Michael George

Q&A | 06.08.15

Michael George

Florida Brooklyn

Michael George is many things: a wanderlust photographer, a storyteller, an introvert boxed inside the bubbliest of extroverts, a Decatur-born, Fort Meyers-bred Southern expat, a plaid shirted philosopher, and an all-around nice guy. Y’all Collective recently sat down with the Brooklyn transplant to discuss New York, the South, a new definition of home, and all things creative.

YC: What got you to New York? What made you leave the South?

Michael George: I was one of those people whose world view was very small, I had never been on a plane until I came to visit here for a school tour of NYU. I remember being in Washington Square Park, and there was a street performance with this giant group of about fifty people. And I remember being fascinated by people’s openness and diversity and the energy and realizing wow, this is a really special place. It was just a weird New York moment. I got back home and told my mom I have to go there, whatever I do, I have to go there.

When I came to New York, I discovered who I was meant to be and I don’t think I would have ever discovered that person down South. And maybe that’s what drew me away from [the South].

Michael walking
Michael walking near NYU’s Greenwich Village campus
And what makes you stay?

I always tell people I feel like every human on earth should be required to live in New York City for a year, and then go back to where they live. It would probably create world peace. There’s a quote somewhere that New York City shouldn’t work. That there’s too many people, too much diversity—but that’s the reason it does work, because everyones so crazy about it all, by the magic.

I find it crazy that I’ve lived here for seven and half years and I can still have “I’m in love with New York” moments. I’m endlessly fascinated by it.

Is there anything difficult about the city? Anything you’ve noticed from the viewpoint of a Southerner?

In New York, you can have a really impactful day everyday. You can see a movie that changes you or see a play that changes you but if you don’t take the time to reflect and write and process what you just saw I feel like you lose so much of it in the process. And as a creative in New York you have to be a sponge and soak it all up, but you also have to let it simmer to absorb everything you’ve soaked. There’s a culture of overconsumption of art, of people, of activities, of alcohol, of everything in New York, and you have to step back and realize that by rationing all of those things out you’ll be just as happy and probably actually more.

As a Southerner, I feel like it’s very important to allow time to pass. And in New York a lot of people have a really hard time allowing that. They don’t see the value in it and they don’t see the connections that can be made with people and yourself by “doing nothing.”

Michael laying on a bench
What do you miss from the South?

There’s a genuine way of treating everyone like they’re worth your time. There’s definitely an element of “Southern hospitality” in that. Growing up it was about being open to everyone, and being kind to everyone and always holding doors for people, it’s the little things that make up a life that’s not just about you. And I think that a lot of times that gets a reputation for being disingenuous but I think that’s total BS. Those little nuances are ingrained in my personality and I get really heated when there are people who won’t ever say thank you.

Which place do you call home?

I had heard that people go the Camino* when they’re in a time of transition or they’re troubled or trying to figure themselves out. I figured that if I took myself out of New York for forty days I’d get a better idea of what I want out of life, where I want to go. While I was there I was writing a lot and exploring how to make New York home. It came down to community. Since I’ve come back to New York, instead of meeting up with new people every week and never getting to know them, I’ve started a frisbee group and a movie night. I want to create these little beacons of community.

I think the Camino gave me so much clarity about finding home and figuring out what is home. And the other thing I discovered was that I was able to find home within myself. Even though I’ve lived in so many different places and interacted with so many different people all those people are still inside me and if I can find a quiet moment I can access it, and I feel like that’s the only way in the end to really be content—to feel at home. I feel like that’s what I discovered while I was over there and so much of being content and feeling at home is being comfortable with yourself.

Michael George portrait
Tell us about your work as a photographer.

There’s an extreme introvert inside my extroverted personality that loves to get lost or wander, taking myself away from situations enough so that I can truly see things. Whenever I put a camera to my eye I’m tapping into that person and trying to make him visible. There’s a slowness that comes with being a photographer, as much as you’re overly experiencing a moment you’re also taking a moment to step back and see what’s beautiful about it. It feels like I’m revealing a world to people that only exists inside my head.

How do you define a Southerner?

I was talking to this girl from Alabama the other day and I love the way she described it, she said there’s a “genuine grace” to people from the South. In a lot of ways it just comes from the feeling of being around those people from home and just not caring that you’re having a really slow morning on a weekend or cooking breakfast for everyone and sitting on the back porch.

My grandma had a bunch of cats and birds and a big backyard at her house and she had a little antique shop down the road. Her entire life was lived between that shop and that house. When we visited her it was all about “quality time.” So much of Southern life is hanging out with your neighbors and everyone knowing who’s who.

Part of me wonders if this is the South or if this is my personality but I always tell people I’d be just as happy in a field with a baseball as I would watching a Broadway show.

But to describe a Southerner, I really want to borrow her words “a genuine grace”.

Michael running
What’s your relationship with the word “y’all”?

Not only do I love it because no matter how you say it, it forces you to have a Southern accent, you cannot say y’all like a NorthEasterner, but I also bring my LGBT activist into this response. I’ve always loved it because of how inclusive it is, I hate being like “hey guys” because it’s so masculine and specific but y’all is the only word that you can say to a group thats everyone. That’s why I love it.

*Michael describes his journey on the Camino in the May 2015 issue of National Geographic Magazine. See more of Michael's work here.

Interview and text by Stewart Bean

Photographs by Lindsay Brown

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