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In 'Lay of the Land,' photographer Joe Greer shares a story of healing

My nephew, Buster, and niece, Maggie, stand in line for a ride at Disney World in Orlando, Florida, the day after Thanksgiving, 2021.
Joe Greer
My nephew, Buster, and niece, Maggie, stand in line for a ride at Disney World in Orlando, Florida, the day after Thanksgiving, 2021.

Whether it be a beautiful landscape in Nashville, a street scene in the midst of busy Manhattan or a portrait of his wife, Madison, making photographs is deeply intertwined into photographer Joe Greer's life and being. He started out in 2010 completely enthralled by the stunning landscapes of the Pacific Northwest taking photographs on his iPhone and uploading them to Instagram. Today, he continues to use his photography to capture the world as he experiences it. His life manifests in his work whether it be commercial or personal.

Greer recently released his visual memoir, Lay of the Land, which tells stories of his past that are complex but meaningful to who he has become. He shares a deeply personal look into his life and how his experiences represent a story of healing and resilience. Greer spoke to NPR about his journey of faith, family and love.

My nephew, Buster, hopping a fence in Florida on Thanksgiving Day, 2018.
/ Joe Greer
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Joe Greer
My nephew, Buster, hopping a fence in Florida on Thanksgiving Day, 2018.

The following interview has been condensed and lightly edited for clarity.

GRACE WIDYATMADJA: Congrats on the book. I'd love to hear a little bit, you know, what was it like selecting the work and developing the essays?

JOE GREER: Honestly, I was not planning to write this book. That was never never the dream. I'm pretty transparent with my story. I'm always open about where I come from. This opportunity doesn't come around often and I recognize that kind of position and realizing maybe this could be a really beautiful process for me to kind of peel back the curtain to get back those layers and to see what comes of it. As I started writing, the tail end of 2020 and the majority of 2021, it was one of the most challenging and difficult things I've ever done. Fortunately, and unfortunately, a lot of old ruins surfaced and a lot of things I thought I had processed or dealt with came back — things that I was not expecting: New emotions and new stressors in my life kind of resurfaced as I was kind of recounting these stories, and that was a really powerful thing because I think it provided a lot of healing that I thought I had dealt with.

A winter storm in New York City, February 2017.
/ Joe Greer
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Joe Greer
A winter storm in New York City, February 2017.

WIDYATMADJA: You share some deeply personal and deeply vulnerable things in this book. Were you at all nervous about being that open?

GREER: I'm very open with my story. Since I was about 17/18 [was] when I really started being more open and transparent about the things I've been through. Growing up, it was just very conversational — it was over a bonfire, over a drink. You know, one evening, I was like, "Okay. I can't take this back — pen to paper, this is going to exist forever on bookshelves in people's homes; I can't get it back once it is published and once I send that final manuscript, that's it" — I was haunted by that for a long time.

Left: The cross on top of Mt. Davidson Park in San Francisco on a foggy morning in 2020 — a place I visit every time I am in the city. Right: A tree covered in Spanish moss in 2018 on the property I grew up on in Inglis, Florida. My mother, who was very into arts and crafts, made me go pick bags of the moss for her various projects.
/ Joe Greer
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Joe Greer
Left: The cross on top of Mt. Davidson Park in San Francisco on a foggy morning in 2020 — a place I visit every time I am in the city. Right: A tree covered in Spanish moss in 2018 on the property I grew up on in Inglis, Florida. My mother, who was very into arts and crafts, made me go pick bags of the moss for her various projects.

But I think, more so, the most challenging part was because it deals a lot with my family, my siblings and my adopted family. And so this is, you know, their life, as well — and their story, but from my perspective — so that was pretty hard. But I started to have conversations with my siblings and I have their full support. I think that that meant the world to me and kind of gave me the green light to share my story, share my truth, but realizing that this is going to be tough and terrifying, to peel back the layers. However, it's all going to be worth it if it could encourage somebody else or to make some other individual artists feel seen.

A boy chases seagulls during golden hour in February 2020 on Venice Beach.
/ Joe Greer
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Joe Greer
A boy chases seagulls during golden hour in February 2020 on Venice Beach.

WIDYATMADJA: You're an incredibly versatile photographer — you do portraits, street photos, a little bit of everything. What made you decide landscapes were the best way to carry the story?

GREER: I think that not everybody can relate to street photography, not everybody can relate to portraiture — not everybody can relate to a handful of different mediums. However, I do feel like nature and landscape [are] possibly the most universal. That's just my perspective. Landscape is what ignited the fire within my soul, and I owed it to my younger self and the genesis of my photographic story to go back to where it all started. I felt like that was important for me and important for the story. But I also feel like there [were] beautiful, spiritual, emotional and family parallels within the landscapes — whether it's dramatic lighting or whether it was dark tones, it kind of hit different elements of my story, and so I feel like it was just a beautiful creation process that happened in different chapters in my life.

Autumn in Vermont, 2018.
/ Joe Greer
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Joe Greer
Autumn in Vermont, 2018.

WIDYATMADJA: What inspires your work and what do you think carries it?

GREER: I'm just very much in love with life and all that life throws at me. The good, the bad and the ugly. I'm a very emotional person — I wear my heart on my sleeve — that could be good and that could be bad for a lot of different reasons, but I feel like, having that emotional side to me, I make sure that that is activated at all times when the camera is in my hand. I allow myself to feel. I allow myself to be challenged. I give myself permission to be uncomfortable, to be challenged and to be pushed. I guess I'm inspired a lot by the chase of trying to make work that stands the test of time. I want to be a vessel of light and a vessel of love to everybody and I think, as I've gotten older, I kind of peer back and look at how humanity comes across some of the photographs I've made on the streets and how delicate humanity is and how hard and challenging life can be.

Madison Greer taking a dip in a creek earlier this summer just outside Franklin, Tenn., where she grew up.
/ Joe Greer
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Joe Greer
Madison Greer taking a dip in a creek earlier this summer just outside Franklin, Tenn., where she grew up.

WIDYATMADJA: What are you hoping people can take away from your work?

GREER: I just hope that it can reveal something to them about themselves. If I can just allow somebody to stop for a few seconds to find the beauty in a moment or to find something that challenges them or that inspires them to pick up a camera to go out to create or to ask a question maybe about family or about their upbringing. Instead of it just being, "It's a pretty photo. That's a pretty landscape. It's a nice portrait," I want it to be deeper than that. I'm in love with the act of making photographs, and that fuels me. The fact that people enjoy the work that I make is just the greatest honor in my life, and my work now can live in people's homes and on their bookshelves. There's no greater reward for me, as an artist, than that.

Sunrise on the Bay of Bengal just outside of Pondicherry, India, in 2018.
/ Joe Greer
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Joe Greer
Sunrise on the Bay of Bengal just outside of Pondicherry, India, in 2018.

Joe Greer is based in Nashville, Tennessee. See more of his work on his website, ioe.photography, and on Instagram, at @ioegreer.

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Grace Widyatmadja
Grace Widyatmadja is a photo editing intern working with NPR's visuals desk and Goats & Soda.
Photos by Joe Greer
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