How One Teen Uses Instagram to Campaign for Social Change
Nic Tullis, an iPhone photographer, uses social media to humanize the homeless population
Nic Tullis was a freshman in high school when he bought his first iPhone. His mom had gotten her tax return that day, and she let him skip school so they could both get new phones, a personal treat for her son.
He started playing around with the camera app that day. Since he wasn’t in school, “I had some spare time to try it out,” Tullis recalls. He began exploring and documenting the woods behind his home.
Now 19 years old, the Belleville, Illinois, native has become an emerging figure in the local arts scene for his portraits of Saint Louis’s homeless population. Most teens use social media to share “selfies or pictures of food they’re eating,” Tullis says. But unlike the average teenager’s Instagram feed, Tullis’s features grizzled men in hoodies, moody shots of downtown streets and lots of black and white. It’s urban, thoughtful, intimate.
“I don’t just take pictures of homeless people,” Tullis says. “But a regular person, they don’t really share much. A homeless person will often share everything. They’re willing to talk, because a lot of people ignore them and act like they’re not there.”
Tullis began documenting the homeless population by chance. As his love of photography started to take hold his mother drove him to downtown Saint Louis, half an hour away. He snapped photos of the skyline, the arch and other downtown architecture, just as any visitor might.
On one of these Saturday afternoon trips, Tullis was wandering around taking photographs on his iPhone when he saw a man leaning against a store front. The man asked him for money. “When he saw that I was taking photographs, he asked if I could take a picture of him in exchange for some change,” Tullis says.
After that first shot, Tullis started to seek out more homeless people on his trips downtown. Three and a half years into documenting Saint Louis, he has a routine. Tullis carries single dollar bills to hand out in exchange for a portrait.
“I don’t want to ask someone who is down on their luck for their photograph and take out my expensive iPhone or Canon right in front of them, snap a picture, and then leave,” Tullis says. “They’re kind of working for you, they’re modeling, whether they’re homeless or not. I don’t want to take something from them and not give something in exchange.”
He is not alone in this view—a series by Los Angeles photographer Donte Tidwell, called Portrait For A Dollar, also focuses on the homeless population. “Ones who approach you asking for spare change, so in return I ask for a picture,” Tidwell writes on his site.
Until last year Tullis took and edited all his pictures exclusively on his iPhone. Now he uses a Canon T2i for some of his photographs, but he still edits solely on his iPhone 6+. To do so he uses either VSCO Cam or Snapseed, both of which offer basic editing features for free.
He likes to edit “on the spot,” tweaking images in the car while his mother drives them to the next place that catches Tullis’s eye. “If I have to overwork to try to bring a photo to a point where I like it, I don’t share it,” he says.
Entirely self-taught, Tullis develops his hobby mostly by watching YouTube videos, namely the popular photography channel Digital Rev, or by asking Google. “At first I used a lot of Instagram filters, and I cringe at it now,” Tullis says. “Looking at some of my photos now, they’re awful — the over-saturation of colors at times.”
He pauses. “I think that’s why I started shooting in black and white.”
Tullis publishes most of his photos on Instagram, where he has almost 4,000 followers. There he has found an audience beyond his small hometown. “I’m not seeking any kind of community to be a part of. I usually mostly interact with other Instagrammers in Saint Louis,” he says.
I asked if he ever worried or cared about how many likes his photos received on Instagram and if this feedback affected what pictures he took. “At first I worried about the numbers,” he tells me. “Obviously, I like recognition for my photos, but whether my photos get one like or 100, I try not to let likes determine what I post.”
His landscape photos of Saint Louis tend to be more popular among his followers, but as Tullis says, “I really pride myself on my portraits.”
Tullis’s photography stalled for several months last year when his family didn’t have a car. Now that his weekly trips have resumed, he’s back to wandering the city for three or four hours at a time. One month ago, on one of those trips, he met a man outside a 7-Eleven. He and his mother had circled the block a few times. “He was a really big dude, kind of intimidating,” Tullis says. “And I’m a big dude, so that says something. But he saw me looking and kind of waved, so we realized he was probably not that mean.”
They climbed out of the car, and the man introduced himself as Demarlow. Tullis and Demarlow spoke for almost 45 minutes. It was a frigid January day, and as they chatted Tullis’s hands turned red and he started shivering from the cold. Demarlow insisted on giving him a pair of gloves. So he and his mother got him a burger and a coffee from the McDonald’s where they stopped for lunch.
Then, Tullis says, “he gave me one of his rings, a black and silver one. I tried to refuse, but he said to take the ring and to remember the encounter, and that he would see me again.”
Tullis hopes that by posting his photos on social media he can draw more attention to the plight of homelessness and inspire others to also give back in creative ways. In this he draws on the example of Roman Atwood, a popular YouTuber who performs magic tricks for people living on the street. “You can see how grateful these homeless people are in the videos,” he says. “Whether [Atwood and others] are doing it for the views or notoriety or not, at the end of the day they are still doing something nice.”
Tullis is currently fundraising for an art show where he will auction off some of his prints. The fund is meant to offset the costs of renting the gallery, printing the photos, and having music for the night. Proceeds from the show will benefit St. Patrick Center, a homeless shelter that tries to teach self-efficiency.
“A lot of people kind of ignore [homelessness] and act like nothing’s going on,” he says. In recognition of the homeless population he has titled his show “Shadows of St. Louis”—a fitting name, though for him they’ve always held the spotlight.