Saturday, February 11, 2012

Aram - 8/23/11

The Continuing Saga of the UFCK Photo Project: the Aram

With four or five or six photo shoots under my belt, the summer months of 2011 were a frenzy of logistical emails and postings. In the beginning of the year, when the project funding was announced, I made plans to travel during the early summer, around the fourth of July.

Then, I bought a house. It was a good step towards normal, adult, decorum, but that ordeal set me back several weeks, and before I knew it, the end of August, Labor Day, and the beginning of my academic year were all staring me in the face and I had to get on the road for the project.

More emails. More planning. More spreadsheets. I used maps and the Internet to try to figure out the best routes to take. I would be shipping my equipment to my parents' house in Michigan, fly out of Boise, pick up and go. By mid-August, I had a crude plan in place to follow a big loop from Michigan through Chicago, down to Tennessee, back up through the DC area to New York before heading home through Philadelphia.

Sorting through the schedules of almost two dozen people was one thing. Stepping off a plane and meeting someone you'd never met before was another. The first person on my list of subjects, and the main focus of the entire project from its inception, was Aram.

Let me tell you a little bit about Aram.

He's a character. A relatively normal character, but a character nonetheless. On he is easily the the site's most recognizable members, both because of his appearance and his personality. His loves include the Beatles, vinyl records, the University of Michigan (and especially its Marching Band), Michigan beer, soul music, playing on a vintage baseball team, his Armenian heritage, and his academic studies, among others.

For whatever reason–most likely because Aram has been around since its inception and the inception of its predecessors, which has resulted in a more extensive reputation than someone just joining the boards–Aram gets picked on. A lot. Oftentimes, it's in good fun, and he takes it in jest. It's schoolyard teasing among friends. Sometimes, though, it's, well, rougher than that. He's opinionated, sure, but his opinions resonate across this online community oftentimes like wildfire. He's different, and I knew that before I even met him in person. He's emotional, which rarely serves one well in an online forum as sarcastic and caustic as can be. But his specific emotions somehow help him stay afloat and keep a level head through all of the derision and nitpicking.

His penchant for oddball comments, photogenic tendencies–which lend themselves quite well to an almost innumerable catalog of animated .gif images–and general demeanor and reputation as this sort of online forum celebrity were what initiated this project in the first place. In my eyes, he was this walking, living, breathing meme, and I had to investigate what it was that made Aram the Aram.

Because I had shipped my photographic equipment to my parents' house, it put the camera out of reach when I landed at Detroit Metro Airport. So I split my photo shoot with Aram into two parts: the first would be a sit-down visit where we talked about anything and everything pertaining to the message board. Then I would return the following day for the photo shoot once I had my gear with me.

This means that I spent the better part of a day traveling from Oregon to Detroit, picked up my luggage and my rental car, and was driving to a stranger's house to sit and chat about who-knows-what. For the first time in my photographic life, I was nervous, and it had nothing to do with standing in front of a classroom of strangers.

I had a notebook, a tape recorder, and a water bottle. No plan, no questions, no getaway plan if Aram turned homicidal and started throwing vintage 45's at me.

Aram answered the door in a Fat Possum Records t-shirt. If that doesn't say anything about what kind of guy Aram is, then this blog post–and maybe the entire photo project–is a giant waste of time.º

My conversation with Aram, and the photo shoot the next day, went almost too well to describe. He was jovial and welcoming and more than willing to talk. He had a hard time believing his life–or online life–was somehow worthy of interest from an artist, let alone photographic documentation. We met for over an hour and a half that first day, and I learned about Aram's fascination with the city of Detroit, how he managed to survive a year-long grad school program in Chicago (and what he was actually studying), and what he was doing back home in his parents' basement.

The following day we continued the conversation while shooting and over lunch. Aram recounted, as best he could remember, his hilarious and eventful night at his first State Champion concert, why he wanted to take a trip to Israel, and what the deal is with his giant beard.

It turns out that Aram is a normal guy like he insists all the time online. The difference between him and many of the other people who post at is that he rarely holds back. He's truthful to his ideals in a way that sets off a lot of people. Hence, the poking fun, the comments.

Aram is probably the person that is most comfortable being himself when he's online. And it's strange, since this whole project started with him and how we're all different–we have to be, right?–online compared to our real lives. For Aram, there isn't really a line between those two worlds for him. He's a bit younger, he's been posting online since he was in high school. (I, for instance,  didn't discover the world of online message boards until I was a junior in college.)

While the story about Aram and our visit could go on and on (and will; see the footnote below), the fact that it was my first stop on a long photographic journey was, in retrospect, one of the best things about the entire project. Everyone who agreed to be photographed was more than cordial and welcoming, sure, but there was something about Aram's demeanorª–and the fact of knowing there are people like him out there–that makes me realize that this project has merit, whether or not the in-depth stories of the characters involved ever get told.

º Aram is by no means an indie music expert, but the fact that he was wearing a Fat Possum Records shirt–celebrating the small record label operating out of Water Valley (Oxford), Mississippi says loads about his personality.

ª He would be the first to comment: tl;dr

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