TIME internet culture

The Real Life Meet-Ups of Online Communities

In Amy Lombard's photographs, online communities go IRL

When a British politician said there was “no such thing as society” in 1987, she couldn’t possibly have known the Internet was to spawn a new kind of community, whose power would stretch far beyond the clutches of the establishment. Fast-forward 29 years and what it means to be part of a common collective has changed beyond recognition.

Thanks to the internet, society has been redefined – and so has the notion of what it means to be“normal”. Thought you were the only person with an earnest Kimono obsession? A cursory search of the World Wide Web will tell you there is a vast online community of Kimono-lovers out there, just waiting to share that fixation with you.

Photographer Amy Lombard has spent the last three years documenting these communities who seek to take this shared passion offline and into the real world. From the Five Borough Paranormal Research Group to the Eastern Mass Barefoot Hikers, Lombard has captured their joy, dedication and unbridled passion, the results of which are presented in her new book, aptly named Connected. If the Internet has told these sub-cultures they’re not alone, Lombard’s overexposed, confrontational photos elevate them to something extraordinary.

“There are so many obscure interests, whether it’s an attraction to a certain thing or a hobby,” Lombard tells TIME. “When I was a teenager these things were ridiculed. That doesn’t happen now because of this widespread Internet culture. Bullying exists of course but it’s a more open society for people to be able to explore the things they are interested in and not be ashamed of it – and there are all these groups that can help facilitate that.”

The project began at a pug meet up in Staten Island back in 2013. And while its genesis may have been a study of people’s relationship with animals, it quickly developed into an exploration of how the Internet was facilitating these relationships. “I just found myself going to more and more of these meet ups and a curiosity developed,” says Lombard. “At the heart of all my work is a curiosity of human nature and why we’re attracted to the things we’re attracted to.”

Lombard was first drawn to the “unexpected story” while working at LIFE magazine. “My job was looking through the LIFE archive and finding hidden gems. I was seeing stories like the Republican Women’s Bacchanal meet up or the seeing-eye cat, stories which examined culture in ways that you didn’t expect,” explains Lombard. “These are the stories that I want to tell. So if too many people are covering a certain thing, I don’t want to be there. What else do I have to say on something that is already oversaturated? I feel that showing people things they don’t see is a powerful role for a photographer.”

But beyond shining a spotlight on the obscure, Lombard hopes to show how these groups give people’s lives purpose. While on the surface they may appear to be at a meet up over a common interest, for many members it’s about finding a kinship and support that may not exist elsewhere. When Lombard visited an Aces meet-up – a converging of those “interested in or on the asexuality spectrum” – she met many who had come to understand their sexuality through sites like Tumblr. “This one woman saw a viral reblog about asexuality and was like: ‘Hey, that’s me!’ And at this time she was identifying as straight,” says Lombard. “The fact that you can come to understand yourself and your sexuality through the Internet is an idea that kind of ties the project together.”

Some groups were not receptive to being photographed, such as the cuddle meet-up, where people can “touch and be touched.” But for those who were, Lombard found she had to use different techniques to gain trust. “My approach was either to be a fly on the wall or really just get involved and be part of the group for that night,” she says. “I got there and felt it out.” In some cases, as with the New York Parrot Playgroup, people were willing to let complete strangers into their homes. “They all hang out with their parrots in this guy’s living room and drink champagne,” says Lombard. “That takes a lot of trust. They don’t know me either, it says a lot. I feel lucky these people allow me to come into their worlds.”

The groups’ sense of self-awareness also varied massively. Lombard recalls an instance at a Harry Potter meet-up, where she told the organizer about a Scrapbooking Club in Tennessee. His reply: “Oh people think we’re weird? Scrapbookers are far weirder than us!” And just the other month, the Five Borough Paranomal Research Group was conducting a clairvoyance in the middle of an upscale New York boutique on a busy Saturday afternoon. “The group leader was calling out to this woman, who had apparently died falling down a well on the former site of this store,” says Lombard. “He was calling out: ‘Is anybody here? Can you hear me? Are you here?’ And people were sidestepping them as they shopped for $300 shirts.”

For her own part, the power of online community has propelled Lombard to where she is today. “When I moved to New York in 2008 the photo blog scene was bigger than ever and inserting myself into those communities online is part of the reason I can afford to do this for a living now,” she says. Despite being told early on by peers and professors that no one would ever commission her, by tapping into her online network, she had her photos shown in galleries across Europe. “It showed me the possibilities of what you can do if you put yourself out there in this kind of way.”

The common refrain may be that advancing technology is making us as a “society” less emotionally connected. But Lombard’s photographs are proof that the exact opposite is true.

Amy Lombard is a photographer based in New York. Her book Connected was made with support from VSCO’s Artist Initiative and was designed by Elysia Berman. It is available for purchase here . More work can be found on Lombard’s website and Instagram.

Paul Moakley, who edited this photo essay, is TIME’s deputy director of photography and visual enterprise. Follow him on Twitter here.

Alexandra Genova is a writer and contributor for TIME LightBox. Follow her on Twitter and Instagram

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