-Reviewed by Ian Chung–
The digital age has seen the emergence of sites like Frank Warren’s PostSecret (2005) and Iain Thomas’s I Wrote This For You (2007) that have acquired loyal online followings. PostSecret made the leap from digital to print within a year of the site’s founding, and the book series now consists of five volumes. By contrast, it has taken just over four years for I Wrote This For You to make the transition into print. Published by Central Avenue, the book version of I Wrote This For You features selected entries from the site, as well as several that are exclusive to the print volume.
For those unfamiliar with I Wrote This For You, the site is a transcontinental collaboration between Jon Ellis and Iain Thomas (aka @pleasefindthis), with the former providing the images and the latter writing the captions, which are always addressed to a person only ever referred to as ‘You’. The two men communicate online but have never met in person, as Thomas lives in South Africa and, until recently, Ellis was based in Japan (he now lives in Hamburg, Germany). For further insight into the thinking that underpins the project, read the HESO Magazine interview with Ellis or listen to Thomas’s talk at TEDxJohannesburg in 2009:
In a blog entry written on the day of the book’s launch, Thomas explains that the four different sections of the book version of I Wrote This For You ‘collect the posts into four distinct phases that describe, hopefully, the human condition. Sun is about looking for love or the potential for love. Moon is about the act of being in love. Stars is the loss of that love. Rain is about rediscovering hope in life, at the end of that cycle.’ Out of this arrangement, I suppose an oblique sort of narrative does emerge along those lines, especially with the last three posts (‘The Day You Read This’, ‘The Arrivals Lounge’, ‘The Last Thing You Said’). On the whole though, each picture and its accompanying caption still exist primarily as self-contained instances of what Thomas calls ‘ambiguous micro-stories’ in his TEDxJohannesburg talk. He goes on to explain that ‘by leaving out things like gender, age, race, location, people apply the stories to themselves’.
Paradoxically, it is precisely this stripping away of detail that allows the posts to acquire a certain universalised/universalising resonance, as though they capture something intrinsic about the experience of being ‘you’. Some of the post titles alone are already brilliant, e.g. ‘The Circus Is Cheaper When It Rains’, ‘The Place Sentences Go To Die’, or my personal favourite, ‘The Shop That Lets You Rent Happiness’. At their shortest, the captions themselves read like haiku (‘The Things That Are Left’: The world made me cold. You made me water. // One day we’ll be clouds.) or epigrams (‘The Skeletons In The Sea’: Truth is the last thing I can take because it’s the last thing you took.), while the slightly longer ones work much like prose poems (‘The Simple Shattering Of Water’: ‘It’s because you and them were made of the same pieces. And afterwards, when you put yourself back together, some piece of them remained.)
Ultimately, Thomas suggests in his talk, ‘There’s no story I can tell you that is as powerful as the story you can tell yourself.’ This is where the true power of a project like I Wrote This For You lies. At the risk of courting the scorn of those who would prefer to remain fashionably cynical, I would like to suggest that I Wrote This For You is an inspirational book and project. Not in the trite sense of cheap and easy Hallmark-style sentimentality, but because working together, Thomas and Ellis seem to have distilled something of what it means to remain profoundly human in a digital society. It is difficult to summarise the effect of I Wrote This For You beyond that, so I would definitely recommend visiting the project site for a taste of the duo’s work, treating the book version as one possible shaping of the project into an overarching narrative.