Philadelphia born, Manhattan resident, Kareem Black, has traveled the world on the strength of his photography. Perhaps best known among the urban community for his work on the LRG ad campaigns, and his spreads in XXL, Vibe, and the Source, Kareemâ€™s subjects extend far beyond hip-hop artists. A glance at his client list reveals some of the biggest music companies, magazines, and media companies in the world today. Had he gone the academic route like the rest of his family, your favorite magazines would definitely not be as fresh, so Format wants to take a minute to thank the two people responsible for making this happen. Thanks Mom and Dad!
Format: What was your parentâ€™s reaction to finding out you wanted to get into photography?
Kareem: Thatâ€™s the way my life worked out, Iâ€™m not really good at anything else except for photography or Star Trek trivia and thatâ€™s about it really. But thereâ€™s not really too much money in those other things. Ever since I was young, I was doing art related things well and everything that wasnâ€™t art related I did badly, so I think that my parents understood my decision when I wanted to go to art school.
I think itâ€™s kind of like a leap of faith on any parentâ€™s part when they send their kids to art school â€” for some families their risk isnâ€™t as great as other families. You might be able to, say, go back into the family business or study something else elsewhere and wrack up additional tuition costs. With me, it was like, this is what Iâ€™m good at, this was really my only shot to do something that I was interested in and could excel at, so they totally had my back. Whether or not they understood, or understand now, exactly what I do as a career is a completely other question, but they were always supportive.
“Everyday is really different, itâ€™s completely possible for me to sleep in and not do shit during the day, but itâ€™s always in the back of my mind that thereâ€™s so many fucking photographers out there and so many people want to be doing what Iâ€™m doing that you just cannot sleep.”
Format: Letâ€™s discuss your average day. You just got a phone call, shit sounds hectic. What is an average day for Kareem black?
Kareem: Thereâ€™s no real average day you know? When Iâ€™m not shooting, Iâ€™m doing 100 percent self-promotion, and that happens in any one of a hundred different ways. Iâ€™m always on my computer, Iâ€™m always on my IMs, Iâ€™m always writing emails, scanning, updating my site. Right now my intern is filling out envelopes to do mailers to my clients. Yesterday I had a huge meeting for this pharmaceutical ad Iâ€™m doing this weekend in Houston, which involved me putting on nice clothes and speaking to a room of people who are about 20 years older than I am about shit theyâ€™re spending a lot of money on.
Everyday is really different, itâ€™s completely possible for me to sleep in and not do shit during the day, but itâ€™s always in the back of my mind that thereâ€™s so many fucking photographers out there and so many people want to be doing what Iâ€™m doing that you just cannot sleep. There are so many of us that the trick is to make people know who you are. Itâ€™s always self-promotion. Iâ€™m not going to lie and say Iâ€™m the best photographer in the world, but Iâ€™m probably one of the best media strategists as far as photographers go and definitely one of the best electronic media strategists and thatâ€™s whatâ€™s contributed to my success.
Format: And there are a billion photographers, but there arenâ€™t a lot of African-American photographers. What are some of the reasons for that, if there are specific reasons?
Kareem: I donâ€™t think thereâ€™s any kind of concrete reason for that. I think that what weâ€™re talking about is socioeconomics, which goes back decades and society changes very slowly. So, for example, my parents were children of the civil rights movement. That was their generation. Their children, my generation, are really kind of the first generation to experience the fruits of the civil rights movement. We grew up enjoying what they fought for. Iâ€™ve never been chased by police dogs or any of these crazy videos that you see from back in the day where youâ€™re like â€œhow the fuck could that be allowed to happen?â€
I think that for a lot of the have-nots of the generation before, it would be almost foolish to say to their children â€œyeah, sure you should be an artist, lets spend a lot of money on college for a career where the chances of making it are nowhere near certain.â€ Itâ€™s not any kind of deficiency or industry bias, or racism, I think that there just arenâ€™t that many of us right now. In the past most people of my generation who had the opportunity to pursue higher education probably chose more secure routs to achieving the â€œAmerican dreamâ€. Photography in particular and art in general is a field where absolutely nothing is promised, know what I mean? If its your families first chance to truly pursue that dream why chose something as uncertain as trying to become a professional photographer? The generation after us, there will be a bunch of us. With that said, now that there a few of us here, itâ€™s interesting seeing how the industry reacts to us, like what they think we might be interested in. When I first started, everyone thought that I wanted to shoot hip-hop and sure that was kind of cool but I have other interests. I love NASCAR, I love karaoke, I love politics, I love chess etc. Just because youâ€™re a certain ethnicity, or just because youâ€™re a girl, doesnâ€™t mean you like the color pink.
“When I first started, everyone thought that I wanted to shoot hip-hop and sure that was kind of cool but I have other interests. I love NASCAR, I love karaoke, I love politics, I love chess etc. Just because youâ€™re a certain ethnicity, or just because youâ€™re a girl, doesnâ€™t mean you like the color pink.”
Format: Did that irritate you? Did you get that a lot when you first started?
Kareem: No it didnâ€™t irritate me. I understood what was happening and I understood that it was my responsibility to kind of dispel that impression that people might have. If not me then who? I feel like there are peoples that are very marginalized in media, not just Black people, but women, everyone. So Iâ€™m sitting here, Iâ€™m watching TV, and thereâ€™s really just one image of Black males in popular media, so itâ€™s like how can you really blame some people for thinking that all I want to do is listen to hip-hop, play basket ball, get giant rims and dance?
Format: Letâ€™s also speak about your corporate photos compared to portraits or entertainment. What is your mindset when you walk into room and there are men or women that are 20 years older than you, and you have to sell yourself? Whatâ€™s your game face or plan?
Kareem: I love it; I love walking into that situation. I know who I am at heart. In New York itâ€™s kind of split in half. Youâ€™re either below 14th street or above 14th street. Thereâ€™s downtown and then thereâ€™s midtown. Me, Iâ€™m a downtown kid at heart. I used to be sponsored skateboarding, I love going out, partying, drinking. Iâ€™m a 29 year old guy. I like hanging out with girls, I like staying out late. I love going into midtown and them not knowing what I am. I like being in their world. I like walking into a boardroom and everyone having to listen to me and in the back of my mind I know where I was last night and it probably wasnâ€™t classy. Itâ€™s not intimidating at all. Itâ€™s a challenge, I like a challenge. How well can I do this? Itâ€™s fun winning them over, its fun watching their faces change as I convince them that Iâ€™m right.
Format: Can you speak a bit about fashion? Youâ€™re in the fashion industry quite often. Are you stylish guy?
Kareem: No, Iâ€™m totally not a stylish guy at all. I get a ton of free clothes from places. LRG sponsors me and I LOVE them. They are my family; Puma sponsors me when I do television. I love Puma! Thatâ€™s basically what I wear. Unless I have an event, or Iâ€™m going to the boardroom I like to wear suits also. I got a two-finger ring from my friend Jules; sheâ€™s a famous jeweler in New York. People seem to dig that, but other than that, Iâ€™m trying to get a pair of golden laurels made, I think that would be dope, but other than that my personal style is based on who sponsors me. I got a box of clothes from another company last week that I canâ€™t wear, and Iâ€™m giving it away because Iâ€™m very loyal to the company to the guys over at LRG. Itâ€™s one of those things where I feel fucking stupid saying it, but I just want to support my friends.
Format: Are there any specific ads that youâ€™d like to do for photography that you havenâ€™t yet done?
Kareem: Not really, I mean I donâ€™t think about it like that. People ask me all the time like, what celebrity would you like to shoot, and what ads would you like to shoot. I guess there are people Iâ€™d like to meet. I donâ€™t really think about ads that way. Itâ€™s all about the picture. If itâ€™s an exciting pharmaceutical ad, Iâ€™m completely down to do that. Iâ€™d rather do that than a boring sneaker ad.
“I like walking into a boardroom and everyone having to listen to me and in the back of my mind I know where I was last night”
Format: What about what you wouldnâ€™t do?
Kareem: There are definitely things I would not shoot. A friend of mine, my mentor, did an ad for the military that they said was specifically angled towards Black and Hispanic people. Thereâ€™s a morality question there about what am I doing to kind of perpetuate this warrior class in our country. Come on now, nobody wants to go to war. People want college credit. Letâ€™s be honest. Thatâ€™s what I think. Iâ€™d love to hear what the percentage of people who are actually there because they donâ€™t need college credit is. I think that there are a high percentage of people who are there because they want to go to school, but they canâ€™t.
I think as far as career goes and maintaining a positive direction, thereâ€™s shit that I wouldnâ€™t shoot because I know how it would look if people saw I was shooting it. If Iâ€™m not interested, and thereâ€™s nothing in it for me, then Iâ€™m probably not going to shoot it. There are a couple different ways to get paid from a job. A lot of photographers donâ€™t realize that. Getting paid in currency is not the only way to get paid. Iâ€™ve shot for a million magazines for free. Youâ€™re getting paid in exposure. This pharmaceutical ad Iâ€™m about to do, itâ€™s going to be the most boring thing ever, but Iâ€™m going to get a ton of money for it. Thereâ€™s money, exposure and weather or not it interests you and you can put in your portfolio. If itâ€™s something that youâ€™re genuinely interested in, at the end of the day youâ€™re an artist. You want to take some pictures of something dope. Iâ€™ll do that; Iâ€™ll spend my own money on that.
Format: Talk about your street campaign and your e-marketing campaign.
Kareem: Letâ€™s look at what everyone else is doing. All the rest of the photographers are doing promo cards and sending their books out, and they all have agents, and thatâ€™s what photographers do, and thatâ€™s what photographers have done for decades, which I have no problem with. I have promo cards and I send my books out too, but there are so many photographers, letâ€™s do something new.
Matt Salacuse and I came up with these sticker campaigns. Weâ€™re in the second generation of our sticker campaigns. The first ones were black and white prints on 8Ã—10 stickers with these catchy taglines on them. One of mine was, â€œto wed Lindsay Lohanâ€ and itâ€™s totally taking advantage of celebrity culture that we live in right now. So many people came to my site and some of them were pissed off like â€œthereâ€™s nothing about Lindsay Lohan on this siteâ€, and Iâ€™m like, yeah, but you looked on my site. Itâ€™s one of those things where your plastering your city and your garnering attention from not just the industry but from the regular people, and in that way, if youâ€™re garnering attention from the regular people, youâ€™ll be garnering attention from the industry.
I kind of take offense to the way that itâ€™s usually been done on another level where itâ€™s like photographers and artists just speak to other photographers and artists. It seems very presumptuous very highbrow. Letâ€™s do something for everybody. Letâ€™s do some real pop art in the kind of Andy Warhol sense of it, where itâ€™s real popular art. But itâ€™s also advertising. I told Matt right before we started doing it, if we succeed then people can drink to our originality, but if we fail then people can drink to our originality. I think that thatâ€™s what the industry is about, thatâ€™s what artâ€™s about. Our stickers had no photography on them. We got respect for the fact that itâ€™s never been done before, and thatâ€™s what artâ€™s about.
More Info: http://www.kareemblack.com/