A hard-earned, sun-kissed wrinkle. A mirage of tomato drying in the sun. The pouring of freshly harvested olive oil. A pair of hands that come to touch. These are the moments Sam Youkilis wants you to notice. The documentary photographer and filmmaker has spent the past six years archiving the human experience. Armed with his iPhone, Youkilis traverses the globe from the dewy canals of Xochimilco in Mexico City to the lively alleyways of Italy’s Napoli. According to Youkilis, his work is as simple as “walking around and noticing things.” And if you too want to find beauty everyday, he suggests “you just have to look for it”.
Youkilis’s collection of moving images and stills, captured in both an interpersonal and observatory style, has drawn over half a million followers to his Instagram account. For 10-to-15 seconds, he has it. What every Instagram creator wants: your attention. On their own, Youkilis’s vignettes are acutely individual, capturing nothing particularly out of the ordinary. Together, they propose a culmination of what it’s like to be human. In a scroll of perpetual uncertainty, where we toe the line between what’s real and what’s fake—Youkilis’s refreshingly real episodes offer a moment of humanity—the kind I imagine Instagram was intended for.
After years of sharing his work online, Youkilis has taken to the bookshelf with Somewhere, a chronicle of how the documentarian sees and experiences the world. In collaboration with Loose Joints, the 500-page book is penned in his signature style—the language of the observer. Somewhere isn’t shot just anywhere, the pages comb through Youkilis’s library of images with everything from “People Walking While Balancing Things On Their Head” to “Gestures of Romance” and “How to Cut Citrus.” Here, I spoke to Youkilis about his subjects, beauty, and what he hopes you’ll feel watching it all unfold.
Natalie Stoclet: What first sparked your interest in photography?
Sam Youkilis: I started taking pictures quite naturally when I was 15 or 16 years old. I was gifted a 35mm SLR camera and took it with me everywhere I went. I photographed my family, my friends, and the city around me.
NS: Are the scenes on your Instagram account candid, planned, or both?
SY: It’s a mix. I often begin recording by intuition or instinct, and things tend to materialize in front of the camera. Other times, a lot of planning goes into the things I photograph. I plan my travel around seeing certain things I’m interested in. For example, I recently visited friends who harvest dry farmed tomatoes, cook them into passata and spread them across wood tables to dry in the heat of the Sicilian sun in August. This passata condenses itself and becomes a thick estratto or concentrated tomato paste. What I see and what happens on this trip is not fully planned, but I often make an agenda around certain events, processes, or things I want to see as a way to inform the work I make.
NS: How do you introduce yourself and build a rapport with your subjects?
SY: If I have the language and ability to communicate, I prefer my photography to be the result of an interpersonal reaction between me and someone I’m drawn to. I will try to introduce myself and explain a bit about what I do. I believe that the camera phone makes people feel more at ease. Other times though, I’m shooting from far and asking permission after the fact. Especially if and when I think something is happening that I can’t recreate or that won’t repeat itself.
NS: What do you take into consideration when picking a subject?
SY: It’s a combination: strangers, friends, people who I’ve gotten to know over time. It’s always people or things I’m responding to in a very organic and instinctive way—I don’t go out seeking criteria or qualities in the people I photograph. People are an important part of my work but really by virtue of where I spend time and what is around me. My home is in the countryside of Umbria—a rural, rustic, and sometimes lonely place. There are occasionally people in my photography but the majority of what I photograph and share are the landscapes around me.
NS: How do you find beauty in the everyday?
SY: I think you just have to look for it. I never stop looking or working which is a blessing and a curse. But, what I see is not necessarily always beautiful to me—it’s a feeling or a sentiment, sometimes sad, sometimes ugly and this is what I respond to and the way I make work.
NS: Do people want to see what’s real?
SY: Yes and no. I get a lot of negative messages around the consumption of meat and fish. I remember photographing the way fishermen tenderize octopus in the ports of Bari—they beat the octopus against stone before cleaning and selling them, as they have been doing for centuries. I share what I see and what I’m drawn to, but it’s important to note that it’s not an endorsement or positive notion necessarily around what I’m sharing. It’s just what I’m observing and what’s happening in front of me. If I share it or not, like it or not, it’s there and it’s the world around us.
NS: Can photography ever fully capture a real-world experience?
SY: My work proposes to present something that is “real” or “authentic” but all photography is analytical and reductive. We are choosing where the frame begins or ends and what to include or exclude.
NS: Are there any new mediums you’re exploring?
SY: Making a book was a new medium. I’m interested in where and how my work can live outside of social media. The elasticity of the imagery, how I can be involved in the process of its transformation from video to still, or the way it circulates. The book we made was basically 500 videos made on an iPhone, watched frame by frame and extracted into stills and then printed. Besides this, I want to start making longer form video pieces and potentially see what it’s like to exhibit my work in a gallery.
NS: What do you hope your work makes someone feel on the other side of the screen?
SY: I want my work to appeal to a wide demographic—I’m very sentimental and that’s a huge part of why I make work. If people on the viewing end of the work can feel something from it, then I’m happy. I also hope my work can help people notice things they may otherwise overlook and see the world a little bit differently.