Down and Out in Los Santos is series of photographs that are created by exploiting a smartphone camera feature within the video game Grand Theft Auto V. Players of GTAV can put away the guns and knives, and instead take photos within the game environment. This operates in basically the same way as ‘real’ cameras do. I walk around a three-dimensional space, find a subject, point the camera, compose the shot, focus, and click the shutter. I have taken a photograph.
Adopting a photojournalistic approach, the series aims to engage in a sort of social-realism for the software-age, documenting poverty and the lives of the homeless within video game environment’s socio-economic hegemony. Through performative engagement with the uncanny simulations of society’s most vulnerable, Down and Out in Los Santos aims to unearth the viewer’s empathy and humanity through manipulative photographic tropes.
Embarking on daily photographic expeditions within this video game, I have already spent over a year capturing these homeless people, their surroundings, the infrastructure, and hopefully the symptoms and causes of their states of being. The initial result is thousands of quasi-photographic images, which depict moments of real intimacy between myself and these virtual people. There are a number of ways that this is achieved – such as waiting for eye-contact with the simulant, or using depth of field to draw focus to objects, poses, limbs and intimate moments between groups of people. These individuals do not provide the game with any functionality per se, as they never intersect with the narrative. Instead they exist as why I think of as an ‘ambient human presence’. I am not proud to say that they exist in a similar place of reality to the homeless people who sit on the doorsteps of my studio every day in Dublin’s city centre.
While the inhabitants of Los Santos possess only a superficial amount of artificial intelligence, it is possible to have real emotional experiences in their presence. This might sound sad and geeky, but it is true. The characters are aware of my presence as I photograph them, some ignore me, other times I am attacked and must defend myself. They chatter to each other, they share alcohol and cigarettes, they ask for money to buy drugs. Programmed to self-identify, they congregate with those in similar social situations to themselves.
Once I have taken the photographs, the images are then uploaded to a social network called the ‘Rockstar Social Club’. The feature called ‘Snapmatic’ is itself is a simulacra of modern photo-sharing apps, such as Instagram. A technical imposition of corporate pragmatism means the images are downsized and compressed, and their journey through these networks is scarred onto the pixelated, low-resolution corrupted surface of these digital photos.
This website is where the project will be initially rolled out, with software automatically posting images every day until some point in 2018. I have already posted hundreds of these images online on various networks. On Instagram, the project takes an interesting turn. Through the use of hashtags, I have been attempting to allow these images penetrate traditional photographic and photojournalism networks. The unexpected result here is that dozens of bots have been ‘liking’ these images. The bots in question have been installed by particular Instagram users to automatically ‘like’ every single post on particular hashtags. I have been calling these the “Sycophant Bots”, since the exist only to flatter users, with the hope that people like me will ‘follow’ their host-account. Perhaps it is poetic, but entirely appropriate that software is the first audience of these empathetic photographs of software people.