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We Met on the Internet: Jena Cumbo Explores Online Dating Through Portraiture

by Jacqui Palumbo


Cumbo large

© JENA CUMBO
Bryn and Mike met on Myspace in January of 2006. They are now married and live in Park Slope, Brooklyn with their two cats.


Out of 54 million single people in the United States, an estimated 40 million have tried online dating. Match.com and eHarmony.com make up 35 million members alone, with other sites, such as OkCupid.com and apps, such as Grindr and Tinder each fulfilling their own roles in the online dating sphere. In many cities, picking up a prospective date online has become as typical as picking up a date in a bar, with the added bonus of being able to filter out unwanted qualities up front and making your intentions known right away.

New York City-based photographer Jena Cumbo began taking note of the phenomenon when her own friends began meeting their significant others online. Cumbo became a photographer a decade ago, drawn to the immediacy of the medium. Similarly, she has become drawn to the immediacy of the Internet culture, where personal information is made public and expedites our private relationships. “I find it fascinating that the Internet, an information source which is arguably the most public and yet somewhat anonymous, is so often responsible for connecting people with whom they become the most intimate,” she explains.


Linny and Pat met at a bar, but didn't exchange phone numbers. Linny later posted to Craigslist's "Missed Connections" on a whim. Gina Tron, who interviews Cumbo's couples, writes, "The two never tried to hide how they met. 'It was just such a crazy story that I was just delighted that Missed Connections actually worked,' Linny said. 'I had been so flabbergasted that it all came together that I was not shy about sharing it.'" 

Katharine and David met on Myspace in 2006, bonding over their recent weight loss. They have been together for seven years and married for two.

Cumbo’s work often revolves around youth culture, taking a unique perspective on proms, sweet sixteens, bar mitzvahs and other rites of passage. “I think it all connects back to social media and how hyper informed and aware young people are today,” she says. With the gravitational pull of her projects leading her back to the concept of a “Web-connected” America, Cumbo finally set her sights on a full project exploring how online relationships translate to in-person connections, titled We Met on the Internet.

Cumbo didn’t have to look far to start her series. Her longtime friend and former roommate, Lacey, met her boyfriend Stu on OkCupid. More friends followed to be a part of her project, then friends of friends who were recommended to her. She still receives referrals, but to broaden her scope outside of her own demographic, she has turned to Craigslist to seek out more couples, bringing the concept full circle and adding a second meaning to its title.


Gary met Rae on JDate. Tron writes, "'At one point I think if you go back a couple generations people were not expected to marry again once they were widowed or became a widower,' stated Gary, 60 who divorced in 2000. He found love with Rae, now 59, a widower. They began talking on J Date in 2003. They communicated electronically for a month before connecting in person. 'I knew what I was looking for and when I recognized it with Rae, I didn’t want to waste much time,' Gary. And time, they wasted very little of. They wed in 2004."


Mariela & Tiago met on tattoodatingsite.com. Tron writes, "Besides getting inked, they also bond over their love of animals. 'We have a zoo in our house,' admits Mariela. 'We have three dogs, two cats, two ferrets, two fish tanks, and two bird cages, and I think...[she pauses for a minute]  I think that’s it.' Tiago and Mariela, and their collection of animals, live in Jamaica, Queens. They plan to wed in June of this year."

In order to fully tell the story of each couple, Cumbo photographs her subjects in the homes they share or in places where they like to spend time together. When photographing in homes, she includes as much of the environment as possible. “I think the things we keep say a lot about our personality. Mostly, I am trying to capture the way they interact with each other,” she says. Cumbo has also enlisted the help of writer Gina Tron, who conducts short interviews with each couple and writes synopses for each. They plan on turning the series into a book once they have enough content generated, and are currently looking for a publisher.

Cumbo’s narrative is lighthearted yet genuine, and is timely in today’s two-way street of Internet data and personal relationships. She finds stories that often defy convention: A man, divorced at 60, finding a fresh perspective with a widower who did not expect to love again; A woman who briefly met her husband, and wouldn’t have crossed paths again if she hadn’t posted to Craigslist’s “Missed Connections” section on a whim; A couple who created a substantial relationship from Grindr, an app notorious in the gay community for brief hookups. These relationships would not have existed before ten years ago, when online dating was seen as a last resort instead of an opportunity to make a meaningful connection.


Tron writes, "22 year old fashion brand manager Taylor and 21 year old model Jonathan’s relationship spawned from Grindr, a site known for gay hookups. 'It’s so bad. I know,' admits Taylor.... It took Taylor a while to warm up to the idea. 'I didn’t really trust anyone on that site because of its reputation.' They have now been dating for 2 months and live together in Bushwick. They are both into cult classic films and vintage shopping, they told me. 'I feel like we both have a thing for things with a darker feel. We are super into Tim Burton,' explained Jonathan, 'But at the same time we like romantic comedies. We might both possibly cry during it.' 'Don’t tell her that!' Taylor exclaimed. 'It’s embarrassing!'"

To keep up with Jena Cumbo’s project We Met on the Internet, visit her website.
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