We live in a world in which some of the people we are closest to are often not near us at all.
When we document our day-to-day existence in photographs and Instagrams, these people are absent. Their presence in our lives is missing from our digital memories.
Photographer John Clang's series Being Together seeks to correct this. Using Skype and projectors, he captures families visually as they are virtually.
"In these images," Clang told me over email, "I am marking the time for these families, enabling them to remember these strange moments of togetherness with the technology presently available. The picture doesn't stop here, it lingers on in their memory. It embraces the intimacy and closeness of a family, no matter how far apart they are."
The project grew out of personal experience. Clang moved from Singapore, where his parents are, to New York in 1999. In the 13 years since, the experience of that distance has changed dramatically. "When I first moved to New York, I had to limit my calls to my parents as overseas calls were very expensive. Every time I call, I [would] time it and make a note, just in case the phone company bills me for more than what I've used. Now I just pick up the phone and call whenever I want to, as though they are in the same city as me."
He visits his parents once or twice a year, but he sought to document their time "together" over communications technology in a portrait. "The process," he said, "moved me very much and I had the idea to extend it to other families."
"During the shooting," he continued, "most of [the families] were having fun interacting with each other through Skype. They were a bit puzzled how the image was going to be done. But once they start seeing the resulting image, most of them start to see the deep impact of such a session. There's a very deep longing in their sentiments. You can sense that they miss each other very much, and yet it's something we have to accept in the current fast-paced society."
Clang noticed an interesting response particularly among some of the older members of a family. While they were happy and embraced the chance to connect with their family so far away, "there's a little tinge of sadness to have experienced [this technology] at their late stage of life."
Upon reflection, Clang added, "To be able to witness all these technology progress and wondering what the future looks like, which they may not be able to participate brings a tinge of sadness to me. I think maybe I'm the one sensing the sadness."
Are they here or not here? Are we together or apart? The photographs answer with the same ambiguity we feel.
The artist "with" his parents:
The complete series of 40 portraits will be on display in a solo exhibit at the National Museum of Singapore beginning in early 2013.