It starts with a solitary moment in time when the camera, like a heat-seeking missile, locks onto the subject(s) and the photographer shoots. Click! The results are candid, the image unfolds as a narrative of that micro-second: tragic, comic, surreal.

On the streets of the fictionalized city Los Santos (with an estimated digital population of 3 million), the Brazilian-born, New York-based photographer Fernando Pereira Gomes prowls the computer coded pavement. His work “Procedural Generation,” explores the virtual world of the best-selling video game Grand Theft Auto V (over 11 million sales in its first 24 hours after release), creating a series that pushes ideas of street photography into the digital realm.

“Given how realistic this world is, I wondered if it would be possible to photograph the virtual streets of Los Santos in a similar manner to what I was doing…in the real one(s),” Gomes explained. “As soon as I began shooting, I realized that not only was I able to do it, but the experience felt eerily real.”

But perhaps most surprisingly, the young Brazilian discovered a resonance in this virtual land with the mundane and the everyday of our own reality. Despite being a world meant for stimulation, action and extreme events, Gomes discovered a cross-over with the sociological, political and economic realities of “real” people’s lived experiences.

“This inspired me to peruse the digital streets in search of something more,” he told me. “What I found was that the subjects in the photos were ridden with an uncanny melancholy that I had previously witnessed in my subjects in real life. I then began to explore the origin of that existential sadness and its connection to our own reality, which eventually led me to the idea of ’procedural generation’ and the very way in which contemporary video games are built.”

“The tool (procedural generation) is used in video game for developing and building content algorithmically, as the player encounters it. This means that the people, cars, streets are all randomly generated as I approach them, or as they enter my field of vision, and disappear as they leave it. So if I photograph a person on the street and then turn the corner, if I circle back and try to find that same person, they’ll have been deleted to make room for the next thing. This interested me greatly and added a human element—could their virtual despair stem from the notion that their existence is so brief?”

Indeed, the deeper Gomes dug, the more parallels he saw between our construction of virtual worlds and the premises on which we build the “real.” In fictional worlds, we use the same socio-economic organizational and operational factors we implement in our own—with the result that, it becomes increasingly difficult to recognize clear boundaries between the two, the simulacrum and the human.

For example, in Los Santos, a homeless man, holding an empty cup, rests on the pavement. The man, no doubt foot weary, sits beside a bundle of ragged-looking blankets. Next to him, Two men walk past each other without a glance either way, one dragging desperately on a cigarette. In a night scene, a solitary man marches down an empty street past the corrugated shutters of some lock-ups. In the foreground an empty car sits menacingly by the curb.

Paradoxically, though part of the game industry’s function is to stop us from thinking about our own mundane, downtrodden lives, we are faced with questions of mortality and meaningless as we become increasingly immersed in the games’ ever more life-like fictions.

“Through these images, I wanted to examine the connection between the virtual and the real,” Gomes said. “I am interested in the interplay between the two, and the significance of creating a simulated world so accurate that even our unavoidable existential crises are represented. Mostly, I just wanted to open the conversation for discussion and begin to think about how it could influence our conception of street photography in the ‘real’ world.”

—Sergio Burns

Sergio Burns is a writer and journalist based in Glasgow. He writes for Ayrshire Magazine and also the Business Review Europe but holds a particular affinity for photography. You can find more of his writing and thinking on his active Twitter feed, @sergiobx.

Likewise, Fernando Pereira Gomes runs an active and unusual Instagram feed—we highly recommend seeing what he has to offer there.