In the world of independent creativity, formal accolades are few and far between. Jorge Casanova hasn’t won any major industry awards for his dramatic photographs of Houston rappers, nor for the jaw-dropping underground music videos he single-handedly directs and edits. Yet the self-taught graphic artist, photographer, and director known to friends as Jorgey has spent the better part of a decade both capturing and influencing Houston’s hip-hop culture.
Kids from the South, the second self-published photobook by the Houston-based visual artist, documents the very real subset of Japanese culture obsessed with Houston hip-hop. The photos come from two tours of Japan by Houston rapper LE$—a frequent collaborator and business partner of Casanova—who invited him to document these trips in 2018 and 2019. (Bun B also joined the 2019 tour and makes appearances throughout the book.)
We caught up with Casanova to discuss the project, his career, and the life of an independent artist.
Your website describes you as a self-taught graphic designer, photographer, and videographer. What inspired your creative self-education?
I was always obsessed with media and design as a kid. I was big on electronics and learning everything about them. I think that evolved over time with my habit of always wanting to do things on my own. I was introduced to graphic design in high school and immediately became obsessed with it. I just kept practicing every chance I got. Eventually I got into designing mixtape covers, logos, and flyers. Anything to keep me inspired outside my warehouse 9-5. That was in 2009.
The new book, KIDS FROM THE SOUTH, chronicles both your 2018 and 2019 trips to Japan with independent Houston rapper LE$. How did those trips, and your involvement with them, come about? When and why did you decide that these images should be the material for your next book?
The trips to Japan were life-changing. It's crazy because LE$ and I always talked about going one day; we didn't expect two years back to back. Shu, which is an amazing friend and a highly respected person in the Japanese hip-hop community, had started putting together these music festivals and tours in Japan featuring U.S. artists. He reached out to LE$ for a booking on his festival line-up, LE$ invited me, and it was great. Last year I was so tripped out about how much they loved Southern culture, I was just snapping photos away not realizing how much I was documenting until I got home. When we planned our second visit this year, I had the idea of how much more I would be able to document and how everybody needed to see this. They needed to see the love and respect they had for us, the support. It took me awhile but I was finally able to lay the photobook out with the images I think best captured that love.
Your partnership with LE$ and the work the two of you have done together is perhaps what you are best known for. Can you tell us how that friendship began? What's made it such a strong and fruitful partnership over the years?
When I first started promoting myself and my services around 2011, it was rough. I always knew I wanted to be one of the best but my portfolio just wasn't there. I won't name names, but I was shut down by everybody's favorite artists. I don't blame them or hold any grudges. I think that motivated me to master my skills and prove myself. There was one person that allowed me to shoot a visual, I was hired to record LE$ for a hip-hop website interview. I had heard of him and had been listening to The Beautiful Struggle for a while, but we didn't know each other. The owner, DJ Storm, introduced us and suggested LE$ and I work together. LE$ said sure and gave me his cell number. It took a few weeks to finally sit down and brainstorm but we ended up shooting "RNF" off of The Struggle Continues. I remember him telling me it was his favorite music video he ever did when we finished it. That was in 2013. The simple answer to that is, he gave me a chance and we had so much in common it was just natural. Strong hustle, dedication, and we both liked The Fast and The Furious. He's always had my back like a brother, and we move as team at all times. That's my family.
It seems both you and LE$ are fully committed to independent creation. Your first book features portraits of some of the biggest names in Houston hip-hop and includes a collection of images worthy of a major book deal. The same is true of your second book. Yet both have been self-published. What motivates you to remain independent to such a degree?
I think my passion doesn't allow me to really wait for any approvals. We're big on DIY and really embraced the fact we have knowledge that even the bigger industry machines lack. It took me a long time to realize how much strength we have with just ourselves. I'm always open to expanding, but for now I'm proud to be independent and push myself.
You’ve designed several lines of merchandise and clothing. You’ve shot, directed, and edited dozens of music videos and have now published two photobooks. In terms of creative goals, what have you not checked off your list? What’s the next big move you’re trying to tackle?
I had to take a day to rest after my gallery, caught up on some shows, sports, and relaxed. It's funny you asked this because I asked myself the same thing in those quiet moments. Only one thing came to mind, the only big one that I've procrastinated, delayed, and feared. My first short film. I've written the script over dozens of times throughout the years, planned ideas since 2013. It's crazy because people always see me as somebody who just goes for it and makes things happen, yet this one has always managed to battle me. I'm finally at a point with the script that I'm super excited about and ready to put it in motion. So it's my main focus for the next few months. My big move.
Kids from the South is now available at jorgeys.com.