Dana Boulos is known for her dreamlike and ethereal visuals that permeate her video and photo work. With experience in photography, directing, deejaying, creative direction, merchandising, casting, modeling, and feature filmmaking, she's a modern-day renaissance woman. Hailing from London, It's hard to imagine a creative world that the Lebanese-Sudanese artist hasn't jumped headfirst into. With ties to artists like Petra Collins, Rainsford, and Lily-Rose Depp (Boulos was the first to photograph her), she is always ahead of the curve. If we began to list her notable clients, you'd be here all day (so we'll leave you with Gucci).
This interview took place in two parts over the phone and via email between Ella in Paris and Dana Boulos in Los Angeles.
Can you give an overview of how you got to where you are?
I started out working in fashion through retail. From there, I went into visual merchandising, hiring, and casting. I dabbled in so many different fields and ended up in photography which led to directing films. Throughout every job I've ever had, I've just never given up. I've always had dreams but made them into plans. It's just about making them happen.
How do you set these goals, and firstly how do you even figure out what you want?
If you can dream it, you can be it; that's kind of my motto with life. As a kid, I used my imagination, and since then I've written my goals down religiously. I remember listening to audiobooks or talks that would talk about this process. It's all about getting specific about what you want, writing it down, and realizing it; making it a reality.
So apart from the process - how do you figure out what you're interested in and what you want to call in? How do you get in that mindset of getting clear?
When you work in different fields, you start to realize what you like and what you don't like. You're in different environments and positions where you may realize something like, "I don't want to work in fashion or retail anymore, I like creating." It's a lot of trial and error. What are you passionate about? It sounds cheesy, but it's how you really know.
That seems like that natural answer, but oftentimes people in the creative industry get so stressed out feeling like they should have known exactly what they wanted the second they exited the womb. What's your experience with this self-imposed urgency that a lot of us face?
Firstly, I don't believe you can only do one thing. I don't believe in failure. You have to try certain things to see what you like, and who you want to be, and what you want to do. How are you going to succeed? You CAN wake up one morning and realize, "You know what, today, I don't want to work in the art department. I want to be a doctor," or "I can't be a dentist anymore. I think I'm going to be a cinematographer."
I'm a big believer in going for what makes you happy. You have to trust yourself and know that you can do it and have that you have that power.
You got into this fashion world through your first job at American Apparel - can you tell us about that?
I got hired as a sales associate when I was 16, and I knew that I wanted to do more than just sell t-shirts. At the time, the company was growing so quickly and it was really easy to move up; most people didn't really want to take on additional responsibilities. They just wanted to clock-in and clock-out, you know?
When I turned 17, I applied to be the store merchandiser for the Hollywood and Highland store. I became the visual merchandiser for that whole store, and from there, I went into auditing for the stores. I became an assistant photographer, and I did model scouting and hiring for all the locations in Los Angeles.
I did a lot; that was about seven or eight years of my life. While I was working at American Apparel, I was experimenting with photography and art. I wanted to pursue that, but at the end of the day, I needed the paycheck of having a stable job. I worked really hard. I would do photo shoots at 5 AM in Venice beach, come back, and be on time for my shift at 10 AM.
I was also interning for Steve Aoki's record label, Dim Mak Records dimmak.com. My first task was to do all the HTML for the website, but I finished it within a day, and that was my entire internship. I fixed their whole website. So Steve was just like, "I always see you with a camera, why don't you start shooting at the parties?" I was their party photographer.
We had "Legendary Night" in the early 2000s when that French-electro scene was happening in Los Angeles. On a Tuesday night, you'd go to Cinespace and see Justice. I was so honored to be a part of that and to have learned about that whole industry as a kid.
After leaving American Apparel, what did you do?
A friend of mine got me a job working as a personal assistant for a Hollywood stylist; we'd dress everybody for the Oscars, and we had really intense hours. It wasn't my goal of what I wanted to do, but again, I had to consider making money. At that time, I needed a constant job. I ended up working in street casting for all the agencies in LA. I scouted for top fashion photographers and top fashion brands/companies such as Rodarte, Saint Laurent, Barneys NY, Levis, etc.
After that, I formed a consulting agency called Super! - we managed 10 models and artists. I learned a lot from this experience, especially in terms of running a business. We were dealing with image and helping brands learn what was "cool" or "youthful". At the end of the day, I wasn't passionate about it. I was making a lot of money, but I wasn't feeling proud of it. I'd rather make a movie and be starving, and feel really proud, as opposed to selling my soul to companies with no ethics or humanity. I ended up dissolving the company. There’s more to life than just money and doing what people want you to do.
How has your background influenced your work ethic and desire to tell stories?
Being a woman of color, and living in the US, I was taught to work twice or three times as hard as the normal person. I was going to high school, taking college classes, and working a full-time job at the same time.
With American Apparel, I was traveling for work, but I would still show up to take my tests and turn in projects. Nothing was ever given to me. I've been doing this, on my own, this whole time. For me, I'm always looking for the next challenge.
In regards to story-telling, I've finally been able to take the time to focus on what I want to say. I'm really focusing on creating stories and feature films.
What did you study?
I got an AA degree in Visual Communications.
Do you feel that having a formal education has helped you get where you are today?
No, unfortunately not. I thought going to college would help a lot, but I felt less challenged. I almost dropped out of my school three times, but I ended up staying because I just wanted the degree on paper, thinking that was what will get me jobs. In my opinion, it doesn't matter what education you have; you could go to Harvard or you could go to community college and most likely, it'll come down to, "Where have you worked?"
It's sad to say because I really like school and I think you can learn so much, but now you can just google whatever you want to learn. Spend a week on YouTube, and you can really learn something. I love MasterClass, for example. We just live in a different time now; it's not so traditional and I think teachers can even box you into a certain way of thinking.
Something I think is so crazy, is that studying film - they won't let you touch a camera until year two, it's so sad. I've had friends study film, and they haven't even started their own projects yet. That can be such a time-waster in my opinion. If you want to be a director, pick up any camera and record something. Go make things happen for yourself.
This segues into my next question - in school, I think you can be taught how to utilize tools, but you're born with creativity. That can't really be taught. With that in mind, which technical skills are worth sitting down and learning and how did you learn them?
You're born with creativity and taste for sure; no one can teach you that. Regarding technical skills, what I've noticed, is that there are books on the subject matter and techniques, but at the end of the day, you just have to put in the work. Create, create, create. It doesn't matter how hard you study, where are the projects? I'm not against school or learning, not at all. But at the end of the day, you could be acing every test, having never stepped foot on a set. Where is that going to lead you?
Film something, meet up with your friends; it doesn't need to be shot perfectly. The fact that it works, and it's recording, that's all that really matters. The same goes for taking a picture. It doesn't matter what camera you're using, it's the image you're creating.
Aside from creation, one thing I am trying to sit down and learn, are the basics of business and management. No one's going to tell you your usages or help you decipher a contract, or explain over-time. People should be taught how to fight for their wages and make sure they're getting paid equally; that's something that I wish more people would teach or discuss. It is something you have to really look into. Right now, I have to get professional advice from lawyers, accountants, and business managers.
So because you learned the photo world by "doing" - can you describe what that experience was like?
I started really young with photography. When I was 15, I took a course at Art Center called Saturday High. I had an amazing teacher, David Sotelo, who introduced me to Larry Clark, Francesca Woodman, Purple Magazine, i-D, Dazed, etc; I realized I was sort of making work like that.
In my traditional high school experience, my teachers would look at my work and say, "That isn't art, this isn't photography, that doesn't make any sense, this is too avant-garde. You can't do that." Then I'd show my work to David, and he thought it was brilliant.
I discovered Petra Collin's blog around 2008-2009. It was just her and her friends taking pictures of outfits, but they photographed it really well. I reached out to her, and we added each other on Facebook. She had messaged me saying that she was starting this all-girl collective of photographers and artists and directors called The Ardorous.
At the time, I was making experimental videos with my laptop, and she asked me to be a part of it. Originally, there were about seven or eight artists from all around the world, and we had never met each other, we were all just friends from the internet. Then, Tavi Gevinson helped get our work featured at Urban Outfitters; they had a crazy huge art show that featured the collective. Vice also printed all of our pictures for the photo issue, so that's kind of when everything changed for me.
Who have been your mentors?
I've had so many different mentors over the years. Mark Hunter, Moni Haworth, and RJ Shaughnessy. I would always ask them for advice on everything. Mark gave me my first camera that I have to this day. I was really fortunate to live in LA where creatives are interested in helping other creatives.
How did these people come into your life?
When I was a senior at Clark Magnet High School, we had a final project that pretty much decided if you could graduate. I did a photo series and essay about ambiguity and youth culture that had to be presented to three judges. The judges were supposed to be comprised of different people within the industry, but in reality, they were just parents that had signed up to do this. I remember I got a photographer teacher, a lawyer, and some sort of technician guy. I presented my whole work, and the ex-photo teacher completely tore it apart. He was like, "What even is this? This is not the project."
It was horrifying. That was the worst feeling of my life. I failed, and I was so torn up about it. The judge told me I would never amount to anything and that I'd never be a photographer. That was something I will never forget.
At the time, I was a big fan of Mark Hunter's work with The Cobrasnake, and I'd often ask for his critique when I was a kid. I showed him my project, and he gave me the support and criticism I actually needed.
I ended up meeting Moni because I was a big fan of her photo series "Johnny's Bird.” She was a photographer making work in London; it was so pure, and so rock and roll. I messaged her and asked if she'd ever like to meet in LA, and she responded that she’d love to photograph me if she was ever in LA. I freaked out.
RJ Shaughnessy is an incredible, commercial photographer. I had met him by chance; while I was working at American Apparel, his assistant scouted me for a Stüssy campaign in 2012. I went to the casting, and it was horrible. The client hated me; I remember that she said they weren't looking for anyone curvy or "ethnic." I ended up getting a call from RJ's assistant. He ended up shooting me for a book called Stay Cool. He became one of my great friends, and especially helped me when I needed advice on my work.
How did you begin pitching your work?
I loved editorial and I wanted to do more of it at the time. I started looking at indie magazines that were based in Europe, and I just started looking at the different contacts I could pitch to. A lot of it was print because digital wasn't as big yet.
With my work, I was really playing with making it soft, ethereal, and dreamy. That's what I'm known for with photography. Over the years, a lot of my friends have gone into different parts of the industry, whether it was music or fashion and they were noticing my work.
With directing, I had just put together a story called Crimson Rose, and I sent it to everybody I had in my inbox. I got really lucky because Milk Studios loved it. They had reached out and wanted to make the whole thing. I'm so eternally grateful for two of my friends that were producers on that, Kaitlyn Fong and Anthony Cabaero. I was one of the first artists that Milk had fully invested in and funded a project for.
In regards to pitching - I think people often get stuck in the minutia of how the email should be written, or whether or not they should send a CV or attach low-res jpegs. How did you discover a template that worked for you?
When I worked as a stylist assistant, I was taught how to pitch the celebrities that we dressing and how to get the designers to give us the clothing. You have to "up" it. You have to make it seem so rare. It's such an exclusive thing that's happening. Sometimes I'd have to guess the editor's emails, but you can find some info online.
If you're pitching photos, definitely send a PDF - make sure it doesn't exceed the sizing of what can be sent in an email. Sure, there are a lot of little technicalities that you should consider - but in the end, you just have to make sure you're explaining the project. It's key to always show whoever you’re writing to that what your pitching is exclusive and that they should want to be part of it.
What does your role consist of now? Obviously, you wear many fabulous hats - but say you're shooting a movie, but then you have a DJ set, and then you have a shoot the next day. What does your week look like?
Honestly, that sounds exactly how my week is. I'm just a hustler, it's true! Directing & photography are my professions, but I started Djing a few years ago and loved it. It’s just about being really organized. I'm used to juggling a hundred different things at once.
Working with people worldwide, what have you learned about this industry globally?
Every culture has its own business etiquette. It's important to be aware of how different countries do business. I mean in America, you’re used to working 24-7, whereas in Europe people actually respect their days off.
How do you keep organized?
There's one thing I have to have in my bag or else I feel like I'm lost: my tiny black moleskin day planner. I don't trust digital planners, because in a heartbeat that could get deleted or I could miss a reminder. I’m old school I write everything down.
What do you look for in people in brands that you'd like to collaborate with?
I look for imagination, number one. I look for people that are daring and like to think outside the box. I want people who have an artistic point of view and people who are making the right statements, maybe politically, maybe not. I don't like to work with people who are just like, "Can you make it look exactly like this?" I want to work with someone who understands creativity.
What is the best piece of advice that you've received from a boss?
After I stopped working as a stylist assistant, my boss called me and said, "Honestly, Dana you're super talented. I think it's time that you really focus on the things you love. Directing is one of them, so start focusing on that. That's what's going to get somewhere in life”.
Once you know what you're good at, and what you love, and what you're passionate about, you have to focus on that and money will come. You have to learn to make a living out of your hobby, which is something that society doesn’t teach you.
What is your biggest challenge right now?
Time. I know that ultimately there is enough time, but sometimes it doesn't feel like there are enough hours in the day. For me, I like to quickly execute things. Your idea might be happening around the world somewhere else. If you have an idea -- do it!
I remember reading a quote by Les Brown, “The graveyard is the richest place on earth, because it is here that you will find all the hopes and dreams that were never fulfilled, the books that were never written, the songs that were never sung, the inventions that were never shared, the cures that were never discovered, all because someone was too afraid to take that first step, keep with the problem, or determined to carry out their dream.” That really stuck with me.
What tips do you have for people who don't have any experience but they have the hunger to work?
Just make it happen. You'll find a way. If you're working a 10-hour day and you're like, "I'm too tired,” you're not that ambitious is what I'm thinking. Make it work. Fit it in your schedule. Giving up is not an option. I'm pretty cutthroat.
What is the proudest moment in your career so far?
Getting flown to Dubai, and shooting a Gucci Campaign with an all Middle eastern talent was a big accomplishment. It was the first time I got to direct and speak in Arabic. I love fashion so much and being able to direct a short commercial/ film for them was a big deal. With djing, I would say opening up for Snoop Dogg! I finished a few short films and excited to be working on a feature of my own.
How do you prepare for a meeting? Say you've been commissioned by a company to shoot something.
Be ready to problem solve. Research the company before saying yes to them. Read the decks and the concept ideas that are being sent to you. Make sure you believe in it and want to do it. Some people do these commercial jobs for the money and don't really care or don't really believe in the project, but at the end of the day, your name is being put on the same project. Don’t sign up for a job or project you don’t want to be apart of.
If you have ideas, say them! That's the reason why they're hiring you. A lot of people are afraid to speak up at a meeting and it's like, "No!" They're actually hiring you because they want you to speak up and say something.
What do you like about the industry today?
I’m happy for the change I’ve been seeing and the voices that are being heard, whether you're a person of color, an LGBTQ member, if you're a woman! There aren't enough women in so many industries in general, so the fact that these companies are finally understanding and being aware of change is great.
How would you like to see the industry evolve?
Give us a fucking chance! Finally, women of color are being put in better roles, but it's ridiculous that we have to fight for our wages as women. It's important that as women, we harness our confidence.
Subconsciously, it's been so ingrained in us to believe that we aren't up for the feat or something -
It’s so important to be confident and really speak up. Don't ask everyone, "What do you think?" No, their opinion does not matter. You are the lead on this project. Of course the client's opinion matters, but at the end of the day, it's about being sure of yourself. They are paying you for your opinion and your knowledge, no one else. So, prove it and show it.
What is your take on the generation coming up in the industry today?
Oh wow, watch out world! These kids are so educated and so knowledgeable about what's going on in today's society. I think it's incredible. Wow, the power of the digital age and how they are using their voices to educate others on what’s going on in the world...I wish I was that outspoken when I was 12.
Where do you want to go?
I never want to stop creating. I want to work on feature films.
What advice would you give to someone who looks up to you?
Never give up. Be daring, be yourself, and be kind.
This interview was edited and condensed for clarity.
Images Courtesy of Dana Boulos