Grryo Storyteller Series: Justin Johnston by Jeff Kelley
When we were asked to find a storyteller to interview, I immediately thought of Justin Johnston. He is the social media manager for the Mextures app, and his posts are often accompanied by brief pieces of writing that I’ve always found fascinating. I decided to corner him via email and ask him a few questions….
Jeff: Let’s start with your username. Can you verify that you are THE Justin Johnston? Also, tell us a little bit about your mobile photography journey.
JJ: Well I’m sure there are a few Justin Johnstons besides myself on Instagram and I will happily beard wrestle them to keep my “the”. At the end of the day, I’ll keep my “the”, and have made a new friend. It’s a win-win. (Also, googling “beard wrestling”.)
I got into mobile photography a little over a year ago because I needed a new hobby. I was bored with wrangling grizzlies and catching fish using only my beard as a net. I needed something new. I had some friends on Instagram who were taking pictures of things other than themselves in the mirror or their salads, and I thought to myself, “I’d like to take pictures of things other than myself in the mirror, or my salads.” And so I did. And I’ve learned a lot and had a ton of fun along the way. I’ve made so many really great friends all because I have a phone and fingers.
Jeff: Can you tell us a little bit about Mextures (for the three readers who’ve never heard of it) and talk about your position there? Also, I think you should consider making the Mextures motto “Will make even your pictures of salad look awesome™”.
JJ: Well, Mextures, to me at least, is the most powerful photo editing tool available for the iPhone. It’s more than just adding a preset or a filter to a picture. It’s the ability to totally reconstruct a picture. If you looked at some of my Mextures edits and then looked at the original picture, you’d have a hard time believing that they were the same photo. With 9 different packs of overlays you can change the texture, the lighting, the coloration and pretty much every aspect of a photo. And it really has become a very cool and supportive community of loyal users, especially with everything that was added when we released version 2.0. And you can even edit mirror selfies!
My position with Mextures is pretty simple: I do very little and get credit for way too much. Seriously. Merek, the creator of Mextures, is a genius. Not to mention he also has a great beard (not near as luscious as mine, for the record). But what I have the privilege of doing is working primarily with the Instagram crowd. I spend a lot of hours in the #mextures and #mexturesapp hashtags sifting through thousands of images; liking pictures and selecting images for Instagram and Facebook features as well as the Inspiration Feed we have inside the app. Because of this I’m constantly inspired by what others are doing with the app. And yes, I have seen a few salad edits as well.
Jeff: Your edits are often accompanied by what I would describe as ‘one paragraph novels’. I’m going to choose to believe that they are all 100% true stories. But feel free to dash my dreams on the rocks.
JJ: I guess that every “one paragraph novel” that I write has some truth to it. That has been one of the fun things about writing them. People relate. It may not be truth for me, but it’s truth for someone reading it. And now I’m kind of hooked on writing them.
Jeff: How would you describe your process when you write one of them? Is it like a creative muscle that needs to be continually worked? Or a garden of ideas, of sorts, that can’t be stifled? Wow, those were slightly lame. I’m sure you can do better.
JJ: Hahaha! Yes. It’s like a rainbow of words and letters and I’m the proverbial leprechaun at the end of the rainbow stealing the pot of words strung together to make sentences strung together to make paragraphs. There’s something about a unicorn in there too. Or so the legend goes. It actually started out as a joke. Whenever I would collaborate with someone and edit one of their photos, I’d create some ridiculously fantastical backstory about their life. But as things go, eventually I became a little more serious when writing them. I wouldn’t necessarily say I have a process. I’m not that organized. Some days I have a phrase stuck in my mind that I build the story around, but most days I sit down and write the story just before I post. I look at the picture I’m going to post and my overactive imagination does the rest of the work. And then some pictures I string together for a series of stories. Those are fun because, since I know what direction I’m taking the story ahead of time, the story influences my editing process.
Jeff: One of the things I really like about these is that each one leaves the reader wanting more, yet at the same time they are totally able to stand on their own. Is that hard to do, or are you just naturally a genius at finding the right balance?
JJ: I’m not a genius. But I was probably the smartest kid in my class through most of high school. Side note, I was homeschooled through most of high school. You do the math. That wasn’t really intentional but it makes sense because I wrote them all separately. So I guess the shape of the stories really depends on my mood at the end of that particular day. And with this particular series, with different angles at different times of day with different edits, you really catch a different vibe from the photo.
Jeff: So then it’s safe to say you don’t know how this story will end?
JJ: Well I have a pretty decent idea of what direction I’m going to take, but I’m not sure how many more “chapters” I have. We’ll see how it all ends up unfolding. So, no. I don’t really know how it’s going to end.
Jeff: *pauses* sorry, I got lost in your beard for a moment there. Do you have any favorite writers/story tellers that have influenced how you write? Traditional or non-traditional.
JJ: You wouldn’t be the first. It’s a natural response. I have so many favorites, but the two who have influenced me the most by far would be Kurt Vonnegut and J.D. Salinger. Those two have influenced me, not just in my writing, but in the way I view life as well. The first time I read “The Catcher in the Rye” I identified with the main character, Holden Caulfield, so much. Since then I’ve read it at least 5 times. And Vonnegut was such a brilliant man and writer. He experienced so much pain and sadness in his lifetime and yet he was still so intelligent and full of humor. I’ve read basically everything he has every written.
Jeff: Actually, I meant I was literally lost in your beard. Thankfully I found the way out! Small door by the left cheekbone. We’d better wrap this up before it happens again. Any closing comments or advice?
JJ: You’ve discovered the secret passage to my heart. I don’t really have any advice because I don’t really know what I’m doing. But to anyone out there trying to find their “voice” on Instagram, I would just say stick with what you enjoy. Don’t let people or “followers” dictate what you post or how you edit. Do what you love. In the end that’s all that matters. Also, eat Oreos. Lots and lots of Oreos.
Professional human being. Unprofessional and unpolished photographer and storyteller.
- Jeff can usually be found roaming the streets of Northampton, Massachusetts, pretending to deliver mail. Between deliveries he takes pictures with his iPhone, always in search of new ways of interpreting the world around him. His editing style ranges from minimal to outrageous, and constant experimentation, collaboration, and inspiration from other mobile photographers keeps Jeff motivated to try new things.