It started with soap. My attention was drawn to this one ad by a fancy soap company that produces hand crafted soaps and markets them with cute boys. Anyone who knows me well can bet their money on winning me over with an expensive bar of soap and a boy with a melting smile and a hairy chest. So after seeing the image below I did some more digging and discovered Levi‘s Instagram and the rest is history.
Forward a couple of months (or years) and we found ourselves a day before the opening of Levi’s first solo exhibition in Brooklyn.
Levi Jackman Foster is a New York City based photographer, artist and activist. Known mostly for his juicy social media presence, Levi uses provocative portraits and symbolic imagery to share fiction and nonfictional stories. The fun of finding out which of those satires is true, is left to his followers. Often he directs his thirsty fans to participate and contemplate human rights and social issues on a global scale. Through social media Levi has raised hundreds of thousands of dollars for multiple charities, and in addition to his activism, Levi uses his social platforms to share a look into his creative process in real time. While his online presence has been quite silent over the last few months, he has been working tirelessly on FOLLOW – his first solo exhibition opening November 4, 2017 at Lytehouse Studio Brooklyn.
I stole a couple of minutes of Levi’s time to chat about his first opening, the real Levi Jackman Foster and the state of LGBT rights globally. While he appears rather guarded and careful not to reveal too much about himself, Levi maintains a veil of mystery around his real persona and lets his online persona take over the narrative. Thus – like tastefully executed naked naked photography – keeping us on our toes and leaving us wanting more. Mission accomplished.
GG: Levi, how much does FOLLOW reflect your personal experience and life after moving to New York?
LJF: Through an immersive installation of portraits and readymade works, FOLLOW is a portrait of life in social media and the catalysts leading to developing a digital and skewed versions of ourselves.
For me it actually began before moving to New York, but in New York is where my online presence transitioned from an experiment to my profession.
What are things the real Levi won’t do that the online persona Levi is doing?
In reality I like to think of myself as a dynamic and some what of a well rounded person. I can be emotional, dark, enthusiastic, shy, sexual, nerdy, but online I am a static object living for and chasing the validation of viewers.
I consciously let the rush of adoration guide me to a highly sexualized version of myself. I would never take off my clothes and straddle a tree while hiking with friends. But a year into taking and sharing pictures of this persona, I was posing nude anywhere from forests to charity fundraisers. This dichotomy in behaviors inspired FOLLOW.
It’s so pervasive amongst queer and modern men. Young men from all over the identity spectrum are objectifying themselves in search of a validation and privilege that is diminishing as the society slowly moves towards equality.
For me it was the privilege of being male and white, but also a man in a fraternally praised mormon upbringing that conditioned me to expect and eventually crave a certain level of adoration and approval. I hope that my experience and thoughts translated through the exhibition will be relatable and create a more open dialogue around these ideas.
However, my efforts to raise funds and awareness for various charitable and human rights organizations are the most authentic alignment of values between these two versions of me. I am mischievous and will go to great, risky lengths to get a message across concerning the rights and protections of any institutionally oppressed and marginalized group.
How do you protect your work and maintain a social media – specifically Instagram presence?
My work can’t really be protected and doesn’t need to be. My social media presence is a performance. If it is replicated it’s the perpetuation of an idea and a participation in what FOLLOW explores. There are many people that have become part of my work that are completely unaware of their participation. I’ve sought out specific subjects to photograph and represent some of the personalities that are all part of the ideas partaken in and perhaps influenced.
What’s the best form of protest in times when showing your true colors could mean jail or even death? Take Chechnya and Nigeria for example
I’m not sure I can safely label any specific plan of action as “best” because I can’t pretend I know what it’s like to live in anyone else’s shoes or circumstance.
The most effective protest to advisories I’ve found is to hold a mirror to them and wait till they realize who they are looking at. Many may disagree with me but I believe ugly fights ugly, and in the U.S. persistent demonstrations and riots earned the rights we fight to preserve and expand today.
I also don’t believe saying you’re an ally to any specific cause or claiming that you’re “woke” is enough. We have to be willing to expose ourselves to the same discriminations as an oppressed marginalized group for the betterment of all people to be a true ally.