In photography, catastrophic error is largely a thing of a past. Taking a photo that's too dark, too bright, or just plain shitty can either be completely avoided or remedied quite easily with entry-level cameras and editing technology. Hell, if you know the basics of using a smartphone, you can probably take some pretty stunning photos.
Outside the realm of selfies and food photos, however, the trend of Instagramming and racking up likes with artsy and cinematic photography is huge. Whether you're a part of this culture or not, you've probably seen the name Jayscale more than a few times on your feed. With over 100,000 followers, he's built an impressive profile shooting striking cityscapes from rooftops in cities all across the globe—including his hometown of Toronto.
Jayscale is Jamal Burger, a 22-year-old former University of Toronto student who dropped out of his kinesiology program, blew up on Instagram, and then went full-time last year shooting photos for brands like LG, Budweiser, and Heineken. He's now part of a small collective of Instagram photographers who don't just take stunning photos, but have made a living off doing it was well.
Despite his success, Burger still feels like more like a Toronto local. Up until recently, you could find him working at Livestock—a streetwear and sneaker store on the edge of Toronto's Chinatown where he got his come up by shooting products from companies like Adidas and Nike. Lately, he's taken up the challenge of photographing a project entirely with a film camera in three different cities: Toronto, New York, and Tokyo. We spoke to him about what he learned from going old school and what his career has taught him.
VICE: What was it that brought you into photography?
Jayscale: When I was younger, I had this fascination for video, for media in general. I studied it through high school and I was interested in sports media, which eventually got me into sports science [kinesiology]. I felt like media may not have been my route at the time. In university, I was studying sports sciences, but it got to a point where I figured out school wasn't a priority of mine and I was trying to find something that could be a priority.
[I came] from a home in where it's just my mom—she's not paying for anything, I'm the one taking care of anything, because it's a single parent home. It got to the point where I was like, You know what, I'm not gonna spend another $10,000 [on school], even if I'm almost finished, if it's not what I want to do. I decided to take a year off and try a bunch of things and see where it went. At the time, Instagram was still super new, and photography seemed like a cool thing to do, so I started taking photos, just on my phone at the time. I was using my old account, with just pictures of my family and stuff. It got to the point where people were telling me my photos were good, so I decided to make an account solely for photography. That was January 2013.
When you made @jayscale?
Yeah, that was Jayscale.
I went back to your first photos and I see, even from the beginning, your eye for photography was amazing. It's impressive because, most people don't have that kind of rate of progression when shooting.
I think there are pros and cons to that because, when it happens that fast, you get thrown into this fire. Especially when you have this certain following, because what I do gets scrutinized all the time, like, "Oh, you should be doing this instead of that." It's definitely a challenge because, once you're on Instagram, you can't take breaks, you can't go a while without posting a photo, if you want to stay relevant.
Your account is very well known for rooftop shots. When you first began, did you start on the streets and then eventually work your way up to doing more daring shots from buildings?
When I first started taking photos, I was trying to take cool photos on the street, on the ground level. The whole idea came from Jayscale from showcasing photos in [grayscale]. I was just trying to take photos in black and white on my phone, to see where that got me. Eventually, there was a day where I was just like, "Let me try and see the city from a different view."
I just wanted to see the city from a different angle, somewhere not a lot of people get to see, so I let my curiosity take me to those levels, up to those heights, and I started seeing the city from that perspective. It was really enjoyable, and I guess that was a part of my come up, because I realized there were people who shot the city from rooftops before, but I felt like there was nobody doing it that actually collected sneakers or paid attention to the streetwear lifestyle. I felt like I could combine my love for sneakers and rooftops in a way that was interesting and unique.
It was all about epic views—views that not many people were able to see, with sneakers not many people were able to get. It was cool for a while, but it kind of got out of hand because sometimes people started to get away from the concept and weren't necessarily as true to form.
What do you mean by other people "getting away" from the concept of rooftopping?
I was solely doing it to combine cool views with cool sneakers, but as soon as people were starting to post rooftop shots or use the same hashtag, I didn't want to be associated with that. It could have been a pair of Vans, or a pair of Converse, or just some beat up shoes, but I wasn't doing it because of that. I was trying to shoot nice sneakers with amazing views, and I feel it gets kind of tainted any other way.
I didn't think about it that way: people shooting shitty shoes off the top of rooftops.
Yeah, everything has an expiration date on it, especially with Instagram and other social media platforms. If something catches popularity, it's gonna blow up real quick and get shot down even faster. Like, everyone's on DJ Khaled's Snapchat now and using his quotes, but it's not gonna be relevant in two or three weeks from now. That's just how it goes.
You must see things and think, That's inspirational, that's cool, I like that, but at the same time, you might not want to get caught in a trend. How do you stay ahead of the curve in terms of things that are blowing up in popularity?
I simply just stay away from it. If I see something that looks like a trend, I just avoid it. It puts me in this bubble, in this box, this position where it forces me to find a new way to take a photo and causes me to do more searching and more digging. I have to put more effort into what I'm doing. If I see something that's become trendy, I either avoid it completely or put a new spin on it, but I oftentimes find that I'm lost. You'll see me not share work, I may not be on for a week or two. It happens. You can't up your game every single day or be constantly improving. It's a process, and you gotta take a step back to take a step forward. You can't keep driving without running out of gas.
That's interesting. As a photographer, sometimes I want to take a breather from Instagram, but I feel compelled to post because I want to stay relevant, so I'll post things I don't necessarily feel are my A game or represent my vision just because I have to keep people aware that I'm still here. How do you know when to tell yourself it's time to take a break?
Once it seems like it's too much, man. If I feel like I'm forcing something, or I have nothing right now, I'll take a step back. If I can't take a step back, I try to travel. It's definitely tough to be in this position where people just expect you to keep getting better and better and better, because as you get better, it gets much harder to produce at that level. If you can remind yourself how much you liked it when you began though, you can make it through. It's just a process of pushing past it mentally.
Do you feel like Instagram influences what you actually want to do with photography?
It's put me in this mindset where I have to continually produce, and with that, I don't have the time to step back and work on certain projects that I want to. I can't just stop for a bit and say, "I want to go to this place and only shoot these sort of photos." It's put me in this structured mindset where I've got stuck posting the same theme and same type of photos because that's what people like. That's why I ventured out and decided to shoot film and shoot things that weren't necessarily meant to fit on Instagram. It's a learning process for me, too.
You mentioned growing up in a single parent household and I know you started blowing up when you were shooting products for Livestock. How did that play into where you are now?
At the time, I had a camera, a Fuji XT1. I sold a shit ton of shoes to buy that. I had the camera, but I was gonna quit my job [to do photography], and I knew the [camera wasn't good enough] to get quality gigs. That's when Livestock asked me to start shooting sneaker photos for them. The owner of Livestock believed in what I was doing well before everyone else and got me [a better camera]. It was the first time I felt like there were people who believed in me. I wouldn't be doing what I'm doing today without their help. That was this time last year.
How have things changed since then?
I was kind of lucky, because I started taking seriously when most people weren't. There was just me, Visionelie, and a couple others. I had about 20,000, 30,000 followers at the time, and not a lot of competition, so people noticed me. People liked what I was doing. They were fond of it. I'm not gonna say I liked the photos I took, but I was doing what I was doing at that time and that's what made sense to me. It was a learning process. If I compare to this time last year, I've come a long way.
Let's talk about the film project. Compared to when you're shooting digital, what kind of things do you have to think about differently when you're shooting film?
I mean, it didn't necessarily start off as a film project per se. I just wanted to explore the opportunity of shooting film, because you see so many great photographers who never had a computer, who never had the equipment we have today. The fact that the photo you take, you only have one shot to take it to capture the moment. You become more selective, become more on your toes, you become more particular with the photo you're taking—you have to be careful because you don't want to waste a shot because film costs money. It adds up. You're taking more into consideration because your timing has to be perfect and your position has to be perfect.
The most frustrating thing is missing a shot that you probably wouldn't have missed with your DSLR, and that's why it made me appreciate what film photographers did 20 years ago that much more, because they caught some crazy shit. They were able to capture things that I saw and witnessed with my own eyes, but that I missed because I wasn't that good or I didn't have the right instincts.
Your project draws from your trips in New York and Tokyo, and even right here in Toronto. What was it like shooting different cities—what were the vibes you got?
When I was in New York, the thing I wanted to capture was the unspoken enthusiasm people have, or even just what it's like to live life in New York. I think New York has so many unique and interesting features, and I think it's conveyed through the way people look and present themselves in the city. I wanted to capture that kind of mixed up and hidden message of opportunity everywhere.
For Tokyo, it's very fast-paced, and people are more reserved, but there's so many hidden emotions. Stress, fun, love. The city moves so fast, with people going to and from work, people don't have time to show that side of them. Capturing the moment when that emotion breaks through—someone getting out from school or riding the train—was kind of key. Also, just the advancement—the city is from another world, there's a lot of technology to integrate into the photos.
Here in Toronto, I feel like it's such a different place. There's so much culture here that it's hard to identify what our culture is. When I'm shooting in Toronto, it's kind of just like free. I don't think about it, there's no theme. If I think it'd make a cool photo, I'll take it. I've lived here my whole life and I feel I have an understanding of what Toronto culture is, but it's hard to zone in on. It's all over the place. I enjoy that because it's constantly fresh.
What's the main thing you pulled out of doing film that you now translate into shooting in general?
We take a lot for granted. We're in a place now where we can rely more on the equipment and not own our craft as intensely as [film photographers] probably did. And I speak from my perspective, everybody's different. With digital, you can shoot however many shots in a second if you want to. With film, you have to have all of the variables lined up. The fact that today's cameras are so powerful is that we often forget that we may not be as good as we think. Shooting film and spending that time where I had to rely more on myself, really helped me with that. There would be times when I missed a shot and got pissed off at myself, I would think, "Fuck. See, you're not good. Get better." Even if you think you're good at something, taking a step back and exploring a different avenue than you're used to can be incredibly valuable.
This interview has been condensed for clarity.
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