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Exposure

In Photos: The Internet's Niche Subcultures IRL

Photographer Amy Lombard has spent the last three years infiltrating some of the most obscure and ordinary meet ups across the country.

In the last three years, photographer Amy Lombard has rubbed elbows with pug enthusiasts in Staten Island, a lesbian cougars and cubs group in Oakland, and scrapbookers in Tennessee. She's captured Pokémon with teens in Massachusetts and hunted ghosts with paranormal researchers in New York. "Who doesn't want to go on a ghost hunt?" Lombard says.

These groups and more are featured in Connected, a new book that issues a corrective to the assumption that the internet is creating a culture of loners glued to their computer screen.

Between editorial shoots for GQ, the New York Times, and Vanity Fair, Lombard has also been documenting everyday social groups that platforms like Meetup, Facebook, Instagram, and Tumblr have made possible.

"Community did not die while we were all busy looking at our smartphones. Community evolved," Lombard writes in the book, which was a VSCO Artist Initiative project. "With increasing platforms and technologies, it’s a clear and decisive choice to be alone. No interest, hobby, or passion is too niche for our post-Internet society. What was once a social taboo—meeting strangers and developing relationships online—is now just a normalized part of our society . . .These online interactions no longer serve as an escape from reality, but are a reality in itself."

Lombard can't remember how many groups she visited for the project. There are about 50 in the book, but her running tally is well over 100 and she still continues to meet with some. (She was always transparent about the project with the people she encountered.) The assortment evolved organically. Sometimes she was curious about a subject and wanted to see if there was a group somewhere that was related to it. When she was traveling somewhere and was curious about what was happening in the area, she'd scan what groups meet up to understand the city more; this strategy led her to a "Women of a Certain Age" group in Reno and an energy workers meetup in North Carolina.

"When I went into the project, I was hoping to really map out all the interests that make up our larger culture," Lombard says. "The more I tried to do it, I realized it was impossible."

What she did discover in the project was how the concept of what's "bizarre" and strange is different all across the country.

"One of my favorites is [Harry Potter fan club] The Group That Shall Not Be Named," Lombard says. "I was telling the organizer about a scrapbooking club I met for the book. He says, 'People think we're weird, but scrapbookers are so weird.' And he's telling this to me wearing a Harry Potter outfit. Everyone’s idea of what's strange is relative . . . One thing I really want to come across is this isn’t just a bunch of weird social groups; that's the opposite point I'm to make. I don’t find any of these groups weird or bizarre."

Lombard finished the book well before the election, but she's been thinking about how it might fit in with the political climate. What's become abundantly clear in the days since Trump became President-Elect are the deep fissures in our society. There are misunderstandings about the composition of our country and the concerns of our fellow citizens. Would we all stand to gain something by adopting Lombard's genuine curiosity about people who aren't like us?

"There's a line at the end of the intro from one of my very last meetups," Lombard says. "'The more connected we are the better.' I truly believe that."

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