Photographer Cam Kirk on Capturing the Atlanta Hip-Hop Scene
If you ask Cam Kirk what makes him a great photographer, he’ll tell you. “I’m the guy that knows how to document a moment without disrupting the moment,” he tells TIDAL.
With his laid-back, less-is-more approach, Kirk has likely become your favorite rapper’s favorite photographer — that is, if your favorite rapper is from Atlanta.
Originally from Maryland, Kirk relocated to Atlanta to attend Morehouse College, where he studied marketing and tried his hand at promoting. After putting on a show with Wiz Khalifa and having no photographic evidence to show for it, he bought himself a camera and left no further concerts, artists or pivotal life moments undocumented.
What was at first a missed opportunity with Wiz Khalifa became the beginning of Kirk’s career as one of Atlanta hip-hop’s most admired photographers. From Gucci Mane, Migos and Rae Sremmurd to 21 Savage and Lil Yachty, Kirk’s subjects span today’s rap royalty spectrum in Atlanta and beyond.
But it’s not the spotlight or the celebrity that motivates Kirk. Aside from his love of Atlanta and hip-hop, Kirk makes a point to pay his success forward. This month (July 2018), Kirk will be celebrating the one-month anniversary of Cam Kirk Studios, a space for creatives of all mediums to learn, share and create for free. “I felt like everything Atlanta has done for me, every way that Atlanta has supported me, it was the least that I can do to create this hub and home for people,” he says of the studio.
In this interview with TIDAL, the photographer-meets-entrepreneur-meets-hip-hop-aficionado clues us in on his creative ambition, community and deep-seated love of the culture.
What was it like when you first moved to Atlanta from Maryland?
It was almost a culture shock, to be honest. Just the things that people care about, the way that people move, the hospitality, all of those things really made me fall in love with it. Things as small as [me walking] down the street and [people] speaking to you or walking into a store and people greeting you. It was things like that that really made me love Atlanta.
How would you define Atlanta’s aesthetic today?
Atlanta’s aesthetic is hard to define because we have so many different cultures blended into one so if I had to describe it, I would say it’s a mixture of all things cool, all things around the world. I mean we have people here from California to New York to D.C., where I’m from. It’s all mixed together, like this idea of a city where you can have little tastes, little elements of different parts of the world all in one city.
I mean one of the things that make Atlanta, Atlanta, is the free-spiritedness of it. A lot of people out here are creating because of passion or they create for fun without so much business involved. We say that that’s the reason why the music scene is on top. It’s free-creating happening.
I’m sure your process is also free-spirited but do you have any rituals when you know that you’re shooting with a certain artist? Are you listening to their music and getting it in their vibe?
Yeah. When I get hit for an artist, what I try to do is I really just get a feel of their vibe so I’ll play that music. I just try visualizing in my head the best way to capture their style, the best way to capture their presence and essence. So I bury myself in the artist and their music to point out things I think they like. I [listen to their] music to make a direct connection so I have something to talk about. I create a vibe that’s allowing them to get the most authentic shot.
Shooting a person is a vulnerable situation in itself. How do you feel your personality contributes to that?
I think my personality as a whole is what actually makes me a good photographer. I’m a listener first. I’m very observant. I’m very soft-spoken. I’m very not talkative at all. I’m not all over the top and not abrasive. I’m not drawing them off. I can really just be calm about a situation, and that allows them to be calm. So my personality for sure has allowed me to open a lot of doors just because I’m the guy that knows how to document a moment without disrupting the moment. People like that because they can be themselves and don’t have to put on a front.
There’s so many times I’ve been in studios with artists where they didn’t speak to me the whole time, and then when I leave, [they're like] ‘I know you got some pictures.’ So it’s stuff like that that has allowed me to really have a good name, and it also helps too with [them] just being cool and comfortable with me. I’ve been around so people just [know] I’m a part of the culture. I’ve been in studio sessions with them, concerts. I’ve been on the road with some of these guys so when they shoot with me, it’s not like shooting with another photographer. It’s almost like shooting with your friend or somebody that’s really into exactly what they are into.
So its almost like you’re a fly on the wall.
Just taking all those photos of Gucci Mane. The old Gucci Mane. Ninety-five percent of those photos, they never knew I was [taking] in some of these really iconic photographs.
On another note, I love that you’ve opened up Cam Kirk Studios in Atlanta and have people coming in to learn and create for free. Why is it important to you to have that space and to give back to your community?
I think that with everything you do, you have a responsibility to make it easier for the people coming up right after you. I just always remember me as a photographer, as a creative starting out five years ago, that these resources just weren’t there for me. I know so many other photographers and creatives that would love to have a place that they can come through and get inspired by and just work on a consistent level. That’s something that I feel like the city was missing. I felt like everything Atlanta has done for me, every way that Atlanta has supported me, it was the least that I can do to create this hub and home for people.
We have it set up as much as a much different vibe than a typical photography studio. It’s very beginner-friendly, and at the same time, it can appeal to the top professionals who just want to come and go, and just get some stuff done. I feel like the studio has the ability to really nurture and mentor the next generation of visual leaders.
That’s pretty amazing. I know that your dad was the one who passed along his love of photography to you. Has he ever been on any of your shoots with you?
My dad has never been on a shoot with me but I actually was talking to my sister about that recently. The next shoot that I do, I think I’m going to have my dad work with me on that. I think he’d really enjoyed it.
What does he typically shoot?
He does a lot of more of the like stuff that I don’t like. He does wedding and headshots, graduation photos, pictures of the Boys and Girls Club, soccer teams. He loves it.
Have you been shooting since you were a kid?
Growing up, my dad would make me help him shoot weddings and stuff. So I would say, technically I have been shooting since I was a kid but I didn’t purchase my camera and actually even think about taking it seriously until about 2011.
Lastly, what do you love so much about the energy of Atlanta hip-hop?
I just love the consistency of it. I love how groundbreaking it is and how fun it is. It’s like with every artist, everybody has their own different swag, different style. It’s just kinda fun. You never know who’s going to come next or who’s going to be the next guy. I think it’s just amazing to think about a state or a city that produces this much talent and just keeps going every year. I think it’s really, really crazy.
Photo Credit: Cam Kirk
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