Hailey | Image: Josh Hailey Studios

Hailey | Image: Josh Hailey Studios

by Paul Wolf

Josh Hailey had a dream. And so he decided to just go for it.

In 2011, he followed the election cycle, traveling the country in a beat up Chevy van to find out what makes America tick.164,000 miles, over $120,000 and fifty states later, Hailey has produced his “passion piece.”

As the final showcase of Photamerica readies to present itself to Jackson on Friday night, October 3, at the Mississippi Museum of Art, Hailey sat down with me to dive deeper into what the project was all about, what makes him tick and what advice he gives to creatives like himself.

It seems when I travel, I realize it all is the same. Sure, there’s history here or a cultural element there, but really, when you were on the road, did you get that same sense?

Every city…town…rural area is essentially the same: a grid pattern, a diagonal, from east to west and sea to shining sea. There’s always a capital, always a skyscraper, a strip with your commercial stuff, a town center and hopefully, a local thriving network like Fondren. There’s usually a cultural element to it, which we’re slightly losing. But the people make a place.

Everything has that “connect the dots” feel, with cultural hubs and something that brought the people in. There’s history there. Everything in between is a long stretch of American road that changes so beautifully from flat to hill to mountain, from sea to sea and it’s gorgeous. We’re so blessed. Every state has something specially different about it, but there’s something very much the same.

What got me excited is the cultural hubs. And one of the reasons why I love Jackson is that we still have that intact. People are doing the same stuff they did 100…200 years ago. That’s exciting! We’re cooking the same food and telling similar stories. We take the time for people, because people are what make it great.

The battle we face – the old values, the family, the community that’s still intact here – is in going against the modernizing…the fast life like New York City, where people would look at (Mississippi) as backwards. The way we’re working now, so fast and crazy, what are you going to do? What will you achieve in life with no substance? That comes from people, family, community and time to slow down.

When I was on the road, this was the conversation I would have with people: trying to figure out what was really going on in America and how to make it better, to change it, to find out just where we are.

You asked people questions and filmed their answers. One of those was, “Where are we as a country?” What was the response?

America is the biggest mixed bag of nuts you’ll ever get! There is no general consensus. Right now, we’re right on the line, fifty percent this way, fifty percent that way, old and new. We’re at a teetering point. Which way will it go? The best part of being American is that we are free to do what we want. Everyone has that opportunity.

And you asked about community?

Community is important. I wouldn’t have been – if you call it “successful” — I wouldn’t have been able to do this project and the things I’ve accomplished in my life if it hadn’t been for people supporting me. I had a dream, I put it out there and people supported it. They said, “Go do that, bring it back and showcase it to other people.”

You also asked what advice they give to youth…

Because there’s like five generations of people now and they’ve all seen drastically, five different… It’s like, this last century has just been stupid. Thinking about the last ten years: we don’t even do the things we did. There’s no film in the camera, the laptop – the computer moves with you! iPhones! My iPhone 6 might drive my car next year.

Everyone has seen so much and has so much to give. The older generations have the stories and the culture and that needs to be, in all things, noted and recorded. We learn from that. History is doomed to repeat if we don’t learn from our mistakes.

And that’s why I would end on that question – what advice would you give? It’s leaves a spark, like Humans of New York. He puts it out there and turns people slightly famous. It’s like, “Just think about it,” because I know you don’t have time to think. Everyone’s in “go mode” so, hopefully, it triggers something.

What did they say?

Things like, “Be nice to people everyday,” from the grocer to…recycling. There was a lot recycling out there. Which was cool because people are like, “I don’t recycle as much as I used to. Thank you for reminding me!” It’s trying to turn people back, away from this manic-ness.

I saw this country and, by God, it’s epic. We’re so blessed, for what we fought for as Americans. Patriotism is not where it used to be. That’s why I’m trying to figure out where we’re going. I interviewed as many older people, religious people, homeless people, rich, poor, white, black and yellow people, trying to get a smattering of everyone. The general consensus is we’re right on the line. I just know it’s important to document it as a tool as someone can click on and listen. It’s up to each person to make their own interpretation.

What, then, are you hoping Photamerica will do?

Our mission is to activate people. Just think about it. Sit and have a conversation. It’s important to be present. What are you doing? Don’t go through the motions. Enjoy it! Hopefully, as a tourism piece, I hope it makes people get out and explore. Oklahoma is pretty epic! Let’s go to Oklahoma next week. Why not?

All of this is online, all of these interviews and the answers from these people?

All of them. Andy Culpepper edited almost everything. He’s been working for a year and half. He taught himself how to edit and loves to edit. I’ve invested over $120,000 in this, everything I make as a measly artist, goes back into this because I believe it should exist. Between traveling, editing time…

And as a part of this process, you activated the local community of artists and those interested in the arts and asked them to help you build this?

Yeah. We mentored and taught because I believe you learn by doing. What’s the best way to learn to edit video? Open iMovie and just play. I’ve got tons of video, so let’s play. (With my interns) we’ll sit down, we’ll meet every two days, to learn and to do — editing over and over again. The act of doing is where you learn.

I had to photograph a band recently and this intern came in and said, “What do I need to do to help you?” I handed her my camera. I said, “You talk to the band and take the photos and I’ll talk you through it.” And she was like, “Thank you so much. Thanks for caring about me.”

As we talk, one of Hailey’s past interns walks up. Liz Allen, a communication studies major at Millsaps College, interned with Photamerica and Hailey’s non-profit, heARTalot, in October 2013. She spoke about her experiences.

It was definitely an internship unlike any I had done before. Josh’s was really hands on and fun. I heard about it, thinking this is cool. I called and he said come by. I was expecting an interview. He was like, “no you’re cutting out these banners! You’re in!”

It was really heartening to see Jackson has this cool art scene and a community here who wants it. And, what Josh has done: it’s this representation of Mississippi out in the world but also getting images from the United States back here in this authentic way.

Josh, what’s the takeaway from this experience?

As an archive, it’s an educational piece. We’re still building a piece to travel with and go into schools. We’ve turned Photamerica into a Ted Talk of sorts. It’s activating, educating and building community through the arts.

Last October we came in to (The Strip in Fondren) and made a pop up. From October 1 to December 23… like two and a half months… we made a book, started a school, held art church every Sunday, taught dance, art and culinary every day AND made three albums? That was just dumb — and awesome! The energy every time was amazing. And I know now that doesn’t last anywhere.

But we’re on an upswing. In Fondren, I mean, I admire people who come in and put a business together. I’ve seen Brent’s remodel, Saltine (I love it), Fondren Public, The Apothecary (probably the best food in town.) So much! The Pig and Pint… ridiculous…love it!

As a high school graduate twenty years ago, I said, “I’m leaving this town and never coming back,” like I guess so many “small town” kids do. And here I am today, in this thriving cultural hub called Fondren, doing what I love, inspired and full of energy. What do you tell that kid today, the one who has dreams and ideas but doesn’t know what to do?

I told a kid just the other day… he sat down and said, “Man, just tell me what it takes. I’m miserable and just want to be an artist and thrive.” What it takes is you’ve got to work your a** off. You’ve got to be a solider on that sh*t.

I live in my van, in my studio, sometimes in destitute conditions, for my art because I believe in it. A lot of people aren’t willing to do that. It’s determination, it’s sweat and it’s marketing. Because you have to put it out there. You do a lot of free work to build a portfolio. You get mentored and work your butt off.

Life is tough, especially in the arts. If you want to do something in the arts, you’ve got to prove it. You have to breathe it, bleed it, and live and die it. You have to fight a system that’s not built to go outside the box. Get in and do it. Everyone has great ideas. It takes so long, and I just say, “It takes time.”

I’ve done this for ten years. I don’t really have a goal. Our mission is my goal. I wave, I smile and I’m a positive human being. I believe in the random beauty of this life. I love everyone and accept everyone.

Work hard, live it, breathe it: it just takes time.

Are you happy?

I am a manic…an artist, and I’m very prolific, too. This has taken a long time. So, the night of the show, I get like… (Hailey makes this spacey sound as he narrows his hands in to the table)… I zone in. To see people come enjoy the art and what I have labored on, means everything to me.

20% of all merchandise sold will fund Hailey’s quest to take Photamerica into schools through heARTalot. His website, photamerica.com, allows you to choose your state and then have those images imprinted on everything from mugs to clothing to stretched canvases.

The Photamerica Showcase is Friday night at The Mississippi Museum of Art. Find details on that event here.