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Joe Silveira's Instagram Phone Photography Turns the Mundane Into the Mindbending

One year ago, Joe Silveira was more or less a Luddite, living without the internet at home. Now he's an artist with an Instagram profile so popular that it earned him a publishing deal.

by Aaron Wynia & Aidan Johnston
May 29 2014, 2:00pm

In this day and age, if someone tells you that the internet is a "new" thing for them, you tend to put them in the same camp as the insufferable "I don't own a TV" humblebraggarts of yore unless they're from an extremely remote part of the world. But for Toronto based artist Joe Silveira (who just received internet service at home last year), it's the truth. After he got his first iPhone a year ago, Joe—a quiet and reclusive graphic designer by day—began sharing his pictures of abstract objects and scenery he discovered while walking around the city. His photos deftly revealed strange connections between things most people would ignore unless they were looking for a place to pee after the bar—fences that appear to contemplate what they enclose, gas pipes become frames, and for a moment, you wonder if the angle on a set of stairs really can feel. Well, maybe the pictures don't take it that far, but they sure are nice to look at. After thousands of followers started to notice his work, so did Toronto based publishing house Colour Code Printing, who have saved everyone money on their data bills by compiling his Instagram pictures into the book So So Tired

We met up with Joe to discuss his unusual second career path, making new friends through the internet, and the pressures of maintaining a popular Instagram account.

VICE: How did the book come about?
Joe Silveira
: Colour Code Printing approached me. They had followed me on Instagram and I guess they liked what they were seeing, so it was their idea. It was very unexpected. When they first reached out to me, I met up with the publisher, Jenny, and we talked about a book idea and I was like 'sure.' Then I immediately changed my mind and said 'No, I don't feel comfortable doing this.'  

What made you uncomfortable with the idea?
I think attaching my name to something, which is something I've never really done before. Any of the work I've done before has been under a design studio name. I just didn’t think that the book would work out for the publishers. I thought they were taking too much of a risk by putting together a book of no ones photos. It was a combination of those things which made me say no. Then Jenny put together the first galley of the book based on the design direction we'd talked about and it looked great. She understood it and did such a good job that it convinced me to do it.

Did she name it or did you?
I did. At first it was going to be called So So Sorry, when all those photographs were being taken, I was going through a difficult time in my life. I ended up with So So Tired which works, since it's essentially photos of nothing.

And it's collected entirely from your Instagram?
Yeah, there's maybe one or two that didn’t make it onto Instagram, but overall they're Instagram shots.

How did the publishers discover you?
Just instagram. We just followed each other. Up until that point I hadn’t really done anything. I've been taking pictures for a long time, but always just kept them to myself. I used to borrow a digital camera from the studio I used to work at, I've been shooting digitally for years, just with other people's cameras.

Had you ever compiled any of that work or shot with the idea of showing it?
No, never. I mean some of those images I've used in my graphic design work, but it's just a situation where a client purchases an image so my name isn’t attached to them, they own them.

How long have you had instagram for?
A year. I've only had an iPhone for a year and the internet at home for a year.

Really? Did you just have no interest in it?
No, no interest in it. I mean, I got the internet because I got the phone.




Portrait of Joe Silveira by the author.
What about emails and talking to clients? You must've used internet for that.
Well I had the internet at work, so I'd manage all that stuff when I was there, and then at home it would be a break from it. I actually kind of miss not having it. It's too late now. I do a lot more freelance work than I used to, so I need the internet more, but I miss going home and not thinking about any of that stuff.

I take it you're more distracted than ever.
Yeah, 100 percent. I read less, I watch less movies as a result. I feel like my attention span has changed. But so many good things have happened because of it. It's amazing. But there are times when I just need to take breaks. Like, right now I'm not Instagramming. Sometimes I just let my phone die and I can focus again.

With all the things to explore on the internet, what lured you to instagram?
When I first got my phone all my friends were like 'You would love Instagram,' and I wasn't really sure. I actually had it for about two weeks intiially, then I deleted it. Pretty soon after that I was like, Oh, I actually really liked that and got it back. My work is image based and a lot of my process as a graphic designer is image heavy. My friends knew I loved image based work so they knew I would I love Instagram—and they were right. I love it, as much as it exhausts me sometimes. Out of all that social media stuff, it's the only one I really enjoy.

What was your reaction to having a bunch of strangers suddenly following your work?
It was totally the weirdest, most unexpected thing. I went into it just posting pictures of stuff I liked, with only friends that were following me. It's still overwhelming, like it's hard to wrap my head around the fact that it's something that's happened. Half the time I don't get it. People are really unbelievably nice and it's really encouraging. There's a great support system on instagram in a weird way.

Have you made new friends through it?
Oh yeah! So many friends. It's insane. It's actually made me re-appreciate the city in a weird way. I felt really outside of it before, but I've met so many new people through Instagram. Most of the people I've met in the past year have been through it.

What's your take on something as contemporary as 'phone photography'?
I feel like people will downplay it as like 'it's just instagram photos' which is interesting because people won't take it as seriously because of that. But then there's other people who take it very seriously and really respect it. I don't see a difference between that and traditional photography personally, and I'm not just saying that because my book is phone photos. I think both could be really shitty or really great, it just depends if you shoot stuff properly.

Do you think about taking the work beyond Instagram?
I have this idea for doing an installation based on one of the photos that I've taken. They're like architecture, which is one of the things I'm inspired by, so i want to try and recreate some of them in an interior space. I like the idea of challenging people with what an art show should be or what an acceptable art space should be. These photos have got thinking about that in a way that I don't think I would have otherwise.

Are you at the point where you're walking around the city more to find subjects?
No, I mean I always walk a lot anyway. Nothing has changed in that way. I've never really gone exploring anywhere different, these are just the things I walk by everyday, or that I work by. I haven’t gone out of way, I'm just lucky. I become aware though if like the lighting's really good, I'll go a bit slower and look around.

Since becoming known for Instagramming, do you feel pressure now before you upload something?
I think about it way more. I never used to think about something, I would just post it. Now I second guess myself way more. There are times when I'll post something, then delete it. It's the anxiety of the book, I feel like I have to censor myself in a way. And now there's people that I really respect who follow me, so I worry about those people seeing my photos and making a fool of myself. That shouldn’t be how I approach it though, I'm embarrassed to admit it. I just start thinking that I'm posting something too weird or too abstract, that comes into question a lot. I have to remind myself that this whole thing came about from just going with my gut, so I just have to stick with that. But I'm more self conscious about it.

Hence the no selfies.
Oh, never. When I first started there was like me in reflections and stuff, but that was closest I ever got. That stuff comes down fast, no one needs to see pictures of me. I like other people's faces, but I just don't think mine fits in with my very random pictures.

Looking back on this past year, how do you feel instagram has changed you?
It's just made me feel more connected. It's helped me think about things differently and the way I approach my work has improved. I'm more susceptible to noticing things that I might have not before. It has helped me appreciate Toronto more. I felt outside of things before and I was comfortable with that, but this has let me be a part of something from a distance, and I really like that.

Joe Silveira

Joe Silveira

Joe Silveira

Joe Silveira

Joe Silveira

Joe Silveira

Joe Silveira

Joe Silveira

Joe Silveira

Joe SIlveira

Joe SIlveira

Joe SIlveira

Joe SIlveira

Joe Silveira

Joe Silveira