Blake Jackson on the Power of Getting Art Off the Internet and Into Real Life

In order to capture the often-unseen moments of struggle when people try to survive colder weather in the inner city, Denver photographers Armando Geneyro and Blake Jackson used Instagram to invite photographers from all over the world to share what they saw. The resulting black-and-white images will be shown in a new exhibition, Winter in America, that opens Thursday at Station. Through Geneyro's creation of the hashtag #theyshootn, he, Jackson and dozens of other artists from around the globe began sharing and cataloging their street photography via Instagram; the work featured in Winter In America show is a product of that. 

Featured in Westword's 20 Best Instagrammers In Denver, Jackson and Geneyro's work through #theyshootn has become its own movement, inspiring photographers to get out in the street and document what they experience. In advance of the Winter in America opening, Westword spoke with Jackson about the hashtag and why it's important to get off of Instagram and connect with others — through art — in real life. 

Westword: Where did the idea for the Winter in America photography show come from?

Blake Jackson: The idea was originally from my good friend Armando Geneyro — he was listening to the Gil Scott Heron album of the same name. It was really inspired by the imagery that goes along with it: the struggle of the inner city, especially during the winter months and especially for folks who are on the streets. He got the title — Winter in America — from the album and wanted to use that title for our next gallery exhibition, which is focused on black-and-white photos.

From there, it snowballed into, well, if we're really going to focus on winter in the inner city and possibly having homeless folks as subjects, we wanted it not to be construed as exploitative. We partnered with another friend of ours who started the "Hoodies for the Homeless" campaign. We are asking individuals who come to the show to donate a new or gently used hoodie as basically a ticket into the show. We will donate those hoodies as well as all proceeds of the prints we sell to the campaign.

You've used the hashtag #theyshootnWIA as a sort of call on Instagram to get photographers involved with the Winter in America show. Did you get many photographers from outside of Denver submitting work?

Oh, yes. We got an awesome response — the second we announced the Winter in America exhibit on Instagram, we immediately had folks from all over the country tagging their black-and-white photos with #theyshootnWIA. As of right now, we are up to over 130 submissions in just over two and a half weeks.
The #theyshootnWIA is an offshoot of #theyshootn, a hashtag that has come to be a calling card for many photographers in Denver. How do you define #theyshootn? Is it a collective of photographers? Is it a movement?

It's a little bit of both — Armando was the pioneer for that, even before I had picked up a camera. He didn't really know what would come of it. It was a hashtag that he started using and then it was a hashtag I started using and then more and more people started using it. We noticed that folks we had never met from all over the world were using it. It all came from (lyrics in) NAS's "Made You Look"; #theyshootn has always been hip-hop-influenced. We wanted to try to galvanize that and direct it toward and use it as a means to inspire like-minded individuals to get out there and start taking photos more often.

The bi-product of this is people being more involved in street photography: to use it as a means to inspire others to be more involved, doing it not because it's a popularity contest. We wanted to create a community of like-minded individuals who love hip-hop, love photography and want to do it for the culture and for the community as opposed to, all right, how many fuckin' likes can you get or how many followers can you ge?.

I see the byproduct of the term "they" in general to be an encompassing one for all of us; it's not just me and Armando. Yeah, we might be the face of it and we might be the ones who organize events and get people to come together, but it's for everybody. It's not just for us. It's for anyone who loves street photography and photography as a medium. Videographers, too. Really, just art in general. We've been very, very fortunate to get the response that we've gotten from people whom we've never met in person but are still a part of a movement based on getting people together for art.
You're tapping into something that I think needs to be talked about more — the "like" effect and how it can really impact our ability as artists to create. #theyshootn reminds me of the old days of photography clubs, when photographers would get together to shoot the same scene.

Sure. That's exactly what we want. I would be lying to you if I said that I don't care at all. I don't want to look a gift horse in the mouth and say that Instagram is a bad thing; if it wasn't for Instagram, I wouldn't be into photography in the first place. But at the same time, it creates such a feeling of competition in a bad way — like, I have to make sure that i'm aligned with the right people to get the right follower count or the right likes or the right brands to see me.

What we've noticed is that the more #theyshootn evolves, the less and less we are predicated to having Instagram be the catalyst for that. It's more of, we use that as a means to an end of getting off Instagram, getting into these galleries in real life, doing these events in real life — that's what it's all about to me. What's the point of having 20,000 followers on Instagram if you're a piece-of-shit person in real life, you know? What happens if tomorrow, Instagram is gone? What are you going to do then, when your entire presence was fostered on an app? On one end of it, it's a great way to connect with people, but on the other end, it's all about feeding the ego, in my opinion. It's very frustrating.

With #theyshootn we want to be able to galvanize people and get people to come together in real life. We appreciate folks who really have a presence in the tangible sense and who use Instagram as a means of connecting people and then moving that into the real space.
You mentioned that it was really Instagram itself and your connection to Armando that got you into photography — how do you see yourself as a photographer?

It kind of ebbs and flows for me a little bit — it's the aquarius in me. One minute I'm wholeheartedly into something and the next minute I'm kind of in the dumps about my art. As a photographer, my biggest thing is that I picked up photography simply because I needed a creative outlet. It has been very, very fruitful for me in a creative and professional sense. I've been able to work with brands I never thought I would be able to. I've been able to meet people who were my inspiration that are now my close friends.

At this point I want to be able to shoot with as many dope people as I possibly can. For 2016, I'm really focusing on meeting the people that I've connected with on Instagram in real life, shooting with them, telling their story and using photography as a means to connect people visually.

I've separated myself from Instagram in that I don't really check it that much anymore, I don't go on it that much anymore because it's a lot of bullshit in my opinion; I think a lot of it is fake. But I want to be able to have photography as a means to connect with as many people as I possibly can and share my vision. I hope to inspire or continue to inspire other people to do the same thing — get off the Internet and go out into the world and take as many photos as you can.

Winter In America photography exhibition opens at 7 p.m. Thursday, February 18, at Station, 2735 Welton Street, featuring live music by Mikey Fresh and Milky.Wav. Donated hoodies will be collected at the door for admission. For more information, find Winter In America on Facebook

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Bree Davies is a multimedia journalist, artist advocate and community organizer born and raised in Denver. Rooted in the world of Do-It-Yourself arts and music, Davies co-founded Titwrench experimental music festival, is host of the local music and comedy show Sounds on 29th on CPT12 Colorado Public Television and is creator and host of the civic and social issue-focused podcast, Hello? Denver? Are You Still There? Her work is centered on a passionate advocacy for all ages, accessible, inclusive, non-commercial and autonomous DIY art spaces and music venues in Denver.
Contact: Bree Davies