To celebrate the release of our second collaboration with Vans, launching this weekend, we connected with four Chicagoans whose work brings people together. Each has their own approach, their own medium, and their own style, and they all inspire us in their own way.
Paul Octavious is a photographer and all-around creative force based in Chicago. Born and raised in Connecticut, he taught himself photography as a complement to his graphic design practice, and it steadily grew into one of his main output channels, both creatively and commercially. Paul’s work spans many media, though, and he approaches each with the same DIY ethic grounded in earnestly following his enthusiasms and trusting that if he’s into something, others will be, too. Lately, he’s been spending time bringing people together through clubs he spearheads like Eye Eaters — a supper club exploring the middle ground between art and cuisine that’s gone virtual during the pandemic — as well as his Black Archivist project, dedicated to distributing donated cameras to Black photographs, from professionals, to amateur enthusiast, to first-timers, so that they can tell their own stories. No matter what project Paul’s taking on, each one is imbued with his resourceful energy and desire to uplift those around him.
In your artist’s bio, you describe your work as tending to study certain subjects over a span of time, and state that you're interested in finding the beauty in change. Can unpack that a bit further, and tell me how it practically manifests in your work?
So, I am a self-taught photographer. I went to school for design, and then I bought a camera when I was in college to help support my design work. I didn't buy the camera to become a photographer—I just wanted to do my own photos added to my print work. Over time, photography has become my career, or a part of my career, and when it comes to making art, I constantly go back to projects that I created when I didn't have, say, a lighting skill that I do now. I never say a project is done—it just evolves over time.
What advice would you give other young practitioners starting out that that might help them in teaching themselves their craft the way you have?
For me, it's experimenting. It's never saying anything is a bad idea. I think a lot of people, especially with Instagram now, see other people's work, and they're like, "Oh, I want to make that." That’s awesome, but what makes them special is what they were already making before they saw that. It's one thing to be inspired, but don't get too driven by what other people are making, because you want your own point of view as well.
I know it's a question that almost every photographer gets asked today, but, since you mentioned it, can you tell me how your relationship to platforms like Instagram has changed over the course of your career?
The first day I bought my camera, back in 2005, 2006, I joined Flickr. And it was interesting to see the work from the first days of your photography to now. It’s all documented, you know? That's interesting and weird. But, at the beginning, it wasn't about likes or metrics, it was about learning. And I feel bad for the up-and-coming photographers, because it kind of makes you need to be a celebrity of some sort. An influencer of some sort. You have to show people your interesting world, which is a bummer because that's not what it started out as. I was even part of what I think was the first advertising activation on Instagram. Mercedes Benz had five influencers pick a different part of the country, drive around and take photos, and whoever got the most likes won the car. And then from there, it was more followers, and Instagram putting you on suggester user lists... It was weird and interesting and fun, and now, it’s less so. While there's still amazing work on Instagram that's done by amazing people, it's, like, information overload. But there's going to be another evolution of this. It's just the evolution of the internet.
I like the idea that while it might be the dominant platform now, something will replace it soon.
For instance, something silly like the filters—I find that amazing, because those are just regular teenagers and kids in their early 20s making it, doing the art. And that is the next evolution of what's happening now. People who you wouldn’t assume would be making these graphics are making these graphics. Because they understand coding, and how Y, Z, and X space work. And I think that's really cool, and that's the next evolution.
And also, as I said, I do photography, but I also host a cannabis club, I have a supper club, I have all these different interests, and these different interests help fuel the other interests and together make something new— something new, to me anyways. It may not be new to the world, but it's a new discovery for myself. So, look at what you're good at, and at your interests, and see how you can combine them and make something new.
Good advice! Could you tell me about a project you're working on right now or an interest that you've developed recently that's really exciting for you?
Well, I create these clubs where I gather people around something I'm interested in—I know if I'm interested in it, hopefully someone else is, and I put it out there into the world. So, right now I have a club I call High Eaters. Since cannabis became legal here in Illinois, my business partner and I, Jenna, we started this club around cannabis. It's all about cannabis education, first and foremost. And then we do a creative activity, and then from the creative activity, we eat something by a chef.
We have a supper club, called Eye Eaters, and that was all about having these dinners based on art, and having an artist talk about their artwork, and then having a chef create dinners based on the artwork. So from Eye Eaters, it became High Eaters—it's just the evolution of these interests that I have that I gather people. On Friday, actually, we're doing our first virtual High Eaters event called Pumpkin Pipes where I'll teach people how to make a bong-kin, which is basically a pumpkin made into a bong.
Right now it's just bringing people together, because everyone's at home because of the pandemic. It's random to me—and to other people—but it's also a lot of fun, and who knows will happen next?
I also started this thing called Black Archivist. Black Archivist helps by getting cameras into the hands of black people. I came up with the idea during this summer’s civil uprising and put it out on my Instagram. Cameras started to roll in along with applications from all types of Black Americans. From people who’ve never used a camera, to professionals with outdated equipment, to illustrators. Anyone who had the urge to learn and to document we will work on getting them a camera. I feel like it's really important for black Americans right now to tell their own story.
An incredible project, and one that seems to fit in pretty seamlessly with your own work as a photographer, too.
Absolutely, absolutely. Growing up, I really didn't see too many black photographers. If you don't see it, how do you make it happen? So, how can I get more black photographers out there in the world? Even if you have never used the camera, like I didn't, just getting something in your hands to document your community or the world around you from your perspective. We have people applying that are photographers. We have people who are not photographers. We have activists applying, too. And a lot of people have donated cameras, which is awesome. It's just got its communal space, and hopefully that space becomes a place where photographers can come and photograph a project they've always wanted to photograph. The pandemic is slowing things down a bit, but we're going to get cameras out there to everyone that wants one.