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You’ll always remember the first time you saw it.
Or maybe you won’t, but I will. I was scrolling through Instagram and stumbled upon an image, clearly staged in that “stock photo” way (think “women laughing alone with salad”), of an attractive couple walking down the street.
The man appears to be mid wolf-whistle at a passing girl in a red dress, and the girlfriend responds with a look of disgust. Each of the three was labeled: the red-dress girl as “suicide,” the man as “me” and the angry girlfriend as “psychiatrist.” I laughed out loud at the dark humor playing out against such an innocuous scene.
Little did I know that what I’d stumbled upon was the meme of the summer, commonly referred to online as “distracted boyfriend.” I’d soon be seeing that same stock-image photo proliferating across my various social media feeds.
The girl in the red dress was labeled everything from “the solar eclipse” to “a cold beer” to “socialism.” The boy became “Phil Collins,” “Henry the VIII” and, more often than not, “me.” And the girlfriend could be “books,” “bread” or — as memes tend to get self-referential after a while — “this meme.”
Some investigating led me to the man who took the photo, Antonio Guillem, a professional advertising photographer from Barcelona, Spain. Guillem, 45, didn’t even know what a meme was until recently, when one of his models mentioned that another one of his photographs was turned into an internet joke.
But nothing prepared him for the global phenomenon that is “distracted boyfriend.” In the week since it exploded, the photo, one of many taken during a 2015 shoot in Catalonia, has registered millions of page impressions on Twitter, Facebook and beyond. Guillem theorizes the picture took off because it offers a “good foundation as a metaphor that works for almost everything.”
The models in the photo have worked with Guillem for years. They are choosing to remain anonymous, going only as Laura (the angry girlfriend) and Mario (the boy with the wandering eye).
Below is their first interview, with The Hollywood Reporter.
What do you remember of this shoot?
Laura: For me it was a curious and funny photo shoot, especially when we had to make the photos like the meme, more humorous. When people saw us simulate those scenes in the street, they stopped to look and laugh. In my case I had to have a more serious face, and I had a hard time to keeping it. (Laughs.)
Mario: I remember that it was kind of embarrassing because there were people watching and laughing and I had to make this silly face. But in the end, like we always do, I just forgot they were there and did my job. I remember it like a learning experience, and I had fun with my team.
How did you discover the meme?
Laura: I started receiving notifications from my friends by tagging me on the posts they found on social media. Then Antonio sent us the first emails of interview requests he got about this photo, and I realized that it had become viral.
Mario: People just started sending these memes to me, filling up my social media, even people I hadn’t seen for many years.
What are some of your favorite labels that you’ve seen?
Laura: We have had a lot of work these last few weeks as we are trying to increase production. We have not paid much attention to everything posted on the net but I can say, by the little that I have seen, that people have a lot of imagination!
Mario: As we are working really hard to give our clients the best quality photos we can make, I do not really have the time to follow these things, but for what I have seen I can say that it`s crazy what people can imagine.
Are you being recognized on the street?
Laura: Maybe if I put the face of the meme someone could recognize me, but no, no one has recognized me yet. (Laughs.) Even some friends of mine told me, “Look, this girl looks like you,” and I said, “It’s me!”
Mario: Not yet. (Laughs.)
Have you ever been any of the three characters depicted in the photo in real life?
Laura: I think everyone once in their lives has been the girl in the red dress, maybe without being looked at with such brazenness. And I’ve never found myself in the situation that my boyfriend looks at a girl in that way so I’ve never been “my character” in real life.
Mario: (Laughs.) I would never look someone like that in real life. And about the other two characters, well I am not so pretty.
See a few of the internet’s takes on the image below.
— Omar Essam LHC (@OmarEssamLHC) August 19, 2017
— Reverend Scott (@Reverend_Scott) August 23, 2017
these aren’t even jokes this is deadass what happened pic.twitter.com/L15F8Ek9yC
— got 707 livetweet (@ashaggreyjoy) August 22, 2017
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Jeriana San Juan