As his first book is published by Loose Joints, Instagram phenomenon Sam Youkilis talks about his love of food, preserving tradition, and imperfection
Nobody does Instagram quite like Sam Youkilis. With over half a million followers and counting, his glittering grid of photos and videos documents the charming idiosyncrasies of human behaviour in some of the world’s most beautiful, far-flung locations (mainly Europe, especially Italy). His videos – which capture lovers canoodling in the sea on the Amalfi coast, the trickle of lime-green olive oil during harvest season in Umbria, foggy boat rides in Venice at dusk, and the expressive, hyper-specific gestures of Italian men, to name just a few – are an exercise in ambience, escapism, and the pleasures that can be found in travelling, slowing down, and taking in one’s surroundings. “My work is the result of being deeply curious,” says the American photographer and videographer over email. “[It’s about] looking and a never-ending search.”
Now, Youkilis’s work has been compiled into a 500-page book published by Loose Joints called Somewhere. “I wanted to choose a title that reflects this ambiguity of place and a lack of specificity,” he says. Spanning the years 2017-2023, it’s a whistlestop tour around the world as seen through Youkilis’s eyes, although it’s often difficult to know where the photos are taken; instead of being divided up by location, the book unfolds in brief chapters with titles like ‘The Market’, Touching Hands’, ‘Yellow’, ‘Through a Window’ and ‘Falling Asleep Anywhere’. “Once you see the world through Sam Youkilis’s eyes, you can never unsee it,” writes Matt Goulding in one of the book’s essays. “There’s nothing cynical or judgmental about the way he sees the world. From lipsticked nonne in Puglia to mango vendors in Mexico, everyone has a short story worthy of telling.”
Despite adhering to many of the tropes of Instagram travel photography – sunsets, food, scenes of intense natural beauty – Youkilis’s compositions take a tired genre and breathe new life into it; his images and videos are often so striking it’s difficult to believe they were shot on an iPhone. His trick is making it look easy. There is, however, no big message about the democratisation of his photography in his choice to shoot on an iPhone; instead, as someone who travels a lot – and captures fleeting moments – it’s simply the result of ease. That, and “functionally, it can disarm people and makes it easier to feel comfortable around a camera as well,” he says.
Growing up in New York City, Youkilis first turned to photography in high school, later studying the medium at Bard under the tutelage of Stephen Shore. Food – along with humour and tradition – is a cornerstone of his work, thanks to a youth spent waiting tables in his father’s restaurants. Later, he continued to work as a waiter and bartender as a means of paying his way through college. “Food, restaurants, ingredients (their origins, stories, means of production) have often served as a beacon for my travel,” explains Youkilis. “It’s guided me to many of the places I’ve been and also been a resource for finding like-minded people anywhere in the world.” For those who travel mainly to indulge in food, Somewhere is irresistible; there are lunchtime feasts of arrabbiata pasta, curled butter, picture-perfect breakfasts served up on silver platters (paired with newspapers), towering pink ice cream, and impeccably cut-up grapefruits and oranges, all photographed with the utmost love and care.
Tradition, and the documentation of it, is also important to Youkilis. “So much of my practice is about photographing a generation and traditions that to me are about to be lost,” he says. “I think there is an important but nice tension here of trying to protect and preserve a several-hundred-year-old craft with the technology of a phone and then sequentially, using the medium of social media where things can disseminate quicker than ever to share it.” And with globalisation and modernisation rapidly eroding the differences between places in the world, it’s refreshing to see people sticking to tradition throughout Somewhere; leafing through newspapers, painting landscapes, gathering logs for a fire, herding sheep, playing chess, or doing the crossword. “I’m obsessed with craft, foodways, and traditions and have always been drawn to the camera’s ability to preserve history,” he says.
These days, Youkilis lives in Umbria, a place that features heavily on his Instagram and in the book. “I’ve settled in Italy in the countryside and I’m quite happy here at the moment, but I have to say the majority of my time is spent away from home,” he says. How does he feel about having got to the stage in his career where he has made a book? “I never thought my iPhone work, whether it be still or videos, could make it into a book, so I’m so surprised and happy to see that it can work,” he says. “I don’t mind if you can see pixels in some, I don’t mind that the white balance or colour palette is shifting across chapters or throughout the book. I think this imperfection is nice.” And just like his medium, Youkilis’s work is about capturing imperfection, and celebrating it – after all, it’s what makes us human.
Somewhere by Sam Youkilis is published by Loose Joints, and is out now.