This Teen iPhone Artist Has a Mission
Nic Tullis doesn’t post selfies to Instagram. The only portraits he shares are those of homeless people
in Saint Louis
Nic Tullis was a freshman in high school when he bought his first iPhone. He skipped school to get it…
He started playing around with the camera app. “Since I skipped school to get the iPhone, I had some spare time to try it out,” Tullis recalls. He started by exploring and documenting the woods behind his home. Within a few… of playing around with his new smartphone, Tullis was hooked.
Now 19 years old, the Missouri native has become an emerging figure in the local arts scene for his portraits of St. Louis’s homeless population. Most teens use social media to share “selfies or pictures of food they’re eating,” Tullis says. He wants to use it to spark social change.
Unlike the average teenager’s Instagram, his feed features grizzled men in hoodies, moody shots of downtown streets and lots of black and white. It’s more urban and thoughtful, a welcome antidote to the seemingly relentless self-expression of many digital natives today.
He discovered his project of documenting the homeless population by chance. In… his mother offered to take him to downtown St. Louis. He snapped photos of the skyline, the arch and other downtown architecture, just as any visitor might. Until he met a homeless man.
One Saturday afternoon, Tullis was wandering around taking photographs on his iPhone when he encountered a man who would become his first portrait subject. “I was walking right up against a store and there was a man leaned up against it,” Tullis says. 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.”
After that first shot, Tullis started to seek out more homeless people on his shooting trips. Now, after [[how many]] years of documenting downtown Saint Louis, he has developed a routine.
While out taking pictures, Tullis carries singles 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 without giving them anything,” Tullis said.
Until last year, Tullis would take the picture and edit exclusively on his iPhone. Now Tullis uses a Canon T2i for some of his photographs, but he still edits solely on the iPhone. His favorite iPhone application for editing is VSCO Cam, with his second favorite app being Snapseed.
[[other questions that might help flesh out this section:
how many apps does he have on his phone? How many are photo-related? (We can then compare them to whatever you have on your phone.)
I’m still curious to hear what this guy thinks about selfies. Has he ever thought about getting a selfie stick? If he’s disdainful, that’s great! If he’s just chill about it all, that can also add a little color to his personality.
Why does he use one camera in some situations but not others? What’s occasionally better about the iPhone?
How intense is his editing process? What’s the experience of using either of these apps?
Does he ever share images on Facebook or Twitter? I know he prefers Instagram, but maybe there’s something to be learned about how he engages with other services.]]
Tullis publishes most of his photos on Instagram, his preferred social network. He stumbled on it while watching a commercial for the iPhone, in which the phone scrolls through different applications, one of which was the photo-sharing app. At the time, he simply admired its icon and thought it would mesh with his photography hobby. Now, with almost 4,000 followers on his account, Tullis has found an audience beyond his own friend group.
Tullis believes that social media has the power to influence people to act and encourages new ideas. He gave an example of Roman Atwood, a popular YouTuber who performs magic tricks for the homeless community. “People can see how grateful these homeless people are in the video. This influences people to find these creative ways to give back on their own as well,” Tullis reflects. “Whether they are doing it for the views or notoriety or not, at the end of the day they are still doing something nice.”
He also says he was inspired by @mustafaseven, a photographer from Istanbul who posts beautiful portraits of people he encounters. After his first several portraits, Tullis participated in “Portrait For A Dollar.” This movement, originally born in Los Angeles, focuses on giving to the homeless community in exchange for a photograph. Tullis doesn’t believe in taking pictures without asking people and even shows the photograph he takes to his subject before he posts it. If the subject has an email address he’ll send them the picture.
I asked if he ever worried or cared about how many likes his photos received on Instagram and if this feedback ever affected what pictures he took. He responded, “At first I worried about the numbers. 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.”
Tullis continues, saying “Even though my pictures of downtown get more exposure on Instagram, I really pride myself on my portraits. I enjoy taking them and the process of taking them by talking to people and learning a bit more about them.”
Tullis is an outlier with how many teenagers use social media, some of Tullis’s ideas resemble some of the ideas of the larger whole. For example, Tullis mentioned that on Instagram, he didn’t really get much negative feedback because “it wasn’t really a place for that.” I’ve heard this sentiment echoed many times among my peers, with some of my friends only having an Instagram account because the posts are generally more positive, the comments are more uplifting, and the photos themselves are often more enticing.
Tullis is currently fundraising to hold an art show where he will be auctioning off prints of some of his photographs. The fund is meant to offset some of the costs of renting the gallery, printing out the photos, and paying for music for the night. All proceeds from the show will benefit St. Patrick Center, a homeless shelter focusing on providing more than just a bed and a meal, but instead teaching its community how to be self-sufficient.
Overall, Tullis’s story shows how one can make an impact by using their talent in order to make a difference. The name of his art show,“Shadows of St. Louis”, perfectly describes what Tullis focuses on—those beautiful individuals who are always around us, but we may not always see.