You’ve all seen them. The zombies, the walking dead, pale and ghostly forms devoid of anything resembling warm-blooded life. You’ve seen them shuffling along the pavement with uneven steps and huddled under bus shelters desperately trying to avoid the sunlight, which is evidently painful to their eyes. We are, of course, talking here about the smartphone-wielding walkers of the city, those people who are forever among us, moving through our neighbourhoods, with faces buried in their devices.
The London-based illustrator Andrew Rae kept seeing such people. “I try to have a walk every morning to counter my sedentary lifestyle and it’s hard not to bump into all the people immersed in their phones,” he says. “I started thinking of the phones as if they’re little pets or creatures and people are tickling their bellies to keep them happy, I mentioned this to my friend Ruskin one day when we were out with our two-year-olds and he liked the idea.” Because Ruskin is a photographer, who has recently been doing a lot of street photography, the pair decided it could make for a nice collaboration mixing their two disciplines.
So, Ruskin went off and photographed people he saw on the streets of London, people glued to their phone screens. But when Andrew received the shots and tried drawing over them, he found it tough to bring their initial concept to life (so to speak). “I couldn’t get the idea to work and was worried I’d wasted his time,” says Andrew. “The phones were too small in shot and I couldn’t get it to look like the people were holding the little creatures.”
He sat on the project, titled Phone Buddies, for a while. Then, one day, he was listening to Joe Rogan interviewing Edward Snowden and the idea of the NSA monitoring us through our mobile phones made him see the project in a new light. “Instead of replacing the phones I’d draw objects or creatures coming out of the phones, looking back at us and the different styles of the photograph and the drawing would make sense together as the phone screen is like a portal, where the real world and the digital world meet,” he says. The project then took on a more sinister and dystopian tone.
Andrew started by loosely drawing different ideas on his iPad. “Certain things started coming to the fore,” he explains. “I started with some cute characters, but it wasn’t working until I drew some tentacles and slime. I have a bit of a mental library of go-to characters and objects that I like to draw and so some of these started surfacing, like the pipes and machines or the moons and planets.” Anyone who knows Andrew’s work well will definitely spot some familiar shapes and styles here. “I wanted the drawing to feel flat but still to integrate into the 3D space of the photograph and I wanted to keep them playful and engaging, but with a slightly sinister side.”
How did the subjects react to having their pictures taken by Ruskin? “They were in a world of their own, so didn’t notice a thing,” says Andrew. But he nonetheless decided to cover their faces to maintain their anonymity – “much like the anonymity people enjoy online,” he adds. Although fun, colourful and playful, the series does hint at a darker side to our zombification at the hands of our devices. Next time you’re dragging yourself to the shops, staring at your phone, imagine there are slimy tentacles slowly wrapping themselves around your head. It might just give you pause for thought.