You’ve seen it by now, maybe enough times to be sick of it: A man walks down a city street with his girlfriend, head turned backward, face curved into a Tex Avery ogle directed at a woman walking the other direction. This is the ‘distracted boyfriend’ meme, a photograph that launched a thousand jokes. And no one’s more surprised at its popularity than the man who took it.
Antonio Guillem is a 45-year-old photographer from Barcelona, Spain, who spends his days on shoots specifically destined for stock image companies. For most of that time, he’s worked with the same three models, though he says he parted ways with one of them a year or so ago. (Guillem declined to name his collaborators out of concern for their privacy.) His portfolio largely consists of people—some combination of two women and one man—in the sort of reactive poses that makes stock photography such an uncanny delight.
But in mid-2015, spurred by successful sales, Guillem wanted to diversify his look. “We decided to take a few risks, planning a session representing the infidelity concept in relationships in a playful and fun way,” he says. He and his models took to Gerona, an idyllic city in Catalonia, Spain, chose a spot on the street, and starting shooting “It was quite challenging to achieve face expressions that were believable,” says Guillem. “Mainly because we always have a really great work atmosphere, and almost all the time one of the models was laughing while we were trying to take the picture.”
While multiple shots came out of that shoot—and countless have featured the same trio over the years—it was “Disloyal man walking with his girlfriend and looking amazed at another seductive girl” that would go on to set the internet ablaze with infinite spins on the same formulaic joke.
The Meme Documentation Tumblr—yes, there is one, and you should follow it—traces ‘distracted boyfriend’ back to the above late-January post in a Turkish Facebook group devoted to prog rock (the group’s name translates to “Great Answers to Prog Enemies”). After that, it laid dormant until this month, when Twitter ran amok with it. Here are just a few examples, provided in the spirit of instruction and joy.
For Guillem, the explosive popularity of a photo snapped two years ago presents more of a curiosity than any kind of milestone. “I never thought that one of my images will be that popular,” he says. “I didn’t even know what a meme is until recently, when the models started to tell me about the memes that people were doing with our work.”
As any number of verified accounts can tell you, popularity on Twitter does not directly translate into real-life gains. “Our top-selling images get more than 5,000 to 6,0000 sales a year, while the meme photo is sold around 700 times a year,” says Guillem. His best-selling photo, a solo shot of one of the ‘distracted boyfriend’ women smiling, has sold over 13,000 times. Besides, it’s not like Tumblr and Twitter users are forking over fees to Shutterstock before they fire up Photoshop. “Memes haven’t given us any kind of economic profit, because most of the images haven’t been sold on the microstock agencies,” says Guillem. “They are being used without the proper license on those agencies.”
Not that he minds, particularly. Guillem says he’s “not worried about the meme situation,” and understands that social media remixers are acting “in good faith.” He does plan to pursue legal action in cases where the images could reflect poorly on himself or the models.
Mostly, Guillem says, he’s too busy with his stock photography pursuits to keep close tabs on this particularly cultural moment. It’s a job he fell into; in his previous life, before Spain’s economy suffered a crippling crash he had made a living creating 3-D designs for construction companies. After an unemployed stint, he decided to pick up a camera.
“We started without having any kind of idea of this business and I didn’t even know a thing about photography,” says Guillem. After three and a half years, he says, he was selling 1600 photos every day. In Guillem’s view, a few weeks of virality doesn’t connote any sort of success that he hasn’t already achieved. Besides, he rightly acknowledges that he can’t take credit for the meme-ification of his work.
“Regarding what I think about the photo has gone viral, I think the image was a good foundation to whoever had the great idea to turn it into a metaphor that works for almost everything,” he says.
Even, it turns out, for itself.