In Conversation with Julius Motal
Julius Motal is a photographer and writer based in New York City. His work focuses on human rights and social justice issues. In his spare time, he sings in a choir and writes fiction.
When you think of North Korea, Julius Motal says nukes and a leader off-his-rocker come to mind, yet as he looked through thousands of photos hashtagged #everydayeverywhere on Instagram, he found a serene, black-and-white image of a harbor instead. It was the first photo he selected during his week as a guest curator for the @EverydayEverywhere Instagram account.
“I’ve been drawn to the unfamiliar for a while now. It’s always fascinating to see just how much is out there, how much there is to discover, whether it’s in some far-flung place or your backyard. There was something new for me in each of the photos I selected.”
After two years in Istanbul, Turkey, Julius recently moved back to his native New York City. Despite his attraction to the unfamiliar, Julius admits he can become trapped in his own comfort zone, not straying much from home and his favorite haunts. But the “aftermath” of the U.S. election is pushing him back to the unfamiliar. He says it has made him open up more to others and even inspired him to become more involved in his community and the world beyond.
Julius first picked up a camera in 2009, an Olympus OM-77 AF that belonged to his late grandfather. When I ask him what he enjoys about making pictures, his answer resonates with me and probably other photographers too.
“I enjoy a fresh cup of coffee,” he says. “I enjoy a well-written novel. I enjoy Pink Floyd’s Dark Side of the Moon. Photography’s different. It’s my practice. It’s something I wrestle with. I savor the successes that I’ve had, but I pore over my failures. How could I have done X-assignment better? What could’ve made this picture or that picture better? It’s a constant learning process. I don’t want to make it sound more serious than it is. The act of a pushing a button is simple. Everything behind it, though — the thinking, the feeling, the framing — inevitably deepens it. It’s my way of understanding the world regardless of where I am.”
Julius says he looks “less for the moments than the moments in between”. Earlier this year he exhibited photographs in this peripheral style at Mobile Nordic in Finland. All of them were taken with his cell phone.
“A photograph for an assignment is very much about what happened,” Julius says. “The images I’ve taken between assignments, of life as it is, have value beyond their original purpose, rather than images I took of the Grand Bazaar for a magazine.”
During his week curating, Julius says he saw a lot of good and bad pictures—as well as a few too many selfies taken at the gym. He let the visuals guide his initial selection and then considered the caption information and location too.
“I’ve found that The Everyday Projects has made room for more kinds of photographs,” Julius says. “Not every image needs to stop you in your tracks in the way that historically-defining photographs have. There’s a greater sense of exploration in what shows up across the Everyday feeds.”
Julius says these in-between and quiet moments also help to shape the way future generations will learn from and perceive the way we live today.
“Photography has democratized the historical record,” Julius says. “Go to any museum and what you’ll see is a record of how the rich and powerful lived. Since the advent of photography, what you get is more comprehensive, more nuanced. You can look at photos of everyone from the most destitute to the richest of the rich.”
Ironically, in Julius’s quest to learn about the unfamiliar and present it to the followers of @EverydayEverywhere, he also discovered something universal in a photo he selected of a Diwali celebration. He says emotion is the common thread across countries and cultures.
“The psychologist Paul Ekman has written extensively about emotion and facial expressions and how they’re the same everywhere. Obviously, how and what gives rise to emotions differs, but I’d wager that we’ve all had at least one moment in our childhood that the children in the Diwali photo are experiencing, something purely awesome.”