Photographer Casey Brooks conceptualized an entire story using the ephemeral characters in GTA as his subjects.
The open world of Grand Theft Auto V attracts people from all walks of life, for all sorts of reasons. Some appreciate the ability to explore and play in a massive world with little to no rules, others see endless possibilities for self-expression (rather than destruction), using GTA's sandbox-style gameplay as a digital medium.
Some virtual sculptors have used the game to construct odes to pop culture staples and create chaotic music video full of crashing helicopters and angry non-playable characters (NPCs). Photographer Casey Brooks, on the other hand, was particularly interested in the stories behind these ephemeral avatars, taking time between capping thugs and the occasional revenge mission to build a multi-layered and thought-provoking photo essay called You Only Live Forever.
The project includes a series of vignettes that document the life of a girl who's oblivious to the violence and destruction ravaging Los Santos, as well as a variety of portraits and snapshot of the "real world" inside the game, but outside its campaign. "While other online players/characters are robbing banks and engaging in epic standoffs with the military, there’s a parallel universe with a young woman living a fairly normal American life and dealing the complexities that come with that," Brooks told The Creators Project. The artist conceptualized her story from scratch, creating a meta-narrative within an already-vast digital landscape.
Brooks—who previously edited the film Obvious Child and worked on The Creators Project's documentary on microscopic sand castle—talked with us about feeling like an outsider both in video games and photography, and why it was strange to organize a "photo shoot" within GTA. He also described how his photo essay could be characterized as "quiet protest" to gender roles in video games, as he depicted a relatable woman with relatable problems in a realm otherwise dominated by heteronormative ideals. You Only Live Forever isn't quite fan fiction, but rather it's a nuanced art project that utilizes found gaming footage as the fodder for a larger creative endeavor. Below, our interview with Brooks on his fascinating interpretation of the GTA universe.
The Creators Project: You're a photographer in real life, as well as in Grand Theft Auto. How does your work differ in the game than it does in real life? How do you think one photo realm helps the other?
Casey Brooks: My photography being “real life” definitely dictates the virtual work. One rule I had from the beginning of this project was if I attempted to take a photograph in GTA and it doesn't look like an image I'd take in real life, then I wouldn't take the photo. I’ve been working on a photo series of water horizon lines for the last few years. Simple straight on medium format shots of water and sky. Originally when I started taking photographs in GTA, I thought it would be funny just to take photographs of the ocean in the same way I do in real life. It was a little dull though.
What about GTA made it the ideal source material for this project?
The GTA world is massive and oddly beautiful. There are many areas in the game that feel so familiar. Then, there are these “extra” characters in the GTA world seemingly going about their daily business, unaware of the chaos that ensues around them. I started asking myself “Do these people have names? Where do they live? Are some of them friendly? Do they like chicken fingers too?” Stuff like that.
So I wanted to tell a fictional story of one of these “extras” and my character would assume this role. She gives a sense of the world through her own personal photos and history. While other online players/characters are robbing banks and engaging in epic standoffs with the military, there’s a parallel universe with a young woman living a fairly normal American life and dealing the complexities that come with that. Using her camera phone to create a document of her experiences. The whole idea seemed absurd enough that I had to at least try it.
Can you tell me about your process in crafting not only the images, but the story around them? What's an example of a particularly difficult scene to capture?
I usually start by driving around [in the game] looking for something that catches my eye. It could be a place or character that I stumble upon. Sometimes I see something and know right away what I want to say. For example, there’s one photograph of a house for sale on the end of a cul-de-sac. I knew right away that was my character's childhood home—the kind of old house that you occasionally drive by every few years to conjure up some memories.
Another was the summer house. The same extra character is always there and is easy to photograph so I had this series of thoughts: That's my step brother. He’s never been into the second family thing so much. This is my house through marriage, but its really his territory since he’s spent every summer here. He finds me a little annoying. When he gets drunk, he’s overly nice to me.
So the history informs the photographs and the photographs keep the story moving. That's the process I used for most of the images. I love photographs that can give you a sense of history. That's very important to me. To force the viewer to go a little deeper. If it's successful, it will feel relatable.
That's the challenge when I’m working in the GTA universe. I’m trying to wash away the virtual look, not by manipulating the image to look more real, but by evoking a idea of history, humor, and emotion in the story. Having this young woman more interested in tiny observations than big ideas. For me, that's what makes it relatable.
So I took photographs for a few months and eventually had enough. Since the saved images in the game are very small, I had to photograph the selects off my TV. That caused some [visibility] problems, so I cheated a little and blurred areas in the photograph to create a little more depth of field.
Sometimes, it took a while to place my character in the right position to get the shot. During that time another player would just completely obliterate me. I mean, how can you off someone when they are in a vulnerable position? So usually I would get upset and embark on a mission to seek my revenge. After all, I had to wet my beak sometimes too. So once I felt I had adequately sought my revenge I’d get back to the photographs. That didn’t happen a lot though.
Actually, most of the other players seemed curious to find me taking snaps of empty roads and houses at magic hour. It was really funny. I had a couple players follow me and I ended up having strange photo shoots with them. In city streets, houses, on the beach. It was so weird I just had to go with it. I guess in the age of smart phone cameras people are used to having their photo taken, even in a virtual space.
The title of the photo essay is 'You Only Live Forever.' Can you tell me what that means to you and to the pictures?
In the past year I’ve constantly hear ironic YOLO jokes, and I usually countered with the opposite end of the spectrum, FOREVER. I thought it would work for this series—one because the game is so steeped in popular culture (even when they are making fun of it) and two, it's impossible to die in the game.
There are no game overs, no continues from a saved check points. You just respawn and start shooting where you left off. It's great. Normally, when I play a video game, I'll do whatever it takes not to die. I'll even shut down the system if I think I have no chance of survival. Not because I’ll be penalized in the game but this virtual death causes me a lot of anxiety. Its weird. It's like dying in a dream. Its the reason I don't play first person shooters. I can’t handle it. But with GTA 5, for some reason, I don't care at all. As real as some things feel in the game, the violence seems so fake to me. I know a lot of people disagree with me on that. But the violence is so ridiculous that dying isn’t a thing. It doesn’t affect my pride if I’m no good in a shoot out. I’ll die and I’ll return. Always return.
You're the second person to call that out. I didn't know his work until last week. I dig it, though. My main inspiration came from feeling like such an outsider within the game. I like feeling like an outsider when I take photographs, too. I like the sense of discovery and being able to capture that feeling. In GTA I get that sense of discovery a lot. As if there could be a place in this universe that no other player as found. And even though that's impossible, its still kind of exciting so I keep searching.
Also I like the idea of representing a person I could never be. I chose to make my character female, which seems to confuse a lot of the other players because it is such a male dominated game. And so many of them are young kids. Names like "KillerKevin2003" always appear. That kid is 11 years old! I’m a 31 year white dude playing a woman in a sun dress complete with a purple scarf. So part of me wants to challenge the idea of gender to guys that are probably completely unaware of gender and how it plays out in their real lives. It's a quiet protest, I suppose.
You ended your 'Moon Rise Over the Mountains' photo with "I thought of you here." Who is the photo essay addressed to? How much of the narrative is based on real life experience?
Yeah, that's a pretty romantic statement. I wanted to give this character, a young woman a sense loss in her life and that she’s not afraid to talk about it. That's one of the main reasons why I wanted to tell to story through the lens of a young woman. I think historically it's looked down upon if a woman speaks in an autobiographical matter. And it bothers me to see women in film usually depicted in an over-dramatic fashion moving from one major crisis to the next.
For this series, I wanted to depict a woman that is dealing with some issues, but they are issues that we all deal with. Everything isn’t a total loss but it's not nothing either. And all things in between add up to make this world interesting. She sees the human comedy and absurdity everywhere and her curiosity that follows it. I really wanted to make her aware of that. So who she is thinking of isn’t really important, it's her ability to be open enough to have that thought and capture it. Photography is a nostalgic act in a lot of ways. You want to capture and document something in the moment so it will stay just that way forever. Of course that's not possible. Even though a photograph never changes, your relationship to the image will evolve over time. But still, you’re able to pick out pieces of how you originally felt (or intended to feel), like when you hear a certain song and you can place exactly where you heard it and who was there, etc.
We all have so many songs and places attached to a memory. For me, that's as good as it gets. To allow memories to stimulate a variety of senses at one time and go somewhere even for a short time. We can’t travel forward in time but we can travel back with help from these mediums. And that's very exciting.
Do you think it would be better if more games included a picture-taking ability, or are the mods and hacks essential for the artistic aspect of the work?
I'm open to any of the possibilities like hacks or mods, but what I like about a game like GTA is there are rules and limitations and you have to work within them. Everyone has the same camera with the same features. So you have to find your own style and tell your own story within those set of rules. I like a level playing field if it's possible.
Do you see constructing a peaceful world within a violent video game as a statement on the topic of violent video games?
That's the idea. I didn’t want any kind of violence in this series. I feel like violence in video games is just too easy. Its kind of lazy in my mind. You can stick a gun in a players hands and they can just have at it. Put them anywhere, it doesn’t matter, give them some to kill, in as many ways as possible and you got yourself a video game. Having said that though, I think GTA has done a really good job making a violent world and a oddly peaceful world. I’ve gotten lost in the mountains and on back roads. I’ve swam and dived in the ocean for hours. It's the kind of game I wanted to play as a little kid. You forget anyone else is there. Its can feel so lonely sometimes. It's fantastic.
Now that you've created this world, what's next for your characters? What else would you like to explore within the GTA universe?
Now that I’ve released the photographs, I feel like the project is done. And that's a good feeling. I rarely have a sense of completion in anything I work on. So I’m gonna go with this feeling and move on to something else. Maybe down the road I'll revisit it.
What projects are you working on now?
I just finished a short documentary about birdhouses that my dad builds. Also I edited a new movie called Obvious Child which is doing really well right now. I spent seven days a week last spring, summer, and fall on the film. So this summer I’m working when I can but I’m mainly trying to make up for all the surf I missed last year. I’ve caught some good days so far.