The gunman pressed his pistol harder into the middle of Jeyson Paez’s skull and demanded: “Give me more money.”
Paez, only 17 at the time, reached into his pocket and pulled out all the pesos he had — just a few dollars’ worth — and, mercifully, it was enough. The gunman took the money and ran, and Paez, his brother and their parents were left sitting, stunned, in a taxi in the middle of Medellín, Colombia.
This time the brutal violence that was sweeping their hometown had hit too close to home. Weeks later the Paez family moved to Euless, where extended family lives and where Paez would have to start over.
“Everything was new. From the language to the culture, I didn’t know anything,” he said. “That was also the time I was becoming a man. I am the man I am because I moved here and went through that process of learning a new culture and learning to interact.”
Nearly 13 years later, the kid from Colombia who didn’t speak much English when he arrived has become an unlikely ambassador for hundreds of North Texans.
Through his photographs posted on the popular smartphone app Instagram, Paez ( @jeysonpaez) has found a way to connect, building a local community that has swelled to more than 2,700 followers. The group Paez started in 2012, @InstaDFW, now regularly gets together for meet-ups, or Instameets, at local parks, lakes or trails to share shooting tips and bond over their passion for photos.
Their work has gotten so sophisticated, Paez even curated an Instagram art show that will debut Friday at a gallery in Dallas.
Launched in October 2010, Instagram took the smartphone world by storm by allowing users to post square images, which they could enhance with built-in digital photo filters, and follow others’ images within the app. In April 2012, Facebook bought Instagram for $1 billion, and now 150 million users worldwide reach into their pockets and tap the photo-sharing app to capture and share moments.
A funny thing happened on its way to mega success, though. Instagram began to stitch together local communities of users who were drawn to each other by their humorous, beautiful and often inspiring photos. So a few of them did the unthinkable — they met in person.
“No one really gets it,” Paez says, “but I remember going home [after my first Instameet] and thinking about how good I felt. Everyone was super nice and wanting to get to know me. They made me feel really good.”
“Instagram is about community,” he continues. “It is the only one you are able to meet people and have something in common. It is about connecting.”
Following his first Instameet, Paez’s imagination began to race. He looked for other area meet-ups and Instagram communities, but came up empty-handed.
“There had to be some other way to connect more people,” he said. “I thought, why not create a group where I could feature local Instagrammers from Dallas-Fort Worth? I would post one picture a day and hopefully one day I would have 300 followers.”
Within 24 hours, the account had 100 followers.
Any local Instagram user can submit entries to the community by tagging posts with the #InstaDFW hashtag. Paez looks through the tags and reposts one each day.
“I heard about it through a friend and started following them and tagging my photos,” said Nikki Veermer ( @___nikks___), a nurse from Allen. “One was featured, and it was interesting to see the feedback and to connect with other people in the Dallas area.
“I was more a casual Instagrammer at that point, just posting random photos. I saw people posting all of these awesome pictures and it inspired me.”
Eventually, she decided to attend an Instameet, with the same trepidation Paez felt his first time.
“I definitely thought it would be weird. But it was easy and everyone was so personable,” she said. “I never thought I would connect with people on the Internet.”
Aliciana Bowers ( @_aliciana), a Birmingham transplant now living in Dallas and working in digital advertising, said she attended her first Instameet to find other creative people in her area.
“There weren’t a lot of creatives in Birmingham. When I moved to Dallas, I knew I wanted to find a group that loved to create. The Instameets have provided that,” Bowers said. “They know what I am talking about and I can be myself. … It was intimidating, to be honest. I had followed many of them on Instagram before and I admire them. To see what they are in person was just incredible.”
Paez says his closest friends are now people he met at Instameets.
“It makes it a bit more personal. You really mean what you say when you comment [on a photo]. There are connections and inside jokes,” he says. “Over time, you realize you are talking to an actual friend.”
‘A happy accident’
The 25-minute film explores how the app has cultivated personal relationships in North Texas.
It started as a faux trailer for one of Tellefsen’s assignments at the University of Texas at Dallas, but the more he learned about local Instagrammers, the more he wanted to make the film.
“[The community] was really something and I didn’t know why it was forming from Instagram,” he said. “I was trying to come from the right angle. I realized that a lot of people started to explain it by saying, ‘Well, Instagram is …’”
The documentary became his senior capstone project as part of his degree in emerging media. Instagram then shared it with the company’s 58 million fans across multiple social-media platforms.
Today, nearly 100,000 people in more than 100 countries have seen his film detailing the DFW community. He was asked to visit the Instagram headquarters in San Francisco, where staffers told him his film captured exactly why the app was created.
“It’s been a crazy ride and awesome to be a part of,” Tellefsen said. “I didn’t know this was their original intention of Instagram. It was a happy accident, honestly. It was what they had been trying to build.”
Thanks in part to the documentary (see the trailer embedded below), Tellefsen has more than 47,000 followers on Instagram and the company made him a suggested user, meaning he’s a model Instagrammer by staff standards.
“I share my life and share what I am learning. My Instagram account is a mouthpiece of what I am learning. I am just trying to live my life and not make it a money-maker thing,” Tellefsen said.
“I think the Instagram community in Dallas-Fort Worth is one of the best at least in America. Can I say in the world? I have made connections with people that I have never met. I feel like I really know them and I really connected with them.”
Life as art
Paez’s drive to connect more people hasn’t stopped. He continues to foster the InstaDFW community and has begun several projects to further enhance the Instagram scene in North Texas.
On Friday, the digital canvases of 36 local Instagrammers will materialize in an Instagram art show, “One by One,” produced by Paez.
The show is being held at WELD, a Dallas co-working and studio space, and it’s free to the public, though registration at OnebyOneshow.com is required. ( Lyft, a new community-based transportation service, will launch at “One by One” and is offering $50 of credit for its app to those who attend.)
Paez and 35 other Instagrammers will be featured in the show. Each person submitted five shots. Paez and Trey Hill, a local filmmaker and photographer, selected the best shot from each artist. Tellefsen’s documentary will also be played at the show.
“To me, art is anything that allows you to express yourself. What many are doing with iPhones is creating art. If we look at Instagram as a whole, people are taking pictures of their everyday moments and they wait for the right moment to create art,” Paez said.
Paez has a traveling vision for “One by One.” He hopes to take the art show to other cities and to hold more in the area.
“I heard his vision,” Bowers said. “It puts the focus on the fact that Instagram is more than what people normally think of it. It is a place to come and be inspired and be creative.
“You get to see some of the top Instagrammers in the area and to really see their life as art.”