Kareem Black

Kareem Black

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, Kareem’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 parent’s reaction to finding out you wanted to get into photography?
Kareem: That’s the way my life worked out, I’m not really good at anything else except for photography or Star Trek trivia and that’s about it really. But there’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 wasn’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 it’s kind of like a leap of faith on any parent’s part when they send their kids to art school — for some families their risk isn’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 I’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, it’s completely possible for me to sleep in and not do shit during the day, but it’s always in the back of my mind that there’s so many fucking photographers out there and so many people want to be doing what I’m doing that you just cannot sleep.”

Format: Let’s discuss your average day. You just got a phone call, shit sounds hectic. What is an average day for Kareem black?
Kareem: There’s no real average day you know? When I’m not shooting, I’m doing 100 percent self-promotion, and that happens in any one of a hundred different ways. I’m always on my computer, I’m always on my IMs, I’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 I’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 they’re spending a lot of money on.

Everyday is really different, it’s completely possible for me to sleep in and not do shit during the day, but it’s always in the back of my mind that there’s so many fucking photographers out there and so many people want to be doing what I’m doing that you just cannot sleep. There are so many of us that the trick is to make people know who you are. It’s always self-promotion. I’m not going to lie and say I’m the best photographer in the world, but I’m probably one of the best media strategists as far as photographers go and definitely one of the best electronic media strategists and that’s what’s contributed to my success.

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Format: And there are a billion photographers, but there aren’t a lot of African-American photographers. What are some of the reasons for that, if there are specific reasons?
Kareem: I don’t think there’s any kind of concrete reason for that. I think that what we’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. I’ve never been chased by police dogs or any of these crazy videos that you see from back in the day where you’re like “how the fuck could that be allowed to happen?”

I think that for a lot of the have-nots of the generation before, it would be almost foolish to say to their children “yeah, 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.” It’s not any kind of deficiency or industry bias, or racism, I think that there just aren’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 “American dream”. 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, it’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 you’re a certain ethnicity, or just because you’re a girl, doesn’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 you’re a certain ethnicity, or just because you’re a girl, doesn’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 didn’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 I’m sitting here, I’m watching TV, and there’s really just one image of Black males in popular media, so it’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: Let’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? What’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 it’s kind of split in half. You’re either below 14th street or above 14th street. There’s downtown and then there’s midtown. Me, I’m a downtown kid at heart. I used to be sponsored skateboarding, I love going out, partying, drinking. I’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 wasn’t classy. It’s not intimidating at all. It’s a challenge, I like a challenge. How well can I do this? It’s fun winning them over, its fun watching their faces change as I convince them that I’m right.

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Format: Can you speak a bit about fashion? You’re in the fashion industry quite often. Are you stylish guy?
Kareem: No, I’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! That’s basically what I wear. Unless I have an event, or I’m going to the boardroom I like to wear suits also. I got a two-finger ring from my friend Jules; she’s a famous jeweler in New York. People seem to dig that, but other than that, I’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 can’t wear, and I’m giving it away because I’m very loyal to the company to the guys over at LRG. It’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 you’d like to do for photography that you haven’t yet done?
Kareem: Not really, I mean I don’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 I’d like to meet. I don’t really think about ads that way. It’s all about the picture. If it’s an exciting pharmaceutical ad, I’m completely down to do that. I’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 wouldn’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. There’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. Let’s be honest. That’s what I think. I’d love to hear what the percentage of people who are actually there because they don’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 can’t.

I think as far as career goes and maintaining a positive direction, there’s shit that I wouldn’t shoot because I know how it would look if people saw I was shooting it. If I’m not interested, and there’s nothing in it for me, then I’m probably not going to shoot it. There are a couple different ways to get paid from a job. A lot of photographers don’t realize that. Getting paid in currency is not the only way to get paid. I’ve shot for a million magazines for free. You’re getting paid in exposure. This pharmaceutical ad I’m about to do, it’s going to be the most boring thing ever, but I’m going to get a ton of money for it. There’s money, exposure and weather or not it interests you and you can put in your portfolio. If it’s something that you’re genuinely interested in, at the end of the day you’re an artist. You want to take some pictures of something dope. I’ll do that; I’ll spend my own money on that.

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Format: Talk about your street campaign and your e-marketing campaign.
Kareem: Let’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 that’s what photographers do, and that’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, let’s do something new.

Matt Salacuse and I came up with these sticker campaigns. We’re in the second generation of our sticker campaigns. The first ones were black and white prints on 8×10 stickers with these catchy taglines on them. One of mine was, “to wed Lindsay Lohan” and it’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 “there’s nothing about Lindsay Lohan on this site”, and I’m like, yeah, but you looked on my site. It’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 you’re garnering attention from the regular people, you’ll be garnering attention from the industry.

I kind of take offense to the way that it’s usually been done on another level where it’s like photographers and artists just speak to other photographers and artists. It seems very presumptuous very highbrow. Let’s do something for everybody. Let’s do some real pop art in the kind of Andy Warhol sense of it, where it’s real popular art. But it’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 that’s what the industry is about, that’s what art’s about. Our stickers had no photography on them. We got respect for the fact that it’s never been done before, and that’s what art’s about.

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More Info: http://www.kareemblack.com/

Jordan Chalifoux

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29 comments

  1. I’m diggin that last paragraph. As an in-house graphic artist I tend to do a lot more “for the money” jobs then anything else and I’m not happy bout it. Thanks to Kareem from this fellow artist for sayin’ it like it is.

  2. Kareem is one of the best young photographers i’ve seen in awhile. He’s a great motivator and always achieves excellence. good stuff man!!!

    Tony

  3. Kareem Black is an epic visionary. His images seem to transcend the boundaries of the tangible and force you to re-evaluate your perspective on style. Dope!

  4. Fallenangel says:

    I am really sad for those of you who claim that this chap is “BRILLIAN”- you all have absolutely no idea about photography or what it takes to make a BRILLIANT photograph-

    on what planet are you from and what kind of shit have you been looking at?

    I’d suggest that you look at some real photographers who have some real talent, with light, camera and format-

    food for thought-

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