You studied photo history and design in college. What job did you want to get with that degree at the time?
I guess I didn’t really know. I grew up playing in hardcore punk rock bands, so that was my real focus and school was always second seat to that. I mean, school in general always was. I loved music and was kind of obsessed with it – not just creating music but the hustle. These bands would come from out of town; [my friends and I ] booked the shows and did all the stuff for it. But I got really into photography and design by shooting all the bands and designing all of the flyers to promote the show. I ended up going to an art school in Atlanta, Georgia and my very first job was here in Chicago at a small little agency that’s now out of business. I was here for a year and then I moved to New York.
So you were lucky and got a job in the industry right out of school.
Yeah. When I decided that I didn’t want to make money off of music, because it was too hard – or maybe I wasn’t that good – I knew I wanted to be in advertising. I loved the design part of it, but I also liked the hustle of [feeling like], “Okay, I can influence people to understand what a brand or service is about in an interesting and creative way.”
Will you tell the story of how you faked your report card in school?
Aw, this is my sad white trash story! [Laughs] So I was really bad in school. I played in bands; I skipped school and skateboarded all day and took photos. This is pre-computers, like, I’m old, dude. Pre-computers, I got my report card in the mail. I grabbed it and thought, “Fuck.” I had like three Ds and a C. It was bad. So I was like, “Fuck it. I’ll be grounded forever.” I couldn’t go see some band I wanted to see, or something. I took my report card and I blanked it out. I went to Kinko’s because I was really good at cutting and pasting. I blanked out the entire report card because I couldn’t just change one letter, the type wouldn’t match. I blanked out the report card and I re-typeset the entire thing. I had a demanding stepfather – in the end, he was a good dude, but he was pretty demanding when I was a kid. I got away with it until he saw it. I got the GPA wrong by like 0.123, and he’s a total mathematician and figured it out. I got busted and they turned me in. The school found out and the guidance counselor was the one who said, “You should get a job in graphic design or in advertising, because this is the best forgery we’ve ever seen.”
Do you remember the first compliment you received that made you realize you were good at what you do?
I don’t know. I’m weird. I’m never happy with what I do. No matter what people say, I’m thankful, but I’m like, “Really? You like this?” I’m always kind of modest about it. It really wasn’t until social media and Instagram [when I posted my photos] where people said, “Oh my God, you’re fucking amazing,” and I’m thinking, “I don’t know dude, I just took that photo on my phone walking home from wherever.” So I don’t really take it that seriously, but my mom’s always liked my stuff, so…
Is she your biggest fan?
No, she’s not anymore. I use all my social media platforms differently, but on Facebook I never post photos anymore, because my mom actually complained. She’s like, “I love all of your photos, but will you post photos of the kids instead? Cause I’m sick of all these trees and shit.”
Two of your photos are here on the wall in The Market By Foxtrot–West Loop. Is there a background story to either of these?
This one is on the Blue Line, and I mean, everyone here who is a photographer that’s shot on the Blue Line has gotten in trouble for [taking] this. It’s just beyond the platform, like a long exposure set-up on the ground. It’s fine. But this other one, actually, I like a lot. This was during the Blue Angels [Air and Water Show] over the summer. At first I was shooting photos on my roof at our old place in Wicker Park. I was shooting photos of the planes and I was like, “Fuck it. I’m going to ride my bike down there.” North Avenue Beach was mobbed with people. It was crazy. I was right on the edge, and I was taking random photos of people, and there was this kid doing a flip in the water. His mom was there and I was like, “Hey, do you mind if I shoot a photo?” and they said, “Yeah totally.” So I kind of like this one. Most of my photos are from people doing stuff. I set this kid up and he did a perfect flip and that’s why the composition kind of works.
I know you hang out of helicopters, jump fences and wait for the perfect lighting. What’s the most ridiculous thing you’ve done to get the right shot?
Most ridiculous? I’m really, really patient. I will sit and wait forever. I drive my wife nuts. I could be walking to work, and I’ll be like, “Oh my God, that light is so perfect, if a person walks through there…” I’ll just sit and wait, so I’m late all the time. It’s like a quest to me, but I think the most extreme thing that I’ve ever done – and I’m a total pussy…
I wouldn’t have guessed that.
I am. The craziest thing I did was in New York. I ran the tracks from City Hall to City Hall station. Every graffiti kid and photographer knows this, but literally you have to wait until night. There’s an abandoned City Hall station in New York that’s been untouched since like the 1930s that’s amazing, crazy and beautiful. The only way to get there is to illegally jump off the platform and run on the live tracks. So that was pretty nuts, but it was awesome. Oh, and I’ve also climbed the Brooklyn Bridge before. The Brooklyn Bridge has little steps that go up it and you have to time it between security guards not looking.
Have you ever gone too far for a photo?
No, I don’t think so. It’s all adrenaline. I get more scared on the smaller things like climbing a ladder to get on a certain roof. I’ll be like, “Fuck, this is more scary.”
What’s the key to a successful collaboration when you have a lot of creative people on a project?
To me, a lot of people can be more dangerous. I like to have smaller groups of people that are really focused on [a project], especially in advertising or any art project. For me, having more focused, smaller, clearer roles is everything. People who know me know passion is everything. If you get everyone amped up and excited about something, all of the impossible shit like, money, time and other barriers, they all kind of go away, because passion can get over anything. That’s the most important thing for me.
What do you do if there’s a piece of the puzzle that’s not fitting on the creative side or client side?
Collaboration, especially for an agency like Havas, is the most critical piece. I think it’s the reason we’ve been so successful. I love open collaboration. Everyone can have a say and a feel about it, but what can’t change is the core idea. Whatever is the strategic insight or idea, everyone knows it. It’s entry-level. You can’t change it, but you can take it and make it your own by executing it perfectly in whatever way. I think, in our work environment, that it becomes especially apparent when people aren’t getting it or pulling their weight, because it’s very transparent. Everyone is doing stuff and super excited and driven by passion, running with it, and there will be one or two people sort of lost in the mix. Usually it’s my job to try and help them along, but sometimes you can’t, and they just leave and work somewhere else and say I was an asshole.
What’s another important piece to being a creative leader besides firing up the team?
I’m always optimistic. I’m never down about anything. I always look at everything like, “This is going to be fucking awesome; this is going to be rad,” even if the client is being an asshole, even if it’s a really tough project or there’s no money or time. I say, “Look, it’s going to be fucking rad.” Being optimistic is my personality with stuff.
Have you ever had a project that really flopped?
I’ve had tons of them that have flopped, like really bad ones, but I don’t care. I’m serious. I know it’s a bad cliché to say, “You have to fail before you succeed,” but I really like failing. A lot of times when it’s wrong or fucked up I’m like, “The intention was kind of right, so if the execution wasn’t right it’s an easy thing to learn from.” Early in my career I did this Super Bowl commercial and I knew it was going to be really abysmal. It was so bad and awful. In advertising, a Super Bowl commercial spends – just on production – three million dollars and all this shit, but it was awful. It was a bad idea, but you still have to see it through. It did really well, but I was like, “Don’t put my name on that. I didn’t do that shit.”
What’s one trend you’re seeing that you wish brands would stop doing?
[Social media] is so important to clients and to brands. I think where they get it wrong is that it’s really for us in this room. We all get it, it’s innate, it’s the way we live our lives. That’s why I staff our agency with people like this who understand digital and social really well and are champions of a channel. Clients still have a long way to go; it’s still new for them. My analogy for social media is that all social channels, whether it’s Instagram or Facebook, are like this room, right? It’s a room. It’s a party. It’s a social party, and most of the time a brand would show up in this room and, instead of just being part of the conversation and asking questions or trying to answer them, they’ll start yelling, “Oh my God, buy this, buy this, buy this,” and they don’t realize, like, “You’re at a quiet party, why are you acting like a dick?” To me it’s all about understanding the tone of the party and acting within it. People don’t hate advertising and marketing they just hate to be disrespected. Clients have a long way to go, and our side as marketers is to clearly articulate it to them so they know it and understand how they need to act. It’s not hard, it’s easy.
Now that you’re managing more, is it challenging wearing so many hats?
To me, it’s not. I’ve always thought of myself as a creative businessman. I always put creative in service of making a lot of money. I want to get paid in advertising. I want to get paid a lot of money. By doing that, our product is amazing, great, relevant, and creative, but in the service of making money and getting paid. People always say, “Is it art or is it commerce?” It’s definitely commerce, but art is our project, our product.
Do you like Periscope and Snapchat and how do you see brands using them?
I was the biggest Periscope supporter from day one. I like the format of it. I love that it’s tied in with Twitter. Everyone here is big into Instagram, people can attest to that. The reason why it’s so addictive, is that you’re not alone at the party. You’re like, “I said something and all these people reacted.” It’s a drug. With Periscope, it’s a little harder to get that just because of the interface and where it’s at. I’m obsessed with Snapchat now. I was a slow adopter, but I’ve decided that everything I say I try to question through the eyes of not acting like my parents, right? Like saying, “I don’t get it. The format just doesn’t feel right.” That’s the sign of old age. So I really forced myself into understanding it, and now I’m addicted to Snapchat, more than other channels.
Would you be posting so many photos if Instagram didn’t come along? Does that instant gratification really drive you?
I’m an addict. I’m not an addict, addict, but I have an addictive personality. I’ve shot photos my entire life and people go, “How do you shoot so many photos?” I’ve shot three to four photos every single day since I was 15 years old. I just didn’t really have a vehicle to showcase it. I also have crazy ADD and I’m all over the place, so when I was shooting film – which I loved and it was amazing – I’d be like, “Oh, I’ve got to print it,” and then be on to something else. I have rolls and rolls of undeveloped film. So when digital media finally caught up to the quality that was acceptable to me, immediate gratification became kind of awesome.
Do you ever disconnect?
No, I don’t think so, because to me it’s a new normal. With “disconnecting” you sound like your parents, like, “Don’t watch too much TV.” I’m like, “TV is fucking awesome,” you know? You’re just fighting technology. You’re like, “Everyone shouldn’t be looking at their phones.” Well, why not? It’s what we do. You question it, but you could question a lot of things.
On your personal account you have almost 700k Instagram followers. When did you really start to pick up a following?
Immediately. When I first got three people that were following me that I didn’t know I thought, “Who the fuck is this dude?” It was really kind of cool. That feeling is the exact same as getting 10k, 20k, whatever, but after getting 10k followers it was crazy. Everyday I’m kind of like, “It’s because I took some photos on my phone?” It’s nuts, especially when you get recognition outside of the platform. One time I found out Tony Hawk was following me. He was my childhood hero. He should be doing this.
We’ll get him next.
He was interviewed in Mashable or something and named me as his favorite person to follow on Instagram. It was like Christmas, and I got 30k people following me that day… because Tony Hawk said so.
I ask everyone, if they could have a drink with anyone, who would it be? Is your answer Tony Hawk?
No, I’ve already hung out with him. Danny [Mota] and I hung out with him in Milwaukee when he came with his wife, and I shot photos with him all day in Chicago, which was amazing. If I could have a drink with anyone it would probably be Henry Rollins – his Black Flag kind of stuff. I remember I met Henry Rollins when I was 13 years old in a record store in Cleveland, Ohio, and he hung out and talked to me for like 20 minutes. His impact of, not just being an artist and who he is, but the way he’s like, “This is how I am, and if you don’t like it, too fucking bad.” I always really liked that, and that always affected me.
What have you learned about yourself over the last five years?
I think the biggest thing for me is that, for big meetings or stuff like that, I don’t get nervous [now]. Literally five years ago I used to get really fucking scared, or whatever. I kind of realized that I was trying to play a part. In advertising, you get up and present and wear a suit and dress up and think you’re like Don Draper, but I would get really nervous and freak out because I realized I was playing a role. I wasn’t myself. So I was like, “Fuck it. I’m going to be myself and see what that does.” I have gained confidence in that, where I’m just doing what I think is right, and I’m never holding anything back. If you’ve ever been in a meeting before and someone says something stupid and you wonder, “Oh, should I speak up?” I always speak up. I’ll say, “No that’s fucking dumb,” but I don’t say it in a critical way. I say it in a way like, “Here’s a better idea to accomplish what you want.” I’m listening to what they want but I just don’t settle for, “Oh, they said it so we have to do it.”
When’s the last time you’ve been in a suit?
That’s a funny story. We were in a pitch for American Airlines at Citibank – a big pitch. I went to Dallas, and I have nice suits, like I have nice suits, right? So I thought, “Dude, I’m wearing my suit.” I had this gray Gucci suit and I was like, “I look good.” We did the meeting and I crushed it. It was really good. I went back and I was like, “We definitely won. We definitely won.” And they come back and are like, “We like this other agency, Arnold, cause the creative guy wore jeans to the meeting.” I was like, “Fuck!” Since then I will never wear a suit to work.
What are you most proud of?
My kids, definitely. I have two kids. My son is 15; he’ll be 16 in March. My daughter turns 14 next week. If you don’t have kids, you’ve got to have kids, cause they’re fucking amazing. I have a boy and a girl. They’re awesome, crazy, difficult characters, but they’re amazing.
Are they into photography?
You know, that’s the other thing with kids, you can’t force your interests on them. They just kind of do their own thing and pick up things they like. I’m a huge basketball player, but my son doesn’t play basketball, he plays soccer – things like that. My daughter is definitely artistic. She can do crazy lettering and drawing, and now she said, “I want to take photos. I want a camera.”
When you’re not behind the camera or not at work, what will we find you doing?
I love competitive sports. I play basketball and soccer on our agency’s team to the point where, now, I’m like playing with dudes that are 25 years younger than me – I’m not even exaggerating. I can still hold my own and play. I ride bikes a lot. I kind of build fixed-gear bikes and ride them a lot. And I’m never without my camera. I carry my camera with me every single minute of the day – always with me.
If you’re not feeling inspired, how do you push through?
I don’t ever really get into a rut, because of this thing of constantly shooting and creating stuff. At work my job is crazy stressful. You need ideas on the spot. I’m really good at that part, because I never stop. It drives my wife crazy because I’m always going. Creative, to me, is like working out. As soon as you stop, slow down, it’s like, “I don’t want to go to the gym now.” If you’re always working out, you’re always at the gym, or whatever, you’re sharper. I just don’t stop. So, hopefully I don’t have a heart attack from that. And from coffee.
As far as social media channels, what are your feelings on maintaining your credibility versus being lucrative? How do you strike that balance?
I tailor each one of my social media platforms to [my brand]. I knew I was building a brand and it was Jason M. Peterson. “This is what I do and this is what I have point of view on when it comes to photography.” I get an email a day from a different brand asking me to collaborate with them and post on social media and do all of that. I turn down 80 percent of them, no matter how much money they have. I’ll work with brands that are like-minded, that are cool brands; I have a set of parameters. I only post in my style of photography. The language that I write is only in the language that I would write. I won’t over-post anything. I also educate them because I’m like, “You’re paying for my influence, and I want you to get the most out of it.” I’m doing a thing for Perrier next week and on their feed there’ll be eight different shots that you can only see there. So it gives a reason for my influence to go [to their feed]. But I won’t just do it [to do it]. If it doesn’t feel right, I’m like, “I don’t need the money from that.” I would rather just do stuff to maintain my brand.
Recently, Havas had a campaign to raise awareness for breast cancer. How important is it that photographers use their skills for social justice and to spread awareness?
I think it’s massively important. If it’s something you believe in, you’ve got to use your voice and your reach to do everything you can for it. The attacks in Paris last week affected Havas greatly; nine of our employees were killed in the attacks. I saw all these people doing this hashtag backlash saying, “People are jumping on this bandwagon to feel good. What about all the people murdered in Chicago?” To me, if you don’t address it [and bring] awareness [to it] with the voice that you have and the media channels you possess, you’re as guilty as anyone else. The great thing about the breast cancer awareness we did is – Paul’s idea by the way, my co-CCO – that it was one of those things that got a lot of controversy. People were like, “I’m offended; I’m pissed off.” My aunt, who was one of my closest relatives, died when I was a child from breast cancer. So it’s always affected my family and our life. We did [the campaign] in the neighborhood where we work. Grand and Wabash used to be the neighborhood where all the strip shows and peep shows and stuff were. So we did a Havas peep show. It said, “Topless” or whatever and you go and peek in the little thing and we had mannequins with these facts about breast cancer. For everyone who hashtagged “Havas Peep Show”, we donated a dollar to breast cancer. We ended up raising 18k. People were bitching and crying about it, but we raised 18k by putting something in our window, you know? That’s something I want to do more of.
How did you land on your aesthetic?
I always loved black and white photography. I always liked 120 film – kind of plastic cameras – with that real muted-y color. I always liked classic black and white photography. I was really influenced by Harry Callahan. That was a big one to me. He was a photographer in Michigan who came and shot in Chicago in the late ’40s and he captured urban landscapes that felt really timeless. That’s why I love black and white. If you close your eyes and you think about what the 1980s looked like – or ’70s, or 60s – there’s always a color palette that goes with it, but black and white could have been taken in the ’40s or it could’ve been taken today. So I always appreciated that style of photography, and was really influenced by the masters of photography like that.
Tell us a trick for taking better iPhone photos.
I still have crazy awesome cameras, and I love shooting on the camera – mainly for the archival process around it – but I’m probably most comfortable shooting a photo on my iPhone because of the quality you can get out of it. The best camera is the one you have with you, and you always have your iPhone with you. I think the easiest trick is locking your focus on stuff. If you hold your thumb down, you get this AE/AF lock. I showed my mom because she was like, “Oh my God, why are my photos blurry?” I’m like, “Because you’re moving your hand around shooting in low light.” But if you lock it in like that, no matter where you go, it’s going to be in focus. That makes the biggest difference. If you’re ever shooting in super low light, you should get a slow shutter app so you can do a longer exposure.
What’s the best time of day to go out and take photos?
Easiest thing to do, especially this time of year, is early morning when the sun’s coming up – all the shadows are amazing. But I’m weird because I’m really influenced by French cinema so I love day for night. I’ll shoot high, bright, noon, super-contrast, because that’s how your black and white looks so contrast-y. But then I’ll take it down and take the curves of it down so much that it actually looks like nighttime or much later in the day.
If you’re just starting out and thinking about creating a brand for yourself, how do you come up with a clear vision?
I think you can create it as you go, just don’t do whatever anyone else is doing. Figure out what is your point of view on something and be really potent and passion about it like, “This is what I do.” I think people follow social channels on any platform because it’s like watching your favorite TV show. I’m following someone because he does this kind of thing and I want to see his story and how it evolves; I want to go along the ride with him. If I have an audience out there, what do I want to tell them?
Have you been tweaking your own as you go along?
I have. I love the history of photography. For everyone who knows me, I have a crazy analogue book collection. I love going through books because I love looking at the power of a great image. With all of my favorite photographers, you could see in their photos which ones they took at the beginning of their career to the end of their career. To me, every photo that I take I’m always trying to do slight little tweaks to make it better and better and better. I’m never happy; I always want it to be better. That’s what gets me excited.
If you could collaborate with anyone, dead or alive, who would it be?
Shit, I don’t know. I want to work with Kanye West just because he’s from Chicago. I know it’s crazy and outrageous, but like crazy and outrageous has happened from Instagram.
Put it out into the world and it will happen.
I’ll put it out there, we’ll see. Since moving here from New York – it’ll be five years in the beginning of December – I’m so about Chicago. [Before that] I didn’t really know. I had a total New York view of Chicago: Midwest, a bunch of people wearing bad shoes, and shit. But I was totally wrong. Chicago is the coolest city in the U.S. I really fucking think so. So I’m pro-Chicago. To me, I want to collaborate with anyone in Chicago.
MJ DESIGN/PHOTO / A DRINK WITH AT The Market By Foxtrot – West Loop
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