You Want to Go into Photography
Can you give an overview of how you got here?
I grew up in Saskatoon, Canada and attended the University of Saskatchewan. While I was there I tried out all of the different classes, although the only ones that stuck were photography related. But, I had no idea how I could ever make a career out of it. It was just so far fetched in that part of the world (central Canada).
I had an assignment to create a series of photographs that told a story. So, I started looking at a bunch of fashion magazines, and I found this Fall issue of W Magazine with a spread of Karlie Kloss shot by Tim Walker. There was this one image of Karlie standing over a broken humpty dumpty thing….
Oh, I know that image. It’s so good.
Yes! Immediately I fell in love with Tim Walker; I was amazed that he could tell this incredible story through images. The props were amazing, the styling was great, and I had no idea who Karlie Kloss was at the time, but I was just amazed by this whole thing.
I decided that I wanted to work in fashion photography, but having zero idea of how to do that, I attended a program at the Vancouver Institute of Media Arts. It’s a 12-month intensive diploma course, and from there it helped me get a job at Aritzia. I worked there as an in-house retoucher for three years. During that time I would ask to assist the photographers that Aritzia would hire, and that's where I initially met Charlotte. Right away, I was captivated with her work; I loved how she always had this clever feminine humor towards it and of course her colors were so good. It was a lot of fun being on set with her and learning what life is like for a fashion photographer based in New York.
In fall of 2015, I left Aritzia and started working as an e-commerce photographer for Kit and Ace. We had a bunch of photographers in-house, and it was a lot of fun creating the content for the campaigns, e-commerce, and social media.
I had kept in contact with Charlotte since meeting her in early 2015, and in June 2016 I made a trip out to New York to assist her for a week. I was so amped up coming to New York and getting to work with Charlotte on set. I remember walking into Pier 59 Studios, and I was engulfed immediately by that world. A week after I returned to Vancouver she sent me an offer letter to become a full-time digital technician / studio manager / retoucher.
What does your role consist of?
I've been with Charlotte for a little over two years now. I've had a lot of different roles, but mainly I’m her digital technician whenever we're on set. So that’s making sure the computer and the camera are running correctly, managing the files as they come in, and printing all of the images so we can hang them on the wall to see if everything looks right. I also do some retouching on set as well, so if they want to combine two images together, we can quickly do that so they're able to see it. It's basically just a lot of problem-solving and making sure everything’s going smoothly with the images.
When we're in the studio, I’m retouching lookbooks and editorials; right now I'm working on updating Charlotte’s portfolio book. I also do a bunch of studio manager work, so that’s organizing all of the image archives, scheduling her meetings, updating her calendar, and supervising interns. I also help Charlotte with pre-production, so that’s picking studios, making equipment lists, and helping with castings. Then post-production, which is overseeing all of the retouching schedules and making sure Charlotte has time to look over everything. So it’s a lot of coordinating with her agency, Mini Title.
They’re a great agency.
Yeah, they’re definitely one of the best agencies in the business. They’re all such nice people, and they're all so talented and creative. Coming out of Vancouver to this industry, they've all been so helpful.
Since it’s just me and Charlotte in the office we’ve asked them for favors here and there, just anything we need we ask them and they are happy to support.
Who do you mainly work with for post?
We work with a bunch of different retouching houses. Our main one in London is Studio RM, and we use Gloss a lot in New York. So basically, I work with whoever is the main point of contact at that company, and we go through the scheduling to make sure that it works for them, the client, and Charlotte. She’s heavily involved in post; making sure that her color accurately represents how she foresaw it in her visions.
I feel like post is so underrated, when it’s a huge part of the creative process.
Exactly. When people think of retouching, they think of photoshopping and changing people's arms and all of that. But that's not how I consider post-production, because so much of it is based on the color, which changes the mood of the photograph. If you want to make it sadder you can make it darker or bluer, or if you want it to be happier you can change the levels to make it a little bit warmer. It very much changes the attitude of what you want to convey, and all of that happens in post.
Did you learn how to do everything from a previous first assistant?
Not really. Before I took the job, I knew other freelance assistants, but in Vancouver, no one really has a full-time assistant. I didn't know what I was getting myself into, or what the job involved. When I started working with Charlotte I started asking all of the freelance assistants so many questions. We had a few guys in New York that worked with Charlotte for six or seven years, so they would help me navigate the waters, and teach me different things about the industry.
What were the most surprising elements of being Charlotte’s first assistant?
How I describe it to people who don't know the industry is this: I went from being a starter on a college football team to playing for the Patriots and being a wide receiver assisting Tom Brady score touchdowns.
It's the same idea and concept of the job, but you're going up to the next level where everything is so fast-paced. Sometimes we shoot a campaign and it’s released within a month. It’s insane how fast the timelines are and how high everyone's expectations are. Especially for Charlotte, since she’s often shooting video and stills on the same jobs. There's always so much happening and downtime is rare.
What have you learned from your role?
I've learned so much from just being around Charlotte and in the industry. At the very beginning, I would get overwhelmed by a lot of things, so I always had to sneak away to just calm myself down and then come back to set. I've learned how to navigate those potential situations and get on top of problem-solving faster. Anything that can go wrong will go wrong, so you always need to have backups for everything. Especially doing digital tech on set, your computer will decide to stop working for no reason at all, but you obviously have to keep shooting.
As a first assistant, how do you manage your time and prioritize tasks?
When I first started, I felt terrified to ask questions. I was fully qualified for my job, but I still had this feeling inside of me that I didn’t quite know what I was doing. Since then, I've learned to talk to Charlotte and ask, “Okay, what absolutely needs to happen, and what can get pushed until later?”
We keep a list of all the current jobs that we have and I update it every day on the status of where each job is at. I also keep two other lists, one for the things I need to be doing immediately, and the second for all the side tasks that are not as important. Once I get a free minute or two, I can work on those side tasks for a little bit, then go back to the more important things.
I feel like that's almost easier said than done though, no?
Yes, completely. I work on it every day and sometimes I'm better at it than others. But still, some things always slip through the cracks. We also have Charlotte’s agency, Mini Title, helping us. So if I can't do something I'll ask, “Hey guys, can you help me out with this?” We also work closely with the same post-production houses most of the time, so they’ll also email me asking, “Hey, I haven't heard back from you about this email.” And I’m like, “Oh whoops. Still, have to do that.” Being a team player and having good support networks is key -- we all need to work together.
On top of being Charlotte’s assistant, how do you also find time to focus on your own work?
I haven't been as good at that as I should have been over the last two years. Working full-time with a photographer that travels a lot, sometimes we find out if we're traveling only two or three days in advance. It’ll be like “Ok, pack your bags time to go.” So I've had to cancel some shoots due to that, and I’ve also gotten a little scared of planning shoots. So any shoots that I’ve done for myself, have been pretty last minute and just with friends.
So, that’s been quite difficult, but one thing that I always keep doing for myself is image research. On my own time, I'm always looking at content that I like, and saving those images and separating them into certain folders. So I try to keep my mind creative and aspirational about the projects that I want to be doing.
What do you look for in hiring interns?
It's mostly about attitude and persistence. If people seem nice and seem like they want to learn, then we always give them a chance. People who are wanting to learn and adapt to new challenges. If people come in with a negative attitude from the get-go then they will get chewed up by the pace, fatigue, and realities of the business.
Yeah, you have to love who you work with, or it's just no fun.
Exactly. And everyone works so hard in this industry, so you want to be around other positive people.
I’ve also interned for so many random people, mostly unpaid, but it's just how you learn set etiquette. It is such an important thing, but you don't know it unless you've been on set.
How would you describe what set etiquette is?
Being professional on set; there are always times when people are relaxing and you chat, but there are also times where it's a very stressful situation. So it’s knowing when to speak up and when not to speak up.
It also all depends on each photographer’s set. Charlotte is more relaxed than some other photographers that I've worked with, but some photographers get annoyed by crew conversations on set. You can usually tell right away what the vibe is on set, and if you don't know, ask the next assistant up from you. It's about respecting everyone else around you. Even if you're the “top” person on set, you should still respect the entire crew.
Some of the best interns we've had, they literally just stood there on their first day on set and waited for one of us to ask, “Hey, can you grab that? Can you move this?” Honestly, just observing and being ready when someone asks you to do something or trying to predict what someone’s going to need, is very helpful. Even if you feel like you're not doing much because you're standing around, you’re there and you're available and you're not sitting there looking at your phone.
You're going freelance soon, am I correct?
Yes! I am moving to Los Angeles in 2019. I've loved working with Charlotte; it’s been amazing. I’ve learned, even more than what I could’ve imagined. Just working with someone who's a full-time photographer and running her own business, let alone the creative side.
What have you learned on the business end?
I handle all of the receipts and make sure that everything gets charged back to either the client or to the right account for Charlotte. So I've learned a lot about accounting and how much everything costs.
For me, being Canadian and working in New York for a year and in London for a year, I've seen the way three different countries do their business. As a freelancer, you have to keep track of all the jobs you have. Charlotte has this master sheet that lists every single job she’s ever done in her entire life. I’ve implemented these strategies for myself, and use Google Drive to help me organize and store everything related to my business.
So, back to going freelance. What excites you, what scares you, and what are you anticipating?
I'm excited to start shooting for myself again, because I’ve been putting that on the back burner for the last two years.
I'm excited to go out there and show off my new skills, what my style is, and get a portfolio going. I am scared, terrified and truthfully unsure of what’s going to happen because going freelance holds many financial risks. It's going to be the first time I haven't had a steady paycheck coming in.
Would you still say that the past 2.5 years with Charlotte have been worth it now that you’re making a shift to lifestyle photography?
Completely. It’s opened my eyes to what I want to be doing. The industries are also so intertwined, all of the brands that I want to work with know Charlotte’s work. I’ve also learned basic skills from how to run a set and what everyone does because that’s universal, to post-production, and also the business side of things.
Can you give an overview of how you got to where you are today?
Overview. Well, it's actually a story that I like to tell. I came to New York, went to Parsons, and I had this idea in my head of how things were going to happen. I was dipping my toes with different photographers; no one, necessarily, that was big or on any sort of level. Then one day, a friend of mine said, "You know, my mom has a studio in Paris and if you want to intern there as a studio assistant whilst you're visiting me, you can get some experience."
So I interned there for about two weeks as a studio assistant and I realized that things were happening every single day; from an e-commerce shoot to a fashion story, to a campaign. People were working, and the industry kept producing something new.
I ran back to New York, sophomore year, and thought, "You've seen how quick it is in Paris. You've got to start working in New York.”
Parsons has their career experience people that are supposed to help you get internships. So I sat down with this woman, and I was keen to get something but she didn't really help me. There was nothing that she could offer that was good, or even something that made me excited.
I kept looking for things, and one day one of my professors sent out an email saying Red Hook Labs was looking for interns. So I looked up Red Hook Labs on Google Maps, and was just seeing this industrial-looking spot that had the appearance of some sort of garage. I'm thinking, "What could possibly be here?" But turns out they work with some of the most sought out photographers in the industry.
I interviewed with Helena Martel Seward, who is now one of my close friends, and is an amazing producer. And it just took off from there, I was at Red Hook for about nine months. Then she left to do her own thing; she started her own company Lolly Would, and I worked there for a bit as well.
From there I went to Steven Klein as an intern. He ended up offering me a job as an in-house producer and in-house casting director. I was still in school at the time, so I said, "Let me come back to you after I graduate. Let’s see where I'm at."
I also interned for Charlotte Wales. It was the day of my graduation that Vogue offered me a job - Helena had put me in contact with some producers there two years prior. I guess that's how it all came together, when people kept recommending me based on the hard work that I was doing as an intern.
Would you recommend other young photographers invest in art school?
I benefited from the photo department at Parsons because I learned about community and what it takes to make a picture. It also allowed my craft to get better and to develop. So, I think yes, for photography and film, go to school for the resources, for the equipment. I had access to this SONY FS5 video camera which shoots 4K and that let me work for the right people. We also had these amazing flextight scanners which allowed me to really be with my film, play around with the curves, the exposure, and figure out the color.
In that respect, yeah, go to school, go to a good school that has those resources. But don't expect them to teach you everything. You have to be keen to learn. You have to go out there and teach yourself, assist, find tutorials, and advocate for yourself.
But if you're aiming to be a producer, honestly, no, I don't think you need to go to school. You need to find a production company, tell them you're keen to learn, and then go from there.
What would you say is your biggest learning experience?
Working for Steven Klein taught me that you have to really, really want it. You have to go through things that seem tough, but you have to show that you're valuable and willing to work hard. Even if that means lifting frames that weigh more than you, or are double your size. Working for Steven Klein was one of the hardest experiences because you're working for a legend and they expect people to be committed. You've gotta love what you do.
Enough to propel your career.
Yeah. And it's hard. There were days where I would be really upset, but I realized that everyone went through that. Gradually, I showed that I was valuable enough for him to want to hire me and to offer me that job.
They had to do those things as well, so they want to see that you can do it too. I always say it is survival of the fittest. They want people on their team that don't take no for an answer and that are talented. I think working for Steven made me a tougher person.
Working for Helena at Red Hook Labs, now at Lolly Would, she taught me that you can't expect for people to give you anything. You have to go in with the attitude that you have to advocate for yourself. And I think that's really important.
You have to find your way and you have to push for something if you think it's right because no one else is going to do it for you. You are your number one fan and you have to keep going. You have to see past it even though you’re thinking, “Fuck, oh shit, yeah this is really bad.” but it's all going to be worth it if you show your worth.
No matter how tedious or unnecessary tasks may seem, they were actually all really beneficial. They taught me what it is to be a photo assistant, what it means to be part of a team, what it means to be a producer, and what it means to be a director.
You're coming up through this traditional way, that is more of a rarity these days. You start taking photos, studying the books, you know all about these amazing photographers, and then you train under a few of them.
I feel like coming up in the industry that way gives your career longevity, because you have that knowledge.
Yes, definitely. Something that I’ve learned from Steven Klein and Charlotte Wales is the amount of referencing that they do. They come up with their ideas and they will look through books and books. They'll get their inspiration from other artists and make it their own. Seeing that process was so interesting because it showed me that it's okay to be inspired by other people, because even the greats are inspired by others. Ideas are generated from other great ideas and other great stories. With Charlotte, in my opinion you could say that her work is very much inspired by Richard Avedon and Steven Meisel, but she makes it Charlotte Wales. She has that feminine touch to it. I love it.
Now you’re an associate producer at Vogue. What's your day-to-day? I know there’s no such thing as a typical day but…
As an associate producer, or should I just say producer in general... what do I do? I am a part of the Vogue video team.
The main thing is coming up with ideas to pitch. We'll be in a meeting and think, "It's now June or July. What can we create that is relevant, and put out into the world?" So we'll come up with concepts for example, "24 Hours with," or "A Day in the Life with," or "Getting Ready with.”
Can you walk us through the initial stage of when you’re pitching ideas, all the way through post-production?
Sure. At the beginning of the month we’ll all sit down, the whole video team, and we’ll talk about the ideas that we have or targets that we would like to achieve. We create video content that we think can attract our viewers to reach our targets.
But it's also content that has to be visually beautiful, visually interesting, and there has to be a story behind it. We’ll look at what's current, who’s being talked about, if somebody's coming out with a new film or a new album. From there, we would see if they'd be interested in working with us.
For instance, June is pride month, so we just did a video with Kylie Minogue, who was headlining at Pride. We filmed her getting ready at the Crosby Street Hotel, heading out, and a few shots of her singing as well. So it's things that connect, that are current, and then we’ll bring those ideas to the table. Once we decide, we go back within our teams and start producing it.
What does that entail?
First, we'll think about who could direct it. For example, Kylie Minogue, we knew that she was someone exciting and colorful, and we needed a director who was energetic and ready to have some fun. We booked Charlie Engman; he has a great vibe about him.
We then find a videographer. We’ll find someone that is young, ready on the move, aware that we're doing something quick, and can work fast.
Then we find stylists, usually it's a fashion editor that already works at Vogue, so Alexandra Gurvitch was the fashion editor for that. We also had a tailor to make sure that the clothes fit Kylie.
It's all a collaboration. It's taking those ideas that we come up with in the boardrooms and then going back to our desks and finding the teams that can create those concepts and make these videos.
After we shoot, we’ll bring it back into our offices and we get our editors to compile it into a video. Sometimes we get directors who really want to be involved in the post-production process, so they'll come into the offices and edit with the editors. Then it goes up within four or five days.
I feel like post-production can be so underrated, when it’s actually a huge part of the creative process.
For sure. Editing is so powerful because you're piecing everything together. You're building clips that go one after the other and it all has to tie in and make sense. So finding a good editor is really difficult but Vogue has some amazing ones.
It sounds like for your job you have to really be in tune with popular culture.
Definitely. You have to be up to date with everything that's going on. You need to know who's popular at the moment and who people find interesting. You have to also be aware, for instance, this person is performing in a month so let's start thinking about them.
Is staying current and up to date on popular culture something that you were interested in before you started this job?
Yes, to a certain extent. I was always interested in knowing what was out there and who was relevant. It was definitely more of a hobby, but now it’s my job to be interested.
As a producer, you have your hands in everything. I think a lot of people think that producers lack a creative role, but you guys definitely do have creative aspects to your role.
We really do, because we bring everybody together; we hand pick the team based on who we think would work well. We're also coming up with ideas, creating mood boards and concepts, and then pitching them to the client. But still, production in the fashion industry is based in logistics and organization.
Going off of that, I do think that knowing how to produce will make me better at anything that I do. My main focus is being a director and a photographer. Production makes me a better artist, because if I have a certain budget, I know I can't cross that, but I’ve learned how to share things and make it work. Then, as a director you also need to know how to talk to people about your ideas. So production really teaches you skills that I think are vital in every aspect.
Whenever I’m interviewing someone, and they’ve been on the other side of what they’re doing, I know that they’re good at their job. They’re not coming from a place with a single perspective.
It also makes you more realistic. You have this crazy concept, which, usually I do. So it’s knowing, "Well actually, renting a car for 15 people is going to cost you $200 for the day, maybe spare a $100 for gas, then as the photographer you've got to feed people so that’s another $200.” Things start adding up in your head, and you're like, "Well Talia, maybe you don't have enough money to do this now. Wait 'til two months, gather enough money, and then go for it."
Right, and it’s better to hold off and then do it really well.
I want to work in the same caliber as artists that I admire, Steven Klein, Guy Bourdin, Chris von Wangenheim, Helmut Newton. All of those photographers create these tableaus, these scenes that seem so surreal. They take you out of reality, and that's what I want to do with my work; show that you can take a break and indulge in the image that’s in front of you.
A lot of people look at my work and say it's cinematic. They see it as a film still, and I think that ties in with me being a director, and that desire for storytelling. That’s where my big budgets come into play. As a producer I know that creating these big stories and these big sets, it takes time, it takes effort, it takes building a team, it takes going to prop houses, and investing money in the location. Making those fantasies come to life requires money and time and effort.
How do you balance your time between Vogue and shooting your own projects?
That is a hard one… I think it comes down to learning how to schedule.
Put all of your efforts into your job, then set aside a couple days to focus on your own projects, but stick with it (even if something important at work comes up). It is self-discipline and I haven’t conquered it just yet, but I’m definitely working on it.
How do your shoots come about?
[For Lobby Boy] I was my friend's plus one for this party and I said, 'Oh I know that girl. She's in my photography and cinema class.' And my friend who I was with said, 'That's the girl whose apartment it is.' At the time I was looking for an apartment building where I could shoot the ‘Lobby boy’ story. It was impossible to find a place that would let me shoot with no budget. So I asked Oliva, 'Could I shoot in your apartment?' She said, 'Yup, no problem, of course.' And that was it. I owe it all to her.
[For Movie Theater] I remember sitting in a theatre and thinking how amazing it would be to shoot in one. I called schools, Broadway stages, anything that I could think of. I finally came across this old theatre that was almost hidden in the streets of SoHo.
My friend once said to me, 'When I look at your images, I should know who you are.' That changed everything for me and I started to focus on the stories that I was passionate about telling. I wanted to look at women in images and feel empowered by their femininity and dominance. Here, the women are front and center, focusing on themselves. They don’t care about what the men think. They are the ones who define who they are.
[For Taxi Cab] I had this idea of getting three models into a taxi cab, but it happened to be a time when the drivers were changing shifts, so no cab was stopping. My producer and I were literally sprinting up Fifth Avenue trying to find one. Luckily we did, but he wouldn’t stay, so I said, 'I'll give you $100 to stay for twenty minutes.' We quickly set everything up, we got the shot, and it was great. I don't regret it for a second because it's one of my favorite photographs that I've taken. Even though I was pretty much broke the next 2 weeks.
Cultural appropriation is a huge point of discussion, especially now. I’m wondering from an artists perspective, where do you draw that line?
If you're taking something that is personal to somebody and is part of their culture, and you're making it into fashion, then bring these people into the industry and give them a voice. Allow them to have their opinion on what you're doing, because otherwise you're not being sensitive to their culture, their ideas, and their traditions. I think that's maybe the problem; people aren't sensitive enough or aren't respectful enough to ask people.
See, for example, my mom comes from a Yemenite background, and when they get married they wear these huge headpieces that are covered in jewelry. It’s gold, it’s red, it’s green… and so visually beautiful.
I can imagine that one day a designer will look at that and they will take huge inspiration from it. I'll be flattered and I think my family will be flattered as well, because they found beauty in something that is my tradition and they’re making it into something that is going to be wearable for somebody else. I never ever want to feel that we’re putting too much pressure on these designers to not make what they want to make because it might upset somebody. But it's how they go about it, it's how they ask the questions.
Get more people to come and see if it's okay what you're referencing and if you’re referencing it correctly. By all means, take my traditions, take my cultures, make it into your line, but ask me what I think about it first, and bring my voice into it too. That's what I would say, but I don't think we should quiet our designers. We should give them that freedom to make what they want to make. Otherwise, we're doing a disservice to fashion. So I think that's really important and I like that question a lot.
I wanted to get your thoughts on what it’s like for you to be making your own way and going after a specific style that you truly believe in, even if it’s not the style that’s being featured at the moment.
Somebody once said to me, “You have to make the work that you love, you have to make art that you connect to and feel passionate and strongly about.” I'm not the sort of photographer or director that can go out on the street, take my camera, and just shoot. It doesn't work like that for me. I don't see beauty in the mundane. I see beauty in something that's highly stylized, conceptualized, and detailed.
I'm a fastidious director and photographer. That's how I work, that's how my brain functions, and in some respects I'm almost a dreamer. I’ll remind myself that, sure I want my work to be recognized and for it to live in a space, live in magazines, and live in campaigns. But also, it's about integrity, staying true to myself, and knowing that sure I can do commercial work, I actually just directed a video for DKNY.
And Nike, which I love.
And Nike. So I can do those things and that's fine. I'm all for it and I'm pumped and ready to go. See I have the commercial side of Talia, but I also have the art side of Talia, and I think a lot of photographers have that.
The ones that make it do.
For the art side of me, it does get frustrating and it can be disheartening to see work that you don't think is of any standard being praised and shared all over the internet, magazines, and getting pitched for huge campaigns. You start wondering, what are you doing wrong? What are people not seeing in your work?
But if what you're doing is art, then it shouldn't be for others. You should be happy with yourself, and you should be content with the fact that it's okay not to be successful in the way that you imagined it to be. As long as you love what you do, then that's all you can hope for. It is so hard for me to say that because of course, I want to see the work that I love and the work that I want to do in huge campaigns and magazines.
My dream is to shoot a Chanel commercial or a Dior commercial, like a perfume ad. But to do that you obviously have to reach a certain status, and I can only hope that I would be hired for the work that I really want to make. I can't do myself a disservice of making my personal work for somebody else, or to be popular, or to be current. I think that's a mistake that a lot of young photographers make. They try to be too current and they lose themselves, their vision, their voice, their work.
Although, I hope that the industry does flip in terms of what’s current, because I think that I have a lot to offer. As a female photographer and as a female director, my whole concept is that women are the centerpieces of my work, and the stories are about them. Sure, they include men but the men act as a role that adds to the power of the women. I want to create stories that revolve around women, and I hope that the industry will want to make room for me and allow me to make these stories. I also hope that they'll be able to reach people and connect with people.
How do you define success?
Being happy with what you make yourself, and being content with where your work ends up living. Knowing that there's only so much that you can do. If you did your best and you're happy with it, that's all you can ask for.
How would you like to see this industry evolve?
I'd like to see all sorts of models being represented. I'd like to see creativity being more open and allowing for different styles to come into play. I'd like to think that ideas are going to be more conceptual and more creative. I want to feel like we're making things that are almost supernatural, unrealistic, and surreal. I miss details. I miss seeing something so meticulous, structured, and so well, perfect. I'd like to see more effort being put into creating better stories, better concepts, and allowing creators to have time with what they're doing.
So how did you get into photography?
Well first I got into skateboarding because that’s what you do when you're bored and in the suburbs. I was teaching myself how to skateboard off of YouTube videos and then I met a good group of friends who I started skating with. We all got really into skate montages and skate videos - Spike Jones and things like that - and I started to realize that you could make really good skate videos for pretty cheap. So I fell into that, and then one thing led to another, and now I'm here.
What was one of your first work experiences?
I interned at Art Partner for six months back in 2016, at the exact same time that things were really taking off in my work, so I was going to school, interning, and shooting.
How did you balance that?
I think I feed off of it. I start to go into insanity mode where I don't sleep and just think about ideas all of the time. When I was going to school, working, and trying to do photography, I was maybe more successful at managing my time and being efficient because you have to constantly be in overdrive. Everything has to be so hyper-scheduled out, minute to minute, and you do get a lot more done that way. I also looked at interning at Art Partner as studying, I would go through all of the magazines, and their archives are incredible. From that experience, I started to look at my own photos as an actual body of work, and what fit and what didn’t. You have to take every opportunity very seriously. For me nothing comes lighthearted, nothing comes easy. If you treat things a certain way, you'll get that input.
Now that you’re doing photography full-time, how do you stay focused?
Photography being a full-time job is a hard thing to wrap your head around; there are so many aspects to it. There's the researching that goes on before, but then a shoot could just fall out of the sky right now. Ideas come and go, so you just have to be ready for when that comes and you have to be diligent, focused and work maybe even harder when you have all of this free time. Now that I live by myself in my own studio, I treat that as an important place for my work. Honestly, I haven't had much time to think, because straight out of school I was working. The whole summer after graduation I was waiting for August to come around so I could finally take a vacation, but that never came, I just kept working.
From looking at your Instagram, it feels as if you’ve suddenly popped up and started working with the biggest people, was it truly an overnight success?
It may seem that way, but I've been working on it for years, well, that’s at least how it feels from inside the of the belly of the whale. But the way you find out about people, the way information is passed along and perceived these days is the whole trickery of social media. You think that people have done this overnight, but they haven't. Nobody has done that. That's not real. I think what's got kids really twisted these days is that they think they need this overnight success. Yes, things did turn around pretty quickly for me and I'm really lucky, but at the same time, there were so many times where I was hanging around at shows and doing anything and everything that I could. I would be lying if I said everything just kind of fell into my lap.
What’s been the biggest aid to your success?
I was an early adopter of Instagram; I always knew that it was going to be ubiquitous. Three years ago we weren't all on Instagram using it the way that we're using it now, and about four years ago I knew that it was going to be the way everyone would communicate. I still love it, even though it's become more sickening at the same time. It's more polluted and clouded, but I find the good stuff always rises to the top.
The internet also taught me a lot about how I wanted to position myself online, which changed my career in a lot of ways, because then the internet became the main avenue for how someone’s photography gets noticed and propelled to success. It also taught me portrait tricks for sure.
Did you have any other work experiences or how did you first start to meet the people that supported your work?
I interned at this very small, no longer existent film production company, and maybe one other, but my main job was putting my work out there. I was directing a lot of music videos, making any kind of visuals that I could with people that I was meeting on the internet. I was just reaching out to people, and that's how I met Abra, Kevin Abstract, and so many of the people that I work with today.
How do you protect your work? When did you first learn about licensing for photography?
Everything I learned about that side of it came just by doing, by asking and being curious, figuring it out. Nothing about NYU itself was fun, but being in New York City was the biggest learning experience in the world. I very quickly whipped into shape and had to adapt and understand things on a much sharper and quicker level. As soon as I learned what licensing was, I taught myself how to write contracts, as I wanted my images to be treated with the same respect as the photographers that I admired. From there, the way I started looking at photography changed significantly.
How was shooting the cover of Teen Vogue, featuring Emma Gonzalez, Sarah Chadwick, Nza-Ari Khepra, and Jaclyn Corin? What did that mean to you?
It was a very grave and important shoot to do. I had to do it and put all my heart and soul into it. There were times where I felt like crying on set but you just have to keep pushing forward
Do you have a go-to sentence to define your work?
I don't have an elevator pitch when it comes to my work because it's always evolving. It's looking at people of color, black people, and black lives, and it has to do with portraying honesty and truth in that. I always wanted to see people for who they are with sensitivity and optimism. My only description would be that it is about the black experience and humanizing black people. For me, it’s all about people, which is why I always wonder how I fell into the fashion space. My favorite photographers are more documentary, like Clayton Patterson or William Eggleston, pictures that just make you smile.
You mainly work with film, what do you think about the anti-digital movement that’s coming from our generation?
I think we shouldn't shame digital cameras as much as we do. I love digital cameras, some of the first videos that really mattered to me were made digitally, or on tape. I think using film was almost like me maturing my taste palate, I started to understand what texture was, and what a real photographic process gave you, but I think at the end of the day, it's about choices. It's not about A or B, film or digital, what's better, and I hate, “You're not a real photographer unless you shoot film.” I think that as a generation, because we grew up with so many tools, it's like swimming in just too big of an ocean. So, maybe that's why people are going back towards film. When you have too many options, when everything can be manipulated and lied about, in a way you just want to get back to some truth.
I think if I were mentoring someone or somebody wanted to learn photography and they said, "Which one should I take?" I'd probably give them a film camera first, sure. But I just think we're seeing this generational hate on digital cameras right now, and I don't necessarily want that to happen. I love film cameras. I shoot on film cameras, because they work for what I do, but digital cameras work for some things other people do. Not to be corny, but these are paint brushes, so just pick one. They work for different things.
How has the influx of digital media influenced your work? I know you spent time in Havana, Cuba, where you were completely removed from technology.
Havana was exactly what I needed at that moment, it was a saving grace. It was time spent away from the craziness, but at the same time, there was a lot of chaos going on in my mind about what I was going to be doing when I came back. It was 2015, right in the middle of college, the summer between my sophomore and junior year. So going there, I had the opportunity to have some space and time and think in a less scene-related way, in a less industry-related way. It was the first time I was forced to be introspective, I was asking, “What do I think is cool?”, “Who am I really?”, “And what about Havana do I really like?” The colors and the whole palette was the language that I wanted to be speaking. I started to realize, black people, are the same worldwide. We love being outdoors, we're vibrant, and those are the things that I started to understand and build into my language. You go out in Cuba; everybody's in the street, everything is both really beautiful and crumbling. The way things are expressed there, naturally, just started to work for me.
And you were also there during a really interesting political time as well.
Yes, I went when the travel ban was on. I had to get an artist visa, and there weren't really any Americans there. It was a really special time. In the last week we were there, Obama announced that there was going to be a US embassy in Cuba. That might've been the first time I went somewhere where I thought, I'm never going to see this place like this again. It made me realize that the work I wanted to make needed to be a bit slower, a bit more humble, and less machine like.
The moment I got back from Cuba, my best friend, Santangelo, transferred to Parsons and we started hanging out a lot. Then because he had to start over at Parsons, I started exposing myself to younger people as all of his classmates were two years younger than me. In this pretext, it sounds like we're two years apart, but I started to notice that these people interact so differently, every two-year gap is like a whole new generation. These 18-year-old Parsons kids have such an encyclopedic knowledge of anything, from memes to a whole different language. Even the way that they interact, I didn't actually think people talked like this, I'm was like, “What is going on? Help me adopt a bit of a younger spirit!” Now I understand how things are changing at a very rapid rate. That was when I started to pick that up and at the same time that’s when I was designing and putting together the book.
Now, what's always on my mind are ways that the industry can do a better job of representing diversity and having more diverse castings. We are getting better, but I want more of it, as I'm sure a lot of other people do as well. For the industry, why do you think that this is such a slow process?
What we’re seeing now is a divide between a lot of the older folks, who are trying to hold on to how this industry used to be, and the new, younger people who are coming in and changing it. I think if you worked in this industry years ago, it was easy to form a habit of viewing women and people in a certain way, it became ingrained in your brain that this is what a fashion picture should be. Our generation in challenging that.
On paper, we are seeing things get better; we're seeing companies like Marc Jacobs giving people like me opportunities, we're seeing Burberry give Ibrahim Kamara opportunities, Kerry James Marshall got a solo exhibition at The Met, and Campbell Addy collaborating with Getty. I’ve only just named black artists there too; I haven't even talked about all the beautiful Indian artists, Asian artists, female artists, etc. On a literal ‘what's happening’ level, things are getting worse, but they're getting better too. I'm an optimist.
Also, with the influx of digital media, we now get to see the art that’s not from Europe or America; we can see someone's work from halfway around the world, in a small remote town. I think that can also help with diversity.
Yes, I love these little things that go viral now, like a Japanese artist who is just making sculptures in his room but it means the world to everybody. People need to be seeing that.
In your opinion, what are the elements of good fashion photography?
When I think about my experience at Art Partner, specifically learning what I liked about fashion, I understood that it was very instinctive, almost a primal understanding of what I liked and didn't like about a magazine. It's about taste. It's about preference. There's this shift going on in the kind of imagery that’s being made now and Art Partner was the one to teach me that.
Do you have any advice for someone who wants to pitch something?
Yeah, definitely. I actually have this little guide for how to pitch that I’ll send out to people if what they’re pitching isn't quite right because I want to hear from them again.
The art world and the fashion industry are both becoming increasingly democratized, so I was wondering why you think both are heading in that direction at the same time?
It's definitely the internet because you have a platform to show yourself, but I don't think that you can judge the quality of your work through social media. There are posts that I know will do well on social media because they're easy, attention-grabbing, a great image or something. But it doesn't mean that they're always the best quality of work. It’s the things that are super deep and important in theory that don’t get the hits because they're too complex in theory – or maybe make people uncomfortable – for social media.
Also, it does give a new level of accessibility, you can get in touch with people, and people can see your work no matter where you live. It brings a new space that is outside of the gallery walls or agent’s books or whatever.
But art doesn't... I feel badly for art because it doesn't always come across well on the internet. You need to physically be in the space, feeling the art in front of you, feeling the scale of it. On the other hand, though, photography is great for the internet, and I think that has opened up a new world. But, I also think that it’s tricky. I have seen people straight up copying other shoots, straight up copying masters from years ago and they palm it off because people don't have that knowledge of what’s come before, so they get all of the credit. The internet has democratized art and photography which is great, but since there are no real rules people need to think about what they’re putting out there and looking at. So not just taking something at face value. In other words, it has both good and bad sides like anything else.
Also, Instagram has enabled everyone to think of themselves as a photographer. Someone might get 1,000 likes on a photo, and that makes them think that they’re a photographer even though they’ve only been taking photos for 2 weeks. All of a sudden they’ll say, “I want my photos to be in a magazine or on a website." Then when someone gives them feedback that might not be to their liking, they take it very personally. The thing is that you need to give yourself time to develop. Just because we get everything so fast, we get what we want when we want, people don't allow themselves the years that it takes to develop into an artist and to work under someone who's already been established. There’s a reason why a lot of people in the past haven’t gotten their big moment until they’re 30, 40, 50. Obviously go out there and knock on people's doors and send them emails but take a moment to consider your work and where you want to be and understand that time can be a good thing.
I agree, I also think that makes it challenging for someone who is coming up in this industry. All you ever see are these 19, 20, 21-year-olds making their big breaks which makes it hard to realize that maybe it's not so bad to take a slow route and to really learn and study your craft and to develop your own point of view. I feel like putting value in longevity is a bit overlooked these days.
Exactly, because you need to be prepared for that big break. People need to realize that being on a website isn't the be all and end all of your career. It's one moment that might do something or do nothing. Your career goal can't be to get on Dazed or to get on i-D for the sake of being on it. What is important though, is you creating what is authentic to you. People get really caught up with being featured, when maybe your work is amazing, but it doesn't fit with that one aesthetic that that magazine caters to. That’s just one magazine, or one place to put your work. It’s not the end of the world.
Yeah, and just because you think Dazed is cool, don't switch up your work because then you're going to end up tripping yourself.
You're going to trip yourself, and you're going to feel shit about it, and people need to understand that this social validation is nothing after you get that post because 3 days later everyone’s onto something else. So that can't be your main thing.
I heard you say in one of your interviews that you become interested in a photographer that has a strong point of view and that has a certain take on the world. So I was wondering when you're looking at a new photographer's portfolio, how does that come across?
It's about someone being so dedicated to something that you can see it instantly. It's such a specific interest and this need to understand and to explore something through images. It's so important for me to meet photographers because it's so easy to have an impression of someone through their work but what I’ve realized is that you can't assume any of that stuff. You have to meet them to understand what their intentions are. Otherwise, you can never commission well because you're making up the story for them.
And they're never going to be able to give you the work that you want because you have to hire the photographer that has what you want already so that you can take it to this new level.
So Dazed Media continually uses their voice to inspire conversations that surround current affairs and to give a voice to people who are facing adversity. I was wondering from your perspective if there are specific components that a fashion editorial needs in order to successfully and tactfully portray a strong opinion on sensitive matter?
It's a genuine interest in people, and that's what Dazed particularly as a magazine does so impressively, like blows you over every time.
They engage a community of people around them, and it's authentic. I think that actually sums up Dazed completely. It's the authenticity with how they do things. It's the real life conversations.
When you’re looking at the shows and more specifically how the set and location were used to further the collection, how does that affect the way that AnOther reacts editorially?
It has the biggest impression on the magazine. We basically can't even think about the magazine until the editors have come back from the shows. There might be carryovers, ideas of photographers that they want, that everyone wants to talk about, and also in terms of themes, that all comes out of the shows as well.
I also find it really interesting because I don't go to the shows. So after they come back and they’ve digested everything, I'm so interested in the stories and ideas that they've seen and seen repeated. Those threads are stitched throughout the whole issue, but it does come from a fashion perspective.
One thing that stuck out to me is that you’ve continually participated in things that are educational and accessible for people who want to make their way in the fashion industry. So I wanted to know why you feel that’s important?
When I was at Saint Martin's, the industry felt so impenetrable, and it's not. It's like a bunch of really normal people up there who have this as their job, and this is their passion. They have a group of friends just like anyone else and boyfriends just like anyone else and problems just like anyone else. I feel really passionate about breaking that wall down, and I keep saying all we do is work really hard and want it to be great. It's as simple as that. I want to tell people who are interested or intrigued or passionate about going into this industry, that you have to work really hard and you have to know your shit. Then you'll get there.
And it's a really exciting industry to be a part of. I was speaking to a photographer this morning who just started working in fashion in the last couple of years. He said “It's so weird. One thing is so relevant, and then it's on to the next thing. That’s so exciting being able to generate those ideas so quickly and being able to satisfy all these little things that you're interested in." And he’s right; it's all relevant to fashion. You can bring all these different interests together for fashion.