Jason Travis, or “J Trav” as he’s known among friends, is a jack of all trades. After graduating from Georgia State University with a graphic design degree, he began taking on several creative roles around Atlanta. His curatorial debut was the recent Rest is Space show at Aurora Coffee. Travis also plays guitar and sings for local band Sealions, is a known sartorialist and The Atlantan contributor, and is the design brains behind Atlanta’s new online culture mag, PURGEATL. But Travis is mostly known as the guy who asks hipsters to empty their bags so he can take portraits of them with their stuff. We sat down with J Trav at local bar The Righteous Room to talk about the art of voyeurism.
BURNAWAY: When you’re shooting your Persona series, do you ever plant stuff in the bags to make your shot more interesting?
J Trav: What? Like a bomb? No I haven’t even thought of it!
What is the weirdest thing you’ve ever seen doing Persona?
I always expect weirder things than happen. This one guy had all these piercings and looked really scary, and he had a bunch of sandwiches [in his bag]. He had like three peanut butter sandwiches or something. A friend of mine had a gun which was surprising. Not really that many things shock me. I’m not really that shock-able. I think it’s weird what people don’t have, like wallets. They just throw money around.
What do you do if you’re photographing someone and they’re terribly unphotogenic?
I don’t know. You have to find a redeeming quality. I think trying to get them to look as real as possible. Sometimes it takes a while. You have to trick them into thinking they’re not being photographed. You just have to make it a good time. I don’t know if there is an answer.
If you go to somebody’s house, do you sneak through their stuff?
No, not at all. That’s funny that you ask that, though. I would see how you might think that. I do want to expand on the [Persona] project. I did two or three with girls and their shoes, like 100 pairs of shoes. I wanted it to be their possessions. Or music people with all their records. When I did the shoes one, I was like, “This just isn’t as good.” It’s not as interesting. Part of me wants to do something more personal than [bags].
I’ve seen one with people and their breakfast. I actually came across, not too long ago, in a New York Times article, this guy had been doing this since 1978 before I was born. There was a huge square of stuff and then like a hand. At the bottom of the article, they mentioned my series and I was like, “What the fuck is this?” Someone is doing something like I do but from way before I was born. I thought it was really interesting. You can do a lot of stuff that’s similar to other people’s [work]. My thing was just a marriage of two ideas. I really like portraits of people. I’ve been really inspired by Wes Anderson and his overhead shots and his really long perspective.
I started to get really obsessed with getting rid of a lot of my stuff when I started. My dad lives in Austria and can fit everything he owns in a suitcase. It sounds so beautiful in my head [but I have] all this shit … and if it wasn’t there, would I miss it? I don’t know. It’s just the way of the world. There’s this George Carlin clip about stuff: You have this stuff and you go travel and you take your stuff and you think about, “How is my stuff at home? … And where’s my stuff?” It makes you think about consumerism and what it takes to live in the world. The world is huge and I love the world.
Do you think what you find in someone’s bag is a good indication of their personality?
It’s pretty true to form sometimes. Sometimes people are like, “I’m sorry I don’t have anything more interesting,” and I’m like, “Yeah, me too.” I’m kidding. It’s so related to your job, too. People that sew have yarn, photographers have cameras. It’s related to what you do in the world.
What’s your spirit animal?
Spirit animal? Is that something I should know? Let me preface that with: I think I’m a cat person more than a dog person. I have three stray cats that I feed. They come to my door and I feed them. I really love cats but I’m allergic as shit. I like dogs but I don’t have one. This doesn’t help me answer my spirit animal.
Rawr? A tiger? Am I big cat because I like cats?
Cheetahs are stylish.
Cheetahs, yeah. Man, I’ve fallen off the running path. When I run my mind is like, free. At the end, my mind is bursting with ideas. When I started running I quit smoking and started taking better care of myself. I always run the Peachtree [Road Race]; I have for like six years.
Every year I come home and watch the hotdog eating contest on TV. Last year I was like, I’ve been watching this so many times I need to go in person, so I went. I think it’s amazing that someone is like, “OK, that’s the best eater in the world.” People can identify with it. People can’t identify with, like, the best something else in the world. I almost started to tear up. I was like, “I’m doing the most American thing I can right now!” It was so cool to be on Coney Island.
Do you not try to differentiate between being a musician and an artist?
That’s a really hard thing to specify. One of the things I was telling somebody the other day is I do a lot of design and illustration, and I do painting and I do film editing and photography; I do a lot of stuff and I don’t know what is the most satisfying.
I think writing songs I get the most out of emotionally. Or I just get super excited. But I can also take a great photograph where I really feel like I captured a person. I like to ride the line and be a part of both worlds. Being a musician and writing songs is being artistic. There’s so much crossover. I design our album covers and our website. It’s almost like borderline wanting to do everything. I’ve been getting into film editing and that scares me because I really like that, too. I would say [I consider myself an] “artist slash musician.” Those are the only two things I really care about.
Look for J Trav playing with his band Sealions and photographing the PURGEATL Launch Party this Sunday, August 1, at The Earl.
Atlanta Art Crush, the most emulated article in the ATL, is an interview series brought to you by Susannah Darrow, Laura Hennighausen, and photographer Sandy Hooper. Look for profiles of our latest heartthrobs on the last Friday of each month.