In his solitary time off from the military, Jason Matias found solace in the wilderness he increasingly conveyed in vivid, layered photography. Originally from New York City, Matias was stationed in the remoteness of Alaska for his initial post. He spent the first year playing video games and his second year wishing someone would join him to explore the natural landscape, but all anyone else wanted to do was drink. Finally, Matias took the risk to step out on his own.
“I finally got to go out and explore nature and realized I like to be outside and do things because it was exciting and dangerous, and that was a good time for me.” he said.
“And then I got lost for four days and did probably the toughest things I’ve done in my life.”
What had started as an innocent hike turned into a three-day travail, getting lost and more lost and trying to find his way back.
The farther north you go, the more of a discrepancy there will be between true north and magnetic north — a phenomenon called “declination.” So, while Matias thought he was going north, he was in fact going northeast and eventually couldn’t recognize his surroundings.
“I don’t remember it being scary. I remember it being extremely frustrating. [I was] phenomenally angry and frustrated and maybe in a little disbelief. Because at the time, I couldn’t have fathomed why I got lost.”
At some point he found himself in a mountainous ravine, scrambling to stay close to water because his backpack water pouch had been torn by brambles. Matias struggled to find landmarks and once he spotted something familiar, it took 10 hours to get there. When Matias finally reached his military quarters and recounted his story — like something out of “Man vs. Wild” — no one would believe him, which became some of the chance encounters that sent Matias into the realm of photography.
“There was a bit of me going out and people not believing my stories and there was a bit of not being able to go home and share this stuff with [my mom],” Matias said about taking on photography. It was very expensive for the airman to fly home from remote Alaska.
Matias’ time in the military was formative and character building. He trained in Nevada and was stationed in Alaska. Joining the ranks took several adjustments for the East Coast native. “I was a New Yorker stationed in Alaska, and people thought that I was an arrogant prick because I talked fast and was impatient. So, I had to unlearn my New York accent and say less,” he said.
When he first began in the Air Force, Matias felt he had been scammed into the job and felt stuck, wasting his potential. In hindsight, he says the experience was integral to becoming who he is now.
“I think it changed my idea of what is important and what creates value for yourself and outwardly to other people. And it taught me how to shut up,” he said.
After leaving the military in 2011, Matias decided Hawaii was the best place to become reacquainted with civilian life, but that led to some uncomfortable reckonings. “I realized I didn’t have any purpose. I didn’t feel like I was doing anything that added value to the world. In the military I was serving the nation, and it was working to protect people, and that has a good feeling to it. But when you get out and you just sort of float through time, it just kind of feels like I was wasted,” he said.
This feeling still haunts him today, but the introspection and thoughtfulness that informs his experiences is channeled into his photography. In fact, it is the central theme and driving force in his work.
Matias has been reflective and introspective since childhood — it’s always been a part of how he has approached the world. As a child, he wrote stories. In fact, his father once said Matias would write a book, and indeed he has.
This summer he published “NakedThoughts,” a memoir of 45 vignettes capturing observations over six years, “with the goal of describing life in complete frankness” and cementing himself as a multidisciplinary artist. The book has received rave reviews.
As a youngster, Matias was interested in drawing but gave up when he realized that art didn’t have the status of a real career. It was when he was in the military that he got a point-and-shoot camera and started to engage more with his artistic side. In 2012, he made his first big purchase in a professional, quality camera.
While many artists and creators might be reflective and thoughtful, Matias has taken this trait and turned it into a central and driving theme in many of his photographs. Matias pursued a master’s degree in organizational management and psychology. While writing a paper about personal growth, Matias began to grapple with the elusive internal process of self-reckoning.
On his website and blog, Matias has written “Personal growth happens when we take the stimuli and inputs we received through the day/week/life into a place inside ourselves and sort them into an order we can understand. The place where we number crunch and dissect our experiences.”
Matias says that those places for internal quietude, reflection and meditation do not exist today and that society leaves little space to observe the chattering of one’s internal dialogue.
“Nobody has those moments, or people actively avoid them. You need no distraction [to] confront your inner thoughts, and in order to do that you need to be isolated and OK with it,” he said.
With his photos, Matias makes it his purpose to create this place for the viewer — a 60-second or so meditation. This “place,” whether it be a photograph, an actual physical location or a state of mind, allows for one to not only replenish and rejuvenate their energies and sense of being but also grow and expand their mind. Matias has given this feeling and the process it inhabits a name: comfortable isolation.
“That is sort of what I am always looking for. I’m looking for isolated subjects, or I’m looking for places where I can create them. A wide landscape with a singular object to focus on and a place where you can fight your demons and be OK with it,” he said.
Matias’ use of spacing, color and light supports the conscious decision to focus on an isolated subject in contrast with its surroundings. It creates a striking image that woos the eye and then unfolds an invitation to pause, meditate and watch the thoughts that come to mind while beholding the piece. Because Matias uses high quality photographs and printing materials, the effect is that of almost stepping into the scene and being ensconced by the colors and textures at play. Through pieces like “Adrift,” where a lone dock stands still in a glassy blue haze, and “Concordia,” where a single, wayward tree precariously rests on the precipice of an isolated sea stack, the lone standing object almost mirrors the observer’s isolation.
There is no clear cut, streamlined process to create these images. Using the camera as an instrument of precision, Matias approaches an image as a technical challenge rather than necessarily marveling at the moment before him.
“The whole creative process happens long before I take the picture and after. In the planning, where is this subject that I can find — and then it’s just looking for the space, Google Earth, or just driving around, you see something you like — and waiting for the [right] opportunity.”
Sometimes he’ll spend hours, or even a whole night, to capture the right moment. The special touches and unique aspects of the photo reveal themselves to him after the photo has been taken.
In his “Dreamscapes” collection, Matias allows for more creativity and experimentation. Often feeling limited by the threshold of a single photo, Matias uses multiple images to weave scenes reminiscent of fantasy scapes. They are, quite literally, unreal, augmented and manipulated to create a magical landscape.
Magic, anthropomorphizing nature and mythology are themes that come up when talking to Matias about his written work as well. To follow up his recently published memoir, he is writing two series of books — one of epic fantasies and another of short stories inspired by dreams — that deal with magic and natural phenomena, themes of consciousness and time.
Alongside his own creative work, Matias supports other artists with an online course he designed about “the art of selling art” to break down the tools and skills demanded in the business of art.
Out of his nine years of being a photographer, Jason has successfully been a full-time artist for the past five years. In his own experience, it’s been frustrating when making an income is dependent on exposure and having one’s art recognized.
“I’d like to make it easier for people to reach a buying audience,” he said. “And practically speaking, you can’t do art if you aren’t making any money. It’s just putting in the time and working with the times.”
Kamna Shastri is a staff reporter covering narrative and investigative stories for Real Change. She has a background in community journalism. Contact her at email@example.com. Twitter: @KShastri2
Read more in the Sept. 2-8, 2020 issue.