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Interview: San Francisco Street Photographer Travis Jensen

"Fifty shades of grey" takes on a whole new meaning when Travis Jensen snaps a colorless photograph of a gay couple on a motorcycle. From concrete sidewalks and abandoned alleyways, the street photographer captures a real San Francisco that isn’t all Apple Stores and Facebook Headquarters, nor is it hippie houses and young professionals. It can be easy to forget how slick of an eye it requires to capture true beauty when something so abundant as metropolitan humanity is your subject. In our interview with Jensen, a rambunctious teen turned skateboarder turned writer turned photographer turned philanthropist, mentor, and San Fran street-lurker, we talk about Instagram, insecurity, police brutality, California sunshine, and everything in between.

How did you get your start in photography? I moved to San Francisco when I was 18 with 800 bucks and a duffel bag and a skateboard. And this was in the mid-’90s, mid to late-’90s, and that’s back when San Francisco was still a skateboarding mecca. There were no skate parks. It was all, like, street terrain. So, um, I knew I wasn’t gonna be the next Tony Hawk or anything, but I wanted to, like, work in the industry in some aspect. I had so many crazy stories just witnessing stuff, living in the Tenderloin. Seeing people pushing a TV out of a third story window and it would hit someone on the back, like a passerby, or seeing someone get stabbed in the park, you know, with their insides all just kind of hanging out. So I started writing stories and one thing led to another and I got a job working for a couple of different magazines, one of them being the San Francisco Chronicle. You remember Vapors magazine? I was a staff writer for Vapors. But I was never really happy with the photos that would accompany the stories that I would write. So one day I just—I would say in maybe about 2004/2005 I started taking my own pictures for my stories.

So you weren’t professionally trained? Hell no. I’m self-taught everything. I was the worst student in the world growing up. When I was in high school, the only thing I cared about was skateboarding, smoking weed with my friends, and trying to holler at girls. I graduated high school by the skin of my teeth. I remember my dad telling me he was gonna kick my ass. He was like, you know, “You better graduate or I’m gonna kick your fucking ass if you don’t!” I could tell he was serious, too, you know. And I was a terrible student and I don’t know what it was, but when I was in my 20s I just kinda had this desire to learn.

What’s your process for shooting the people you come across? Do you just walk up to them and ask if you can take their picture? I’m always looking for—I can’t put my finger on what I’m looking for, but I know it when I see it. You know, like I’ll be out shooting, and I’ll see someone that interests me, and depending on the situation, I’ll either just take the photo and deal with the consequences or I’ll ask. It all depends on the lighting, how they’re posed, what the backdrop is. I would say most people are okay with it. Occasionally I’ll run into problems. You know, once, actually I ran into a problem in New York. I had some mobster-looking dude—I took a snap of him and his buddy walking down the street and they didn’t like it very much. So, um, it does happen. It just comes with the territory.

So what’s your favorite story behind a picture you’ve taken? There’s a lot. I’ve made lifelong friends from complete strangers. You know, my work focuses on strangers, not low-hanging fruit. I don’t fuck around with homeless people laying down in the street, or people holding a pound of weed and a shot. That’s not really for me. I’m not looking for shock, more so just beautiful moments and beautiful people that make up San Francisco’s environment.

There was an incident here last year—do you remember the Batkid thing? So, you know, that whole thing, which I already had an issue with just because we’re spending this insane money to fulfill this kid’s dream, which I think is great, but at the same time, the homeless problem here is terrible. It’s absolutely terrible. Everyone here is struggling. Unless you’re the super elite, like, tech-y. Everybody I know here, the people I run with, everybody has a job and then a hustle on the side. Whether it be doing landscapes on the weekends or selling weed or whatever. Everybody here has a hustle.

One of my friends, a young man that I was mentoring, was coming home from checking out the Batkid festivities, and he lives in the Valencia Gardens Housing Projects here in San Francisco. He was stopped by the police for no reason. So they proceeded to whoop the shit out of him right in front of his house. And then some of the neighbors came to intervene, and then they beat the shit out of the neighbors, too. They took them all to jail. One of the neighbors was HIV positive, walked with a cane and stuff, and they charged these young men with a stack of felony accounts.

So, you know, long story short, I put a post up on Instagram and within 24 hours it was just national news—it was world news, actually. And it was really cool because a lot of people rallied behind us and they were like, "Fuck that, hell no, we’re tired of this shit here, you know, the cops just beating people up." So me and a few of my friends got this guy out of jail and all charges dropped. I’m into using my craft as a tool to do good in the community. I’m not one of those asshole photographers who basically acts like a dick with their camera, and there’s a lot of those. And the funniest thing to me is that a lot of these folks, there’s nothing street about them. Not in the slightest bit.

Why do you shoot in black and white? I always felt that, aesthetically, San Francisco, like New York, looks better in black and white. There’s something about the density of it. It always reminded me of the old, noir streets of San Francisco kinda feel. When people think of California, they think of this gorgeous sun-soaked light that just illuminates everyone, and everyone’s just pretty, and stuff like that. But here, the light sucks. And we have a lot of fog, and there’s always a cloud cover, and it’s kind of dull, so for me, the black and white was kind of from day one. It was like oh yeah, this is what San Francisco is supposed to look like.

I was really intrigued by the fact that two of your books were taken completely using an iPhone. A real photographer, in my opinion, can pick up any camera, whether it’s a Polaroid, a disposable, an iPhone, a large format camera, what have you, and should be able—with tampering with it for a few minutes—to turn around and take a nice photograph with it. I know a lot of people that say the same thing, like "Oh, the phone is cheating," and stuff like this, but to me, I don’t really care what the tool is that people use, it’s more the end result. And I look for truthfulness in photos. I think one of [my books] might be the first published book of photos using an iPhone. Actually, I’m certain of that, because I grabbed onto that early, like 2010/2011 when the phone first started becoming—you know, this was before Instagram even came out, and, I was just like, you know what? I’m gonna show people that it doesn’t matter what the tool is. Because at the end of the day, it’s all about your eye. Your light sensibility, and your understanding of light. Just kinda taking risks with your camera. Getting close.

The only people I know who get hung up on that are people who are worried about their own relevance. And you can quote me on that, because anyone that says that, that has problems with the tools that people are using, is just concerned about their own relevance. It’s like the people that say they only shoot with film. I think a lot of people use film to compensate for weak images. Like it adds some sort of creditability to your work or something. I shoot so much, I’d be homeless if I was shooting film.

How else do you work with the community? I donated a lot of my book sales to at-risk youth. I’ve also done shows where I’ve given all the proceeds to at-risk charities, because when I came here, I had nothing. Literally, I had nothing. And it’s a miracle that I didn’t end up dead or some dope fiend on the corner. Like I wouldn’t eat for a few days, I’d be forced to go steal some socks or something like that.

Recently, we started a little photo group, me and my friend Rasta Dave, called SOS Mob—we’re gonna change it to “Collective” because people have some problems with Mob, even though it’s a joke, but, uh, it stands for Sidelines of Society and Snappin’ on Site. We host these walks and they’re open to everybody. We have a handful of youth, different at-risk youth that join us, my five-year-old son comes out, and just kinda walk around and spend the afternoon taking pictures, talking photography, and kind of showing people what’s out there.

We take people to neighborhoods where they might not feel comfortable going out there on their own, let alone with a camera, because that’s kind of just my way of being able to, like, get the newer photographers on the right foot, how to be respectful when they’re shooting on the street, not to go for the low-hanging fruit, focus on truthful outcomes, and it’s cool. It’s about people who love photography, it’s about real photography. It’s not like a get-together where everyone stands around taking pictures of each other; it’s not like some of those Instagram circle jerk kinda scenes. 

I’m not one of these elite dudes who are too cool for school. I’m like nah, fuck that. If you wanna hang out with me, if you wanna meet, seek me out. I’m accessible. It says on my website, “This is the San Francisco I’m living in.” These pictures here, this is what I’m living, this is what I’m seeing when I walk outside my door. It’s about focusing on truthful outcomes.

Follow Travis Jensen on Instagram and visit his website to get more information about upcoming gallery events and book sales.

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Interview: San Francisco Street Photographer Travis Jensen