Down In Tennessee with Joe Greer
Joe Greer wants to photograph everything.“When the camera is in my hand, I want to be able to document every facet of life that comes my way,” he says. “It’s not just a way of paying the bills… although I’m happy it does do that, too.”
In the Tennessee sunshine wearing a selection of Drake’s linen shirts, summer shorts and a chore jacket or two, Joe shows us around his adopted home state and explains how he went from snapping “random mountains and lakes” on an iPhone 4, to becoming one of the biggest names in street (and everything else) photography.
Drake’s: Hi Joe, why did you start taking photos?
Joe Greer: Photography didn’t come into my life until I was about 22 or 23. I was an athlete growing up, and didn’t do anything that creative, but I was going to college out on the West Coast at Washington State and I saw a lot of friends who were sharing photos on a thing called Instagram, which had just come out. I was a broke college student, but I spent all my money to get an iPhone 4 to download Instagram to share horrible photos, and so my family could see what I was getting up to at college.
Drake’s: Was there a moment when you felt like you could make a career out of it?
JG: What started off as a silly hobby kept going, and every year I kept enjoying it more and more, and felt like it might become more serious. When I graduated in 2014, I was at bible college to be a pastor. I had to choose whether I continued on that path, or whether I chased photography on my iPhone. I’d started to build a following by then, and I couldn’t believe that people liked to follow my photos of random mountains and lakes. It was so bizarre.
Being self-taught in that era, I had no idea about the history or art side of photography. I was just this little kid who had this tool that knew nothing about composition, or movement, or how to edit a photo. Thankfully, I chose the photo route and it’s led me to a really beautiful place. I’m very thankful I picked up that iPhone!
Drake’s: How do you approach photographing strangers in public as part of your work?
JG: I fall in line with a philosophy that I really want those unplanned, candid moments. I’m trying to be invisible, even if that’s impossible. It takes years and years and years of practice to blend in on the streets. Even if the subject sees the camera in your hand, I want them to feel confident with me entering their space, and that’s such a hard thing to do.
I’ve learned over the years that my body language, and the way I approach, is so important. A smile goes a long way. About 80 percent of the time I’ll give them a compliment about what drew me to take their photo. I’ve never had a negative reaction from that… maybe one in the last eight years.
Everyone has their own way, but that works for me. Don’t hide behind your camera looking like a creep. The more you try to hide and not make eye contact, you’re going to look strange. You have to embrace the discomfort of being out there. You’ve gotta loosen up and interact a bit.
Get the photo, then engage.
Drake’s: Do you have a uniform for when you’re out shooting?
JG: A lot of street photographers wear all black as they don’t want to stand out, and I get that, but for me it’s that old saying: ‘Look good, feel good.’ And that’s legitimate! If I’m wearing something that I’m not comfortable in, whether I’m shooting or just out and about, I can’t settle in or relax.
There’s no specific uniform, it’s just how I’m feeling that day. Some denim, some vintage, I like a pair of cowboy boots, it depends how I woke up that morning. I like colour on the street, too. They’re already going to notice me with the camera, so some colour on my hat isn’t going to change too much. Just embrace it.
Drake’s: Has moving to Tennessee influenced your style at all?
JG: I grew up in Florida, so I grew up in the country, but I’ve only started liking that lifestyle in the last couple of years. Now I just want to get an old pick-up, a dog in the back and wear my hat, that’s a phase I’m in — a bit of that Americana classic, which I’m enjoying. Especially here in Franklin, which is a bit more relaxed than Nashville.
Drake’s: Do you ever miss New York?
JG: The one thing I miss the most about living there is that I could just grab my camera, a few rolls of film, and go out; feeling that energy of the streets, which I had for three years. I miss that. Nashville is much more spread out, there aren’t as many people, it’s harder to get in that rhythm. But now I’m enjoying documenting the slower pace of life, having recently had a son. Creating a body of work around the family is special and fun. As long as a camera’s in my hand, I’m happy.