Olivia: Do most of your employees live here in Oakland?
Joel: 70% are here. When they relocate, a lot of them start in San Francisco and then realize, "Actually, Oakland's really cool."
Emily: Are you from the East Bay? Why is VSCO headquartered here?
Joel: My grandfather moved here from Texas in the forties and grew up on Lake Merritt. It’s very intentional why we're here in Oakland. Oakland embodies who we are as a company. A lot of our core values.
Joel: One, of being a trailblazer and not just adhering to the status quo. I think when you walk out on the streets, that is the spirit of Oakland…My wife and I always say Friday nights at the Oakland Museum is our favorite place in the world. We sit there, and we have traveled a ton, and we look around at our daughters dancing, and say, "Where else have we ever seen this diverse vibrant community of people celebrating life, food, music?"
When you walk out of the office here, it's not one point of view. I was in San Francisco for a meeting today at lunch and every conversation at every table was the same, about startups. Tech is a big part of the economy but I don't want to live my life around people who all think the same, dress the same…
Emily: I looked at UC Santa Cruz for a possible college and I visited and it was beautiful and you could go surfing and I thought, "There are too many people that are like me, I don't want to go to school here. I want to have other perspectives."
Joel: I didn't have that attitude when I went to college. I went to Cal Poly San Luis Obispo and it definitely was uniform like that, but after I left I moved to Seattle and started traveling. I was a ski bum in Whistler. I took off six months and traveled through Europe and Eastern Europe and then took off four months and traveled through Africa.
Emily: Were there moments from those travels that affected the rest of your life?
Joel: One of the most defining trips was renting a car and driving Route 40 through Patagonia. That is, without a doubt, the best trip I've been on in my life. I was with my wife and another pair of friends. We had to plan everything by gas stops and then we would have to turn around and drive four hours back because the gas station was out.
The other was when I backpacked alone through Europe when I was 20. I flew into Turkey. A friend of a friend picked me up at the airport in Istanbul and said, "All right, I have to go to this meeting, I'll pick you up over there at 8 o'clock." I said, "That's across town, how am I supposed to get there?" He said “ You have to walk across the city. I’ll take your bag so you don’t have to carry it."
Emily: You had to walk across Istanbul.
Joel: The entire city and you know what? I was so afraid— and the people were the nicest I'd ever met. Everyone helped me. People had tea with me and Turkish coffee, food. They couldn’t believe I was by myself. I walked around Europe that trip with my soccer cleats hanging on my backpack too. Soccer is its own universal language. I played and connected with people everywhere I went.
All my best travel experiences are when I've gotten lost and I had to figure out a way to get somewhere. Even now, when my wife and I travel, we plan based upon just a few restaurants. Everything else is purposefully spur of the moment. We pick food in different regions of the world and then we just get out and walk.
Emily: Do you travel now with your kids?
Joel: Yes. My mom was an immigrant from Germany and she thought we should see the world, see how other people live, see what's important to them. What they eat. If you can see as many places as possible, you'll be a better person. With kids, the duration of my trips have changed. I'm not going for months at a time now. And my appetite for risk is lower.
When I was younger, if I couldn't find a place to stay, I'd just stay up all night and make something happen. Not with kids. I am going to Asia a lot this year, which I'm really excited about, because its one of the only regions of the world that I haven't traveled.
Deb: Where are you going?
Joel: Tokyo, Seoul, Beijing, Shanghai, Hong Kong are the ones planned right now.
Deb: Is that for work or personal?
Joel: It's work and experience. In Shanghai, I’m working with a group of creatives for VSCO. But we are also we are going to immersive ourselves in the culture. Asia is the largest region for our user base and VSCO's community at large is 80% international.
Emily: That's something that I love about VSCO- how international it seems and how much the pictures are from everywhere. It makes so much sense hearing how important travel has been in your life.
Olivia: Is the international audience something that happened naturally or was it intentional?
Joel: Soon after we started VSCO we created the tags #VSCOcam and #VSCO and they blew up, becoming the 1st and 2nd largest branded tags in the world. We used to look through tags and we would curate our favorites. We noticed something very interesting. Of the 100 images picked, 80 to 85 were from international photographers. We were really surprised. Then we saw that 90% to 95% of the images that were tagged were coming from photographers with less than 500 followers. They weren’t just photographers, they were people, everywhere, and they weren’t really sharing to being recognized.
So we thought, "What if we built a network, a platform, that was there to celebrate what people wanted to create just because they wanted to create it." It's evolved over time and now it's just VSCO, one product, one community. Our platform was built intentionally without likes or comments. Initially we really were focused on people's best work and there was almost this pressure, if it wasn't good enough, don't post it. But the youth really didn't get the memo, to be honest. They just started using VSCO because it was safe and they shared what life meant to them. So, yes, VSCO's 80% international, 77% female and 73% under the age of 24.
Deb: Wow. Very young.
Joel: Very young. A lot of them it's their first foray into being able to express themselves. The thing about taking a photo, sharing a viewpoint, it's human nature to want to express oneself. And photography is a great medium for expression.
Some of my earliest memories were walking with my mom through any and every museum that had a free day. Dorothea Lange was someone that really stood out to me and I can remember so many images ... Especially because many of her images were taken around the Bay Area. I know she had a lot of other work but a lot of her Bay Area images are, "Wow, I'd been on that street in Richmond-"
Emily: That's crazy because those photos are so famous to so many people around the world but you're like, "Wait, I know that street."
Joel: I know that street, my uncle lives up the street and that's where we just went for Christmas. To start to see someone else sharing my world from her viewpoint, it really shaped me.
Emily: That is what what initially drew you to photography?
Deb: You related to it?
Joel: I related to it.
Emily: You're like, "I've been on that street," so interesting.
Joel: and Ansel Adams. I know that's a token photographer but we would go to Yosemite. Camping and backpacking there was my childhood. We spent our lives outdoors. I remember, we'd hike a ridge and I'd be like, "I saw a photo of Ansel’s ... same place. I get it. Wow."
Emily: So you started taking your own photos. What was the first camera that was important to you?
Joel: As a kid, discovering the SX-70 Polaroid was a life changing moment for me. Seeing those images right away, and also the ingenuity, it was a work of art.
Edwin Land was a true innovator. In the book "Instant" I read that he was in Santa Fe with his family. He took a photo of his daughter with a film camera and she asked to see it and he said, "See what?" She said, "See the photo." He's like, "Oh no, you can't see it." Then he was like, "Could I make a camera that could?"
Emily: Why is film still important to VSCO?
Joel: Film has always had this depth to it. You pause and you really take it in a little bit more. There is a timelessness to it. I think one of the interesting things about film and how we view editing here as a whole is that, editing should never be the subject matter of the photo.
We’ve always tried to approach editing by taking the simplicity of the effects of film and what film does to images and bring that initially in VSCO Film for Lightroom and Photoshop and then, into VSCO Cam. Our presets are there to accentuate the photo and support it and not be the focal point.
Deb: Film is such a slower process. Back in the day I would get contact sheets to edit versus now when you get thousands of images, film is inherently more intentional.
Joel: Even though film is beautiful, the downfall of film is its inaccessibility. Mobile has opened up the art of photography to so many more on a global level.
Emily: Do you shoot when you're traveling?
Joel: I still do. But the only film I'll shoot is for my Holga that I still love and throw in the bag. But the accessibility of my phone, to have it open to take a photo in 3 seconds, usually wins. In my career as a photographer, my favorite thing was to connect with people, for them to let their guard down, feel comfortable around me and really capture more intimate moments from that perspective. But with a DSLR I think there's an intimidation factor and a lot of people freeze up and don’t want their picture taken. But with the phone, people smile, they allow you to get close. It's unobtrusive. There's something just beautiful of what you can get with mobile that I don't think you can get with another device.
I think when you let your guard down- sometimes some of the best art will be created. When you don’t have anxiety that comes with needing your work to be perfect, those become the moments that surprise you. But also, I remind people to enjoy life. If you spend too much time behind your camera, on a device, face down to your screen, you're going to miss the moments, in life and in pictures.