Jon Waits has spoken a lot about his music. He’s the main songwriter and vocalist for the hard-working Savannah-based Americana and alt-country band Waits and Co.
The Atlanta native also has spoken a lot about his sobriety. He’s pretty open about how his experiences in substance abuse recovery have altered the course of his life.
But I haven’t heard him speak much about his photography. And it’s through his captivating images, in Connect Savannah and other publications, that many people connect with him.
“Photography is something that was and is in a lot of ways a very personal thing,” Waits says. “It’s a passion. It’s another way for me to express myself.”
Your eyes become his eyes when you see the musicians, coastal landscapes, back alleys, old country towns and friends that populate his Instagram and Tumblr feeds.
Your day becomes his night when you wish you had gone to that show after seeing a mesmerizing photo of some singer. His most widely-published images are from concerts.
“There’s a moment in every performance where… you just forget about everybody else around you and you’re absorbed into that performance, that song, that piece,” he says.
The photographer can’t plan for that split second. He can’t stage or block it. There’s no formula to knowing when it will happen. He just has to be there to shoot it.
And so he just keeps shooting and learning. His best advice for anyone in creative work is never to stop doing what you do. Surround yourself with inspiring people and listen.
“The only real failure is either thinking you ‘have it’ and not being able to budge or letting oneself get ‘so far down’ that you can’t come back up again,” he says.
Not that Waits thinks of himself as a guru or anything. He only started taking pictures seriously about four ago. And he was in one of those ‘so far down’ moments in his life.
Back then, he was living in a men’s residential recovery house in Statesboro and looking for some positive activity to fill his idle time. Part of his rehabilitation was in his pocket.
“It was simply running around with an iPhone shooting every single little corner and alley and stuff that I could find that was interesting,” Waits says. “One of the greatest things that recovery ever gave me was being able to live life one day at a time and focus on the here and now.”
Photography can be a meditation like that. But so can another soul-satisfying practice that Waits described for me. I really dig what he does on random days with his car, a camera and a few hours of fearlessness, vulnerability and creativity.
“I’ll leave Savannah. I’ll drive in any direction for about an hour and a half and just pull off on a highway exit, turn off the GPS on my phone, no maps, and just start driving,” he says. “The problem with this is that a lot of times I’ll capture images of places that I’d love to go back and do again but at that point, I don’t have a clue where it was.”
Waits loves documenting the South because he spent much of his youth in a North Georgia landscape – the city and mountains – that has changed much in his 42 years.
This love comes across in his images. His South isn’t always glamorous, slick or stately. But it’s real.
“There’s something that I crave in this life, in this world, which is authenticity,” he says. “That’s what draws me to behind-the-scenes type stuff. I want to know what the real story is.”