing. You know how they're feeling. You "know" them as a person, and yet you've never met in person. What's the difference between "knowing" and knowing?
That's the central idea behind local photographer Leslie McKellar's new photo series Not Quite Strangers. Like many photographers, McKellar extensively uses Instagram. Like everyone on social media, she follows people she doesn't know — getting glimpses into lives, and assuming, like we all do, that those she follows without meeting would be her friends in real life.
"'Knowing' someone only via social media is strange," McKellar says. "It's similar to feeling like we know our favorite celebrities because we see hundreds of photographs of them in magazines and on the web, and we watch them in movies or on stage, or listen to them sing, and we read interviews with them, and we see news reports about them and we follow them on Instagram and Twitter. We consume them."
However, McKellar could actually meet some of the people she "knew" from Instagram. They weren't faraway celebrities, but fellow local artists. That closeness allowed McKellar to bridge the gap, so she contacted six strangers. Five said yes.
"Meeting these people face to face felt like breaking the glass wall," she says. "There's not that invisible separator anymore."
Over coffee and beer, McKellar got to know those she already "knew" — Charleston photographers Rusty Ross, Sam Rueter, Jared Bramblett, Corbett Tripler, and Ben Jacobs. They talked about all sorts of things, from the modern, social media influenced desire to document everything to shared loves of travelling and growing up in the North.
- Back in the day Leslie McKellar took photos for City Paper
After each meeting, McKellar took a portrait of the person inspired by their conversation. And Not Quite Strangers was born. We can thank Bramblett for the title.
McKellar says her inspiration for the series, which came to her while she was walking her dog, wasn't a clearly defined event.
"It was one of those 'I get my best ideas in the shower' things," she says. "To say that the idea was random or came out of nowhere is probably not accurate; I think it came from my heart. I think sometimes our minds get in the way of the idea that wants to bubble up out of a deeper, more organic well. It's when we turn our brains off that our hearts can offer us the good stuff."
Each description of the person behind the profile ends with "I am glad to know you," but McKellar admits that it's not like she and her subjects are now extremely close friends. They're just a little closer than before.
"Two or three of the five and I have talked about hanging out again and/or working on creative projects together," says McKellar. "I think if I were describing them in conversation I might use 'an acquaintance-friend of mine.' They are people I've met in person and like, but don't know well."
Interestingly, McKellar's discussion with Ben Jacobs on the modern obsession to document everything provides a paradoxical lens to look at Not Quite Strangers. Would she still have met her five subjects just to meet them, not as part of a photo project, if she didn't have social media?
"It’s possible — I’ve done it before. A few years ago, I lived in Riverland Terrace and started using the hashtag “riverlandterrace” when I’d post a shot from the neighborhood on Instagram," McKellar says. "Then I realized a couple other folks were regularly using that hashtag. We started following each other, and eventually I messaged them and asked if they wanted to hang out. We’re good friends now."
In this project, meeting people came first.
"The joy in this project was meeting new people, making photographs, and writing,” she said. “The sharing came from the hope that others might also find joy in this project and find the courage to break down some of the walls that social media seems to create between us at times.”
McKellar's photography has been featured in many publications, including Garden & Gun, Charleston Magazine, travelandleisure.com, and rollingstone.com. You can see all of Not Quite Strangers on her website and follow her on Instagram at leslieryann.