Elie 'Visionelie' Jonathan's Photographs Turn Toronto’s Generic Into the Gargantuan
We interviewed Elie 'Visionelie' Jonathan, a photographer whose defined aesthetic and prodigious Instagram following is rapidly making him a darling of commercial giants.
The buried lede in the hoopla over whether Drake’s new album title Views from the 6 meant the rapper was “trying to make ‘the 6’ happen" is the fact that the local rapper who Drake got the term from is emblematic of a new young, multicultural creative class in Toronto connected through a loose structure of local rap shows, parties, and streetwear stores, websites, and forums. Near the top of this phalanx of burgeoning young, diverse artists stands photographer Elie ‘Visionelie’ Jonathan.
Born in the Congo, Elie spent a few years in Paris as a child before settling in Montreal for much of his early life. In 2006, he moved to Toronto to learn English. In 2013, he attended the Ontario Academy of Design and Art for Graphic Design before opting to take a break. Last year, he started photographing architecture around Toronto with a focus on symmetry on his iPhone. He uploaded the photos to Instagram, where he quickly garnered a prodigious following. Before long, he expanded his oeuvre to include portraits, urban exploration, and reflective photography.
This versatility has become his greatest strength. Elie has the ability to take shots that are directly breathtaking—as well as shots that seemed designated for quiet rumination. The unifying theme of all of his work is careful composition and a moody aesthetic that has become his trademark.
Elie’s clarity of vision is already attracting commercial attention. Earlier this year, he was selected to shoot parts of the Weeknd’s XO Lookbook, and he was recently tapped to produce work for Canada’s leading luxury retailer, Holt Renfrew. Other national and international retailers are coming around, each eager to have a slice of Elie’s rapidly expanding body of work for themselves.
We met up with Elie at the Ontario Academy of Art and Design in Toronto to talk about developing his aesthetic, being a part of a new generation of Toronto artists, and how he got linked up with the Weeknd’s XO crew.
VICE: You started taking pictures last year, what prompted that?
Elie ‘Visionelie’ Jonathan: I don’t know, man. I just saw a lot of people I looked up to in New York who were doing it. It got me thinking, This is cool. Why can’t someone do this in Toronto?
Anybody in particular?
Honestly, I was just into people who would take dope pictures of architecture that focused on symmetry, where everything was razor-sharp straight. After seeing a bunch of pictures like this, I started thinking, I can do this. Or at least, I can try to do this. And I started doing it. Soon after that, it was like, oh shit, this is actually working. I found the initial batch of photographers who inspired me through Flickr, but it was Instagram that really set things off for me, though. It felt like there weren’t very many people in Toronto taking the kind of symmetrical architecture photos I wanted to.
How quickly did it catch on?
I was just shooting with my phone when I started in September. Shortly after that, I received a message from Instagram asking if I wanted to be listed on a “suggested follows” list. I accepted, and almost immediately my follower count shot up. It was a trip. It got me thinking that I need to keep providing visuals for people.
In December, I got my first camera and really started learning about how to use cameras effectively. I began constantly shooting on my phone and camera, then editing on my computer, and repeating the process. People started paying attention to it and it felt like something I really should pursue.
You have a good diversity of shots—architecture, rooftops, urban exploring shots, portraits...
Yeah, I know. Now I’m focusing on balancing everything in terms of the style of shot, while showing other sides of the aesthetic I’m trying to develop. I want to show that I can shoot more than one style.
What would you say your aesthetic is?
I’d say it’s something that focuses on clarity and represents a certain type of “urban” Toronto youth—sort of moody, occasionally bright, very reflective. It’s an aesthetic a lot of people in the city relate to.
You’ve done a lot of urban exploring. How and when did you start doing that?
After exploring the subways, it made me want to learn more about the city. I want to find more spaces to shoot. I was seeing dudes in Hong Kong that have urban exploring groups and it just got me thinking we don’t have our own, maybe I should try this.
Then we started finding ways to get into places, and once again, I was hit with a whoa, we’re actually doing this feeling. It’s captivating because you get to see things that every day people don’t see usually. I like how this kind of work forces us to stop, move a little slower, and focus on things that most people wouldn’t otherwise notice. The biggest thrill is getting a comment from someone saying, “Yo, I never noticed this location that I pass by every day could look like this.” Or “I didn’t know you could do that with this subway station.” For me, that’s exploring—showcasing how beautiful a place can be.
Sometimes you’re in such a rush to chug down that coffee and get to work that you miss the little things that can make life beautiful, aesthetically and atmospherically. That’s what I’m trying to bring—I’m trying to get you to take a simple view of the sky and appreciate the natural complexity it offers.
It feels like you’re capturing a certain type of Toronto. It’s very youth-skewing and internet-based, but it’s also a certain twentysomething cultural aesthetic.
Yeah, I’m trying to represent the interests of my generation. I try to frame all of my work with that in mind—even down to the angles and colours I use. I want the city to seem vibrant and alive, which is what I see it as.
You seem to be making the jump from Instagram hype to commercial success. There was a recent MTV profile of you, you’re shooting the XO Lookbook, and you’re doing work for Holt Renfrew. Instagram is obviously very important to you, but are you trying to branch out and get more commercial work?
For me, Instagram was just a way to show the aesthetic and what I could provide if it was real work—very portfolio-like. I’m using not using Instagram to branch out per se, but as a place that encourages me to constantly produce work while pursuing other opportunities.
It’s been great to start doing work with Holt. It’s great to see a company catch on to your work and see what you’re really about and then reach out to you through the internet. That’s the great thing about the world we live in now—you can really capitalize on it if you have any sort of creative ideas that you can showcase through social media without really giving away the whole concept of your style.
And how did the XO people reach out? Through Instagram?
We have mutual friends and we followed each other on Instagram. Eventually they reached out and said, “You should start working with us.”
They’re also part of that new Toronto generation of young creatives.
Yeah, the young Toronto that’s working at establishing a new view of what the city is. It’s dope to just be allowed to work with these guys ‘cause they’re pretty established and “up there,” compared to kids at OCAD like me. They’ve got a lot of stuff going for them—they’re international stars. It’s dope for them to reach out to someone like me and allow me to experience some of what they’re doing.
What do you have coming up in the next little bit?
I’m just trying to settle down, you know? I’m trying to focus on working with people I can grow with and continuing to send proposals to companies for work. My main thing now is to do more work. Do more photography, more branding, and anything else that’s creative with different companies and people. And I’m focused on continuing to grow, pushing myself to expand my work so I don’t get stagnant. I’ve always been focused on trying to produce refreshing work so my stuff doesn’t get tired. I’m focused on producing stuff that people can relate to or provide new looks at things they would otherwise ignore. I’m just trying to take baby steps and keep progressing.
Update: An earlier version of this article erronenously stated that Elie was also shooting images for the Weeknd's King of the Fall tour. We regret this error.