When I began to reflect on this year, as we all tend to do during the holiday time at the end of year, I recalled an image that went viral in the first months of the COVID-19 pandemic. It was used as an explicit bait-and-switch that would appear in association with a click-bait pandemic-related headline. If you clicked on the headline, you were pranked by the sight of an unexpected pornographic image. At first, the man’s identity was not known nor investigated. Soon the image itself became known as “Wood Sitting On A Bed.” There’s a pretty good chance you’ve heard of it, or seen it. By March 2020, journalist Alex Zaragoza at Vice identified the man in the pornographic photo as Wardy Joubert III. Zaragoza’s article uncovered the identity of the man in the photo as well as the fact that he died of a heart attack in 2016. I want to share the story revealed about the man behind the meme in question. I am fascinated by how we relate to information, and the stories we make of what we are given. As exemplified by Wardy’s story, neither situations nor people can be adequately captioned in a tag line or captured by an image. What’s more, it is misleading to do so. The many aspects of Wardy’s life were certainly not represented by one publicized photograph. No single piece of information is enough for a complete story—of a person or a thing.
After Vice published the article, it produced an eleven-minute video segment that further elucidated Wardy’s life, story, and who he continues to be for people—both for those that knew him personally during his life and for those who became interested in his backstory —even though he is no longer alive (I encourage you to watch the video). Individuals who knew Wardy personally were interviewed and gave testimony: his friends, former teammates, pastor, sister, stepmother. It turns out Wardy was just as notable in real life as he has proven to be as an image. According to the video, of all the coronavirus-related images, the meme had the most page views. It captivated people’s attention, and not because of the image itself. The meme—overlayed, for example, in various incongruous contexts like Mt. Rushmore— brought people levity and comedic relief during a painful time in the collective human experience. And to be clear, it is not the explicit content of the image that people seem to have become infatuated with; rather, while it may have begun with the shocking nature of an unexpected image that surfaced on someone’s screen, the interest became about the story of who the person Wardy, the man, was in his life.
The meme went by many names; before Wardy’s identity came to light, it was referenced as “Wood” or “Barry.” But even while he was alive, Wardy had many names seemingly warranted by his dynamic personality. His story illustrates that people have many identities, many names, many stories in a single life. His stepmother recounts how, as an athlete, Wardy was given the name “Wood” for how hard he could swing the baseball bat; he was an involved athlete, a semi-professional football player, who also partnered with his church to give out meals to the homeless—activities that earned him the title of the “Mayor” [of San Francisco]; and as recounted by his sister, Wardy playfully referred to himself as “Black Jesus.” The segment shows how his story was much more complex than a single image could capture.
This story—which is about Wardy but can be applied to any other individual person—is not only about being bigger than a meme or any given action; the lives we live and the things we do have secondary effects that extend far beyond ourselves and what we aim for, and beyond what we can understand from a single vantage point in time and space. There are variations and possibilities—we just can’t ever know how any of it will play out at some point in the future. And as in the case of Wardy’s story, sometimes, it’s only after the person dies that the extent of the reach is known.
It is as if Wardy—at first his image in a meme and then later, his real-life story—has become larger than life and immortal; he provided a reprieve from incessant bad news. After his death, his family has shared stories of his humor and service to those still alive. And in return, the community has done what it can do for him: setting up a GoFundMe fundraising page to help pay for the remainder of his funeral expenses and a headstone to place where his body is laid to rest. But in the continued passing on of good deeds, his stepmother notes in the documentary segment, we can capture his spirit and manifest what it means to “pay it forward.”