I am excited to share my first official interview for the PbD Series of “How I Got There” which entails conversations I have with photographers and artists in the industry that share my love and passion, but more importantly I have respect for them and their work. The context of the questions and discussion evolved from understanding Kareem’s start in photography at the School of Visual Arts in New York City, to his current status as a “master” by Profoto, to include his award winning work appearing in numerous publications and major ad campaigns. Kareem’s work can be found online at http://kareemblack.com and, http://feelsgoodletsgo.com. Also at the time of our conversation his newest work entitled “Orbit” had just premiered.
Demetrius Austin: Did your transition from school immediately take you into commercial work?
Kareem Black: I was shooting this and that when I was in school. I was a skateboarder, and was sponsored by a skate shop in NYC. I shot a bunch of ads for the skate shop and other ads that I really didn’t get paid for doing. I was excited when I saw my work in a magazine for the first time. The owner of the skate shop had a friend that worked for a magazine called “Warp Japan”, a skate and music culture magazine based in Japan. I would shoot a ton of DJs for that magazine. Getting paid never even occurred to me. Every once in a while I would get a check from Warp Japan. I was published a bunch in Japan and I was starting to make connections and building a network of music stuff.
I ended up shooting this band for Trace and the publicist for the band liked the way the photos came out. They wanted me to come out and shoot for a soon to launch magazine called The Fader. They had no money, but they wanted to work with me and I just wanted to be in a magazine. Maybe someone would see my work and one day I could make a career as a photographer.
I ended up shooting about 70% of the first issue of The Fader. They gave me a 2-page ad, advertising me and the magazine was an instant heavy hitter.
daa: Since you left school, has there ever been a point where photography was a job and you were not enjoying it?
Kareem: No. I always feel very lucky to do what I love. It’s a double-edged sword because when you are working on something that you care about, you become very vulnerable to a lot of things. I am a photographer and if I am unable to take pictures, it has a very dramatic effect on my life. I can’t wait to get in front of my computer to look at the work I have just produced. I hate sleeping because I can’t work in my sleep.
daa: Talk to me about this industry and how difficult it is.
Kareem: NYC is a hard place to live, but I also believe it’s a place that people have to live if they are trying to do photography at a certain level. It’s rough! People believe we have this glamorous life with models and traveling around the world. While there’s plenty of that, it’s a hard life psychologically. It’s a constant pressure to deliver. Why don’t I go out on the weekends? Because it’s the one time my phone isn’t ringing off the hook and I can work at my own pace. It’s taking a break from the maelstrom. There are people who are just as good as you are and when you are sleeping they are not.
I can easily see myself becoming a hermit because photography is intense and can be overwhelming. Being good and consistent is paramount in this industry. If you are good, people will hire you and if you are a problem solver, people will hire you. Most importantly, personal relationships that are made in person instead of some digital person are paramount, and it’s good to be in a place where the industry is.
daa: Did an agent represent you when you landed Verizon as a client? Were they the first large commercial client?
Kareem: No, I didn’t have an agent. Cingular was actually my first large commercial client. Verizon was my first large commercial repeat client. I have shot a bunch of campaigns for them. Fortunately, I have also expanded my client base as well.
daa: Do you have any dream assignments that you have yet to do?
Kareem: I do get asked that questions often. I don’t know if I even think of it in those terms. I have it on my list to create a bucket list because there are definitely people I find interesting. I would love to photograph interesting people and more exotic places. It’s not about the dream job; my journey is about making good work and seeing what comes from that. I never thought I would be shooting certain people, for instance Jenna Jameson. My life turns me on to people I would not have otherwise met. I just completed a shoot for Caesar’s hotel in Las Vegas and that was really cool. There are magazines I would love to shoot for, like Esquire. I think there is a part of me that would like to be paid to be a travel photographer.
daa: Talk to me about that defining picture in your career and the Orbit production.
Kareem: I don’t think there is one defining picture. I am always exploring. I have never done anything like Orbit before. Sometimes stepping out on a limb with stuff like Orbit sucks, but I have to explore. I have had tremendous failures, but I am down to try things. There are people that shoot with the same lighting for years; I don’t want to do that. I want to try things. There is no one picture; I am proud of all of them and each one of them represents a part of me. There are 2 different sides of me.
daa: Talk to me about the impact on your career by your mentors. Are you mentoring anyone?
Kareem: I think its super important to have mentors. Matthew Jordan Smith and Kwaku Alston are my mentors, and we try to connect all of the time. Also, as much as they are my mentors, I compete against Kwaku for jobs. His [Kwaku] career is more mature than mine because he has been in the industry longer. At first it was flattering to be mentioned in the same breath as him and it still is. In the beginning I never won a battle with him but now I have. I will always be indebted to them. It’s important for me to get Kwaku on the phone. I have to say that if it wasn’t for Kwaku and Matthew I don’t believe I would be a photographer, I really don’t.
I am not officially mentoring anyone right now. I do make myself available as much as I can and take as many interviews as possible. (1)I love talking about myself and (2)I like press. More so, make yourself available to people that give a [crap] about what you do. Talk to other photographers, anyone of interest, just reach out. This thing [photography] is shapeless. There is no one-way to do this thing. Take a little bit from everyone. If you have questions just text or Facebook me. I am admittedly not a phone person, but I will respond to texts or online messages.
daa: What is the one bit of advice you would give to a new photographer?
Kareem: Shoot what you love! Don’t stop producing work. I know photographers that kind of take a break from photography and stop shooting. I believe that’s bad from a lot of lot of different levels. It’s bad on the commercial level, there are so many of us and you have to produce so much new work to stay relevant. When you take a break you are not evolving, you are not growing as an artist. Are you into this thing? Do you love this? Do you love the exploration of this? Keep on trying stuff and keep growing.
Even though I apply this last paragraph to my love and growth as a photographer, you [my reader] can replace photography with anything that you are aspiring towards and I believe it’s applicable. If you do love photography, shoot what you love and allow that love to grow and expand as you grow. Never be afraid to fail and never stop exploring. I really appreciate Kareem taking the time to talk candidly with me. I am looking forward to the next dialogue and planning a trip to NYC and hopefully during a time where we can meet face-to-face and have a drink.