On this episode of What Makes You Click, Kelvin welcomes Kareem Black, an American portrait, celebrity and lifestyle photographer based in New York City, to speak on his experience in the photography industry. Kareem talks about how his upbringing inspired the evolution of his creative career, divulging the subject matter of his teenage portfolio that got him into The Philadelphia High School for the Creative Performing Arts, a school that many iconic musicians have attended.
He touches on how he got into the worlds of painting and photography at a young age and what led him to go to the School of Visual Arts in NYC. He emphasizes the importance of having mentors, building relationships with your peers, and utilizing the unique facilities at your school.
Kareem then breaks down how he interpreted and applied the phrase “shoot what you love” as a photography student, noting the perpetual refining process that artists go through in life and even noting what he doesn’t love to shoot. He shares his candid thoughts on becoming a successful photographer without going to college and speaks on what his career was like after he graduated, including the effects of the tech boom (and subsequent bust) of the early 2000s and the economic crash of 2008. Kareem also talks about the psychological game of instigation in photography and how he copes with needing multiple surgeries on his eyes.
Tune in to learn Kareem’s biggest inspirations, how he leveraged simple marketing and business tactics to grow his presence, and the story behind his first major campaign with Verizon. Stick around for his thought-provoking take on race being a factor in the opportunities people are faced with in creative industries.
“Race is super interesting in this industry. We need to be in the room. I think that getting in the room… is the first step, but that’s not the only step… once you’re in the room, can you have a conversation.” - Kareem Black
About the Guest:
Kareem Black is an American portrait, celebrity and lifestyle photographer based in New York City. He’s a Star Trek fan, chess player, ex-skater and karaoke aficionado. Kareem thrives on energy on set and he always tries to have that kinetic intensity come through in his work!
Connect with Kareem Black:
Visit his website: www.kareemblack.com
Follow him on Instagram: www.instagram.com/kareemblack
Connect with What Makes You Click:
Visit our website: www.whatmakesyouclick.com
Follow us on Instagram: www.instagram.com/whatmakesyouclickpodcast
Connect with us on Facebook: www.facebook.com/whatmakesyouclick
People + Resources Mentioned:
Caravaggio Foundation: www.caravaggio-foundation.org
Tony Ward: www.tonyward.com/about
Matthew Jordan Smith: www.matthewjordansmith.com
Kwaku Alston: www.kwakualston.com
Julian Alexander – Creative Director: www.slanginc.com
Matthew Salacuse: www.salacuse.com
[00:00:00-00:00:59]- Episode Introduction
[00:01:12-00:003:02]- Guest Introduction
[00:03:02-00:06:31]- Kareem’s Childhood Background
[00:06:31-00:08:08]- Kareem’s Education
[00:08:08-00:13:09]- Getting into The Arts-Mentors
[00:13:09-00:16:13]- Discovering Photography |The School of Visual Art
[00:16:13-00:21:00]- Black SVA Mentors | Refinement: Shoot What You Love
[00:21:00-00:24:40]- Self-taught vs. SVA | Is a Degree Necessary?
[00:24:40-00:32:35]- Life Post Graduation | From Hustle to Success
[00:32:35-00:36:22]- Parental Influence and Expectation
[00:36:22-00:39:11]- The Business Side | Marketing Before Social Media
[00:39:11-00:41:22]- Version: Landing First Campaign
[00:41:22-00:47:25]- Black Photographers and Opportunities | Showing Up in the Room
[00:47:25-00:52:18]- Impacted by 2008 Market Crash | Lessons Learned
[00:52:18-00:55:00]- Eye Surgeries Explained
[00:55:00-00:58:40]- Power of The Camera
[00:58:40-00:59:18]- Show Outro | How to Stay Connected
What Makes You Click with Kareem Black?
Kelvin Bulluck: Hello, and welcome to another episode of what makes you click I am your host Kelvin Bullock. And on today's episode, we have a special guest. He is an amazing celebrity and portrait and commercial photographer, who has photographed the s of people, such as Mr. Forest Whitaker, Leonardo DiCaprio, Janell Monae, Rick Ross, Kevin Hart, Kevin bacon, Kendall Jenner. The list goes on and on.
He has a very impressive client list as well with companies such as HBO, TBS, BET, MTV, Paramount, Verizon, Samsung.
What is even more important is, the story that he must share about his journey through photography. Let us take a listen to what makes Mr. Kareem black. Click!
[Intro Music Playing]
Kelvin Bulluck: Kareem Black! Hey, I appreciate you for joining me for this conversation. When you agreed to take part, I started thinking about the first time that I even became aware of you, and that was about 2016. I saw a feature on professional photographers of America. They had done a story on you, and I think you even had the cover. It was interesting to me for a couple of reasons.
One, you were more than just the type of photographer that they normally would promote, because they are big into weddings and other things, and I think, Kareem Black? I have never heard of him.
Then I started reading your article and seeing all that you have done. I am , he is exactly on the path that I would have thought was where I wanted to be.
I started following you and then, maybe a few days after I started following you, I noticed that you were going to be doing a speaking engagement down in Miami. I believe it was called Industry Con. I am, let me go down to Miami and see this dude speak. That is what I did.
Man, you delivered, I enjoyed that presentation. I got a chance to chat with you a little bit afterwards. Do you remember being down there in Miami?
Kareem Black: I remember that lecture, it was run by, a friend of mine, Angela, and she does a bunch down there, and it was a seminar with photographers, but then some entrepreneurs and models. It was cool. get to Miami whenever I can.
Kelvin Bulluck: I know that is right. I know you gave me a particularly good reason to do that, so I went down there, even got a test shoot in, and it was all to the good.
Kareem’s Childhood Background
Let me back up, one thing that I like to do…the title of this podcast is What Makes You Click? Which is a play on, what makes you tick? For photographers, and I am a firm believer that we are shaped, through nature and nurture, so, I always like to start from the beginning.
I know that you are from North Philly, correct?
Kareem Black: Yeah, that is right. It is a neighborhood called Germantown. North Philly, it is a bunch of different neighborhoods, but yeah, Germantown.
[00:03:19] Kelvin Bulluck: Are you from there originally? Are your parents from there?
Kareem Black: My mom is from Detroit; my dad is from New York and South Carolina. They met at some conference in Atlanta. They are both, PhD., my mom's a doctor, my dad's a professor of political science, but they met at a conference of young black professionals’. I guess is a conference, but also a hookup spot.
They met there and ended up, getting together, and moved to Philly for, I do not know what reason, but that is where I was born and grew up.
Kelvin Bulluck: Where you an only child?
Kareem Black: I have a sister. She has a condition called, Asperger's syndrome, and she is two and a half years younger than me. It is just two of us.
My mom and dad, they are still together. They live in Detroit now. Southfield of the suburb of Detroit. So, I see them on holidays.
Kelvin Bulluck: Then growing up, in Philadelphia, were you more of, an extrovert or were you more to yourself?
With a younger sister, you say you are two years apart, there is a little bit of a gap. I could see you going off and doing your own thing.
Kareem Black: There was that age gap, but with me and my sister, Christine, with her having Asperger's, high functioning, she was in her own world. Sometimes, I think about myself as an only child. Obviously, I did not have a sister, but if you have Asperger's, that is the nature of the condition. You are just in your own world.
I was an extrovert? I feel I was always just interested in these weird things I was interested in. I was always someone who drew and painted and fell in love with skateboarding. Not normal, quote unquote.
I would never want to have a kid like me, because it must have been a lot from my parents. Just jumping around and trying to explore different things, staying up late at night and painting on walls.
I do not know if I was an extrovert. I was just into what I was into. I was not into something; I was not good at it. I was not good at school. I was not good at a lot, except for art classes. If I am into it, I am going to be real into it. I will stay up days at a time to work on it, but if I am not into it, it is not going to happen.
Kelvin Bulluck: I totally feel you there, and I do not think I realized that for myself until I was a little bit older, for example your parents want you to do certain things and be great at certain things, but if it is not in you, it is not in you. When you are focusing on those things that you are strong in, it helps you to succeed.
Kelvin Bulluck: You talked about school, and I noticed that you went to the Philadelphia High School for the Creative Performing Arts, and I do know that a couple of a music icons, boys to men and the roots, went to that school.
How did you end up going to, to that school?
Kareem Black: After eighth grade, middle school in Philadelphia, my middle school was not connected to automatic high school? You must apply for high schools, and there were certain high schools in Philadelphia is Central Masterman, and these are the good schools, but my grades were not horrible, but I was not getting into Central.
The creative performing arts school was something that I had exhibited an interest in. They wanted to know what your grade point average looks like, but also, what does your portfolio look like? Do you have a portfolio? That was the first probably portfolio than I had ever had to show in eighth grade. I was not at that point, I was, visual art, a painter sketcher. I was not a photographer, but showing this, got me into the school, even though my grades were not that good.
It was one of those things where it was also considered a good school, but it was not considered Central. Central High School is the best for my portfolio, plus my grades got me in this.
Getting into The Arts - Mentors
Kelvin Bulluck: The art portfolio that you had, what was the subject matter that you found yourself drawn to? What did you gravitate towards?
Black: At that point I was drawing comics, sequential illustrated, comic book frames, cartoons of friends of mine. It was, eighth grade, so it was very 15-year-old in my opinion.
Kelvin Bulluck: I guess when did you pick up the brush? when you decided this is something that I am interested in, and I feel I could do it.
Kareem Black: I went to Kappa, which is creative performing arts, continued my disinterest in a lot of everything. I met a great painter named Mr. Corey, and I feel he was probably one of my first mentors. No one can understate the importance of mentors. I think that for me, male mentors.
I was just enamored with his work and he was a student of Caravaggio, very realistic, a harsh light and shadows and how it molded the human form and spaces.
I started to basically mimic him, they got me interested in who is, this Caravaggio, so that led me to the old Italian masters and that world.
Then Mr. Corey, introduced me to a friend of his. The Philadelphia art scene named, Tony Ward. He is an amazing photographer in Philadelphia. He is the first real life photographer I have ever met, and he used to shoot a lot of stark, black, and white Helmut Newton. He was in that sexual edge of it, so he is shooting a lot for penthouse.
I got introduced to Tony ward, I was assisting Tony ward. He put me in some shots, which was interesting, but I am just some 17-year-old kid and wow, watching this photographer direct models, and okay, that is the shot that happened. Now I have got a 16 by 20 print and that is what it was made that is what was made from the shot that I was there for. There was a magic. I think I might have surpassed your question, but that was the evolution. I am still in high school at this point and working with Tony ward in Philadelphia.
Kelvin Bulluck: I cannot lie, man. I hear stories like this, and you found yourself in the perfect situation where you could find a mentor. Growing up, I was, I was an army brat. My mom was in the army and my dad was a police officer still is, we moved around quite a bit and we found ourselves in the South, often. I did not have access to these types of opportunities.
Kareem Black: I am sorry, what whereabouts?
We spent, a lot of time in Alabama, North Alabama to be exact it is a, Huntsville is the name of the town, about an hour and a half North of Birmingham.
Then we did Texas. We did North Carolina. We were in Germany for a little bit of time, but it was cool, but I am, I was not able to really enjoy it because I was too young. When I hear stories like yours, where it is you grew up, you had this stable home and then you were in a town where, you had, New York was an hour or more away, and then you are in Philly.
You are just centrally located. So, you had access to these amazing mentors. And so, anytime I hear that, I just get excited, because that must have been an amazing thing. you said, you are on set, you are helping a, for real photographer. we are not talking about somebody's uncle.
Kareem Black: I am the luckiest guy I ever met. At the time, I did not realize what this thing was, it was photography is cool. You go in the darkroom. The seed was planted, but I was not for sure going to go to New York at this point. I do not know, who are we when we are in high school?
I was interested in skateboarding and maybe kissing a girl, so it did not start to tie together how these threads tie for the future.
Discovering Photography | The School of Visual Arts
Kelvin Bulluck: Let us go to the point where you are about to graduate from Capitola, and you decide, I want to go to the school of visual arts SVA in New York.
How did that even come about? Did Tim help you?
Kareem Black: My mother, my entire high school career, was in medical school. At first, she was a guidance counselor when I was growing up, but she switched careers to being a doctor. She was not around a lot, and at the end of my sophomore year in high school, she got a job in Detroit, which was great for her because her family's out there that are, and she wanted to move, all of us out to Detroit.
I would finish my other half of high school, she would be with her mother, brothers, and sisters. My dad would be out there, and my sister would be there, and I kicked and screamed and somehow, they allowed me to stay with a friend of the family finish high school.
I am in high school and I am discovering photography. I am falling in love with it. Suddenly, my portfolio is a photography portfolio and my mentor, Phillip Corey, the guy who was into Renaissance painters, he said, you must go to SVA. That is the only place that you should go to. You should get out of Philadelphia.
If it were not for Phillip Corey…..first, if I had moved to Detroit with my family, I probably, after I finished high school would have moved back to Philly. I would have never gone because I would have missed all my friends in Philly.
My family was like, you can stay in Philly, and then Mr. Corey was like, SVA is the only place that you should go. We would go back to people who know more than you. Mr. Corey mentor, of mine, he is like, you should go to SVA, that is the best school. I do not know anything about New York, but Mr. Corey said it. Okay! I want to go to SAV.
Kelvin Bulluck: That makes sense, and it goes back to, you are having these strong mentors in your life that are guiding you. I think it also speaks to; you were lucky.
You found yourself in a situation geographically where you were exposed to these opportunities, but at the same time, it sounds like you were also quite coachable. You took the instruction, and you ran with it, or at least you walked quickly.
Kareem Black: If Mr. Corey were saying it, and my identity back then was with Mr. Corey, he was the only person who I could talk to, who really understood that side of me. If you are talking about going in New York, then in New York, I feel that part of mentorship, a lot of people, that meant a lot to me just having to figure. A lot of people do not have that.
Black SVA Mentors | Refinement Shoot What You Love
Kelvin Bulluck: Moving forward just a bit more, we are talking about this thread of mentors. While you were in SVA, you came across, Austin and Matthew Jordan Smith. From what I have read, I believe you said that they were all about shooting what you love. They would always kind of, tell you guys to shoot what you love.
At that point, when you were hearing that, how did you interpret it and how did that play out in your work? What was it that you loved?
Kareem Black: Now we are at FCA work discovery…. I am 43, so, it is when I am in college, we are in the dark room and there is fixer stop bath, and I am discovering the technical side of photography, but in my junior year I met, Matthew Jordan Smith, who was the first real life black photographer.
It was funny, Tony ward, the guy in Philly, I just found out maybe four years ago, he is half black…. a thousand percent respect either way. Matthew, Jordan Smith was the first black photographer, look like me.
Kwaku Allston's mentor was Matthew John Smith. I met Matthew first, then met Kwaku. He was a little bit closer to my age, maybe six or seven years older.
They taught a class at SVA, and they would say at the end of the class, shoot what you love. It was at that point, it was like, I love what I am doing.
I am just trying to learn because now, I am in the city of nineteen million people in the metropolitan area where all the best photographers in the world come to work. I am not even sure what I love yet. Let me figure out how I do it.
Everybody has got their little projects in college, I did mine and I am trying to figure out what I love. I know I love photography, but I do not know exactly what sort of the delay I know. I like to shoot people. I know, I like to that back and forth on set, now we are trying to refine it happens over the next decade.
What I did know is I do not like, shooting still lives or landscapes. You cannot interact. I do not like that battle that interpersonal relationship.
It was a refining process for me when they were telling me to shoot what I love. Maybe I do not love that, take that off the table.
Kelvin Bulluck: I totally feel that. I think that the very first time I heard something along those lines, I did not really know how to unpack it. What do you mean? I am self-taught, I did have some mentors along the way, but I did not go to school.
Throughout the learning process, I am like, shoot what I love? I think at that time I was also still learning. I was learning photography, but I was also still learning about myself.
I have always been more of a late blossomer when it comes to just about everything. Learning more about myself has helped me learn what it is that I love photographing as well.
It sounds like you were figuring out the photography aspect you were figuring out life in New York, you were figuring out all these things, and it makes sense that you would say that there was a ten-year period after that, where it was a refining process.
That makes perfect sense!
Kareem Black: I think that we all go through it. We all are always going through it. I am 43. It when I was thirty-six, thirty-seven, when I went, I think I know what I want to do. I think I know what my style is. I think I am confident enough.
That is the other thing, confidence, real confidence in yourself. I did a ton of that in my career, but boasting, I think I am a good photographer. I think that I can walk into a situation and figure it out. I think that is what people are hiring me for. It is true. That is true.
SVA vs. Self-taught Photographers | Is a Degree Necessary?
Kelvin Bulluck: On SVA. I remember when I met you, one of the questions I asked you during the break, was regarding, going to school for photography. I was self-taught and I have a couple other friends who are self-taught, but we would have these discussions about, do you think it would be different if we had gone to school for photography? If we got our degrees in that. I asked you, and I think you said something that made perfect sense. It was such low hanging fruit that I never even…..
Kareem Black: I think I said, what I am about to say now, but…
Kelvin Bulluck: You said it was cool, you learned, the technical, with film, but you said, the relationships that you built with the people while you were, there were what you felt were the most important thing from that school, because it helped you, grow and develop and get jobs out of school. I think you said it still was helping you get jobs. That was what I recall you saying.
Kareem Black: I would say the same thing. The relationships are certainly important. I do think that the access to, facilities.
Kelvin Bulluck: You did do say that too!
Kareem Black: You have access to hundreds of thousands of dollars’ worth of equipment.
SVA or any other school is a lot of money, so, it is like, how are you going to make it worth it? I got lucky. I did get a bit of a scholarship to SVA, but I do think that if you are not taking advantage of the facilities there, then that is going to be crazy.
Could people do it now without college? Bro I am sure a lot of people do to be honest, but I do think that there is something to be said, if you talk to me, talk to some of my close friends, [influential people] we are on a group, text me, Matt, Chad.
They are both amazing professional photographers, we speak every day, and we talk about, who is up, who is down where are the jobs at. Hey, here is a contract that I just saw, am I getting ripped off kind of thing?
It is those relationships, and so, I feel it goes back to something that I guess I said in the beginning where it is the relationships, but also learning how to talk about art, learning how to talk about what you are doing.
I feel those vicious critique classes that I hated at SVA, that was horrible. Learn how to defend your work, learn how to talk, tell people what you think is dope about and convince them about it. Is that worth the tuition? I do not know; I really do not know. A lot of Sundays I would just watch F-learn. I am discovering new techniques and retouching, and it is completely free.
With all that said, I would say my college experience is about twenty years ago. I do not know what they are teaching at colleges. If you can. I would, I think I am on that side of it, right? If you can, I would. If you cannot, you might not need to.
Life Post Graduation | From Hustle to Success
Kelvin Bulluck: That makes sense, that is good. You just said a lot and I am not going to be able to unpack all of it, but I also read that while you were in school, you were taking your portfolio around, you were getting your work shown as much as possible, and then you were also working gigs, in school.
What was it once you graduated? Were you able to hit the ground running or was it a bit a slow build to where you were getting, some solid clientele that was, paying the rent and then some?
Kareem Black: The jobs that I was working in school were, a skateboarder. I was a sponsored skateboarder, which means, you are not professional skateboarder, but there is, a benefit factor. There is a sponsor, your sponsor gives you things.
It is sponsored by this skate shop called Swish St. Mark's. They would give me skateboarders, etc. I never skated in a contest, but if there was a contest, I would represent Switch.
For their advertising while I was still in college, I would shoot the basic of the boss's wife. This is my introduction to having my images in paper magazine. The boss's wife knew somebody that ran a magazine called Warp Japan, which was all about DJ’s and live musicians.
During college, I was going out to live shows and shooting DJ’s. That is what was going on in college. None of which I even asked for pay for. Every now and then I would get a check from Japan, weird. I do not know why, I did not invoice, but when I was about to graduate, I understood that no currency and making it was important, and I was not making enough of it.
What do I really know how to do? I am going to try to assist with Tarver's. Which is a good thing. One of the first things going as full, but also, I ride a bike all over New York, I know where everything is, so I am going to be a bike messenger.
A lot of my friends in Philly, there is a whole bike messenger calls, you can do a whole podcast on that. Long story short, I did apply to be a bike messenger. I pass the test and that day I got a call from a friend of mine, that is a couple of years older than me that I met in SVA that became a creative director at Columbia, He said, look, do you want to do a test shoot for new artists? We have, his name is 50 cents. Do you want to shoot this?
First, I am broke. I am trying to become a bike messenger. A thing I did not tell you is I could not I passed the test. I could not become a bike messenger, because back then there were payphones, and you had to have five dollars worth of quarters to call your dispatcher. You have many jobs.
I passed the test, but I could not be a bike messenger because I did not have that money to be a bike messenger, but you must invest a couple of dollars to have the payphone change.
I am like what is going to happen? That is when my boy from Summit Lake Columbia called me about the 50 Cent gig, and that was the first thing that happened. It is what we are talking about.
His name's Julian Alexander, great creative director, great designer, and I knew him from SVA that is where we met. That is a big brother, mine also as another, mentor of mine also. Great black creative director, he has been all over the place, got a company named Slang Inc. now, but if you listen to hip hop between 98 and 2008, you own a couple of his albums.
Kelvin Bulluck: You just talked about that timeframe that you were in 98, 2000 ish, 50 cents it is coming out. I remember I had to be a senior in high school and, I know around that time there was also the tech boom, and then the bust.
How did that impact your work? Were you getting jobs during that time?
Kareem Black: I remember when that happened, tech boom was great for me because you are surfing, this wave comes along, and you just jump on it. When that happened, I am getting jobs, I probably should not be getting, I am not qualified do this, but everybody had a bunch of money, so, who cares?
There is this thing, the internet, and that was very cool while it lasted, but then it burst the bubble. Fortunately for me, I was so new at that point that I had no overhead. I had nothing to lose, so I was not making any money.
Now when I am after the burst, I am not making any money. I am still, the same thing for me, so I think the debt hurt a lot of people, I was too early for it to hurt.
Kelvin Bulluck: You are getting the jobs that happens. All throughout this time, are you trying to shape your career after anybody, or are you just taking the jobs as they come?
Was there a plan or are you more just going….?
Kareem Black: I wanted to be a Kwaku Alston. I told you first black photographer I ever met. He was after Matthew Jordan Smith, but he was the one that was I stayed in touch with, and we related. It was like, that is what I want, and it was relatable. That took my career, 50 Cents, not the album cover test shoot, but now, I am in this music world and we are talking about Source Magazine, we are talking about XXL magazine, talking about a theater, so I am shooting, a bunch of musicians. A couple of record labels things too, but it was all chasing Kwaku. Being inspired by, but also no chasing him.
Kelvin Bulluck: It sounds they, without Kwaku, there really is no Kareem that is interesting.
Kareem Black: I do not know, I think that there is a stage in all our lives where we are undefined, and we do need people that we respect and get along with, who say, I think you should do this.
I have been through it before and you exhibit these strengths, this is what I think you should do. then if you have their relationship with them Where you can say I believe that. I can only speak from a male point of view, but for young men or for me, I needed that. It is like, I got it, and I trust you, and I want what you have.
Parental Influence and Expectation
Kelvin Bulluck: When you were talking about the mentors, I was thinking about your parents again, and the relationship with them being academic types. Your mom going to medical school, how did that play out with the career that you were chasing?
Did they try to pressure you into any other types of careers or were they like, Kareem is great at this, we are just going to let him do his thing?
Kareem Black: You know why I do not want to have kids? Here is the thing, what if I had a kid? It has got to be so hard to have kids, because I was not anything like that. I do not know if I could be as big of a person as my parents were, where it is, they want to be academic.
My cousins went to Princeton, everyone is academic in my family, so it has got to be really ballsy to say, you want to be a photographer or a painter, real off brand.
I do not know if I could do that as a parent, but my parents were always super supportive even though I do not know if they necessarily knew it was not a real box. I think that my mom, she is a really gifted singer and linguist and plays a piano.
I think deep down inside, she has that artist gene, but due to the time when she was coming up, there just was not any opportunities. I feel there is that part in her that is like, let him go. Let him do his thing. I think that I might be living out a little bit of what she wanted to do.
Kelvin Bulluck: That is dope! Last year it was in December, I, I went to a talk that Spike Lee was having in Baltimore, a one thing that stuck with me, he said, nothing kills a dream, more than a parent.
For me, I understand where my parents were coming from. I said, my dad, a cop. Mom was in the army, they grew up in rural North Carolina, working in tobacco fields, growing up, so they saw education as the way to progress. I understand, honestly, they were right in a lot of ways. I have been afforded a lot of opportunities because of the education that I got, but I also feel there were some missed opportunities with the creative side of the house, because I was caught up on trying to chase the dreams that they wanted for me, that I was mediocre. I will not say mediocre. I was good, I was not great.
Then when I picked up a camera and really started to see all my other traits and characteristics awaken, it was like, oh, wow what would it have been like had I started pursuing this in high school?
When I see your story, I think that is probably one example of how it could have gone.
Kareem Black: It was lucky to have them. On one side, I was a terror as a child, but I do not know how much they could have done, but I really do think my mom had a secret, let them go, let them see what happens, and I was lucky for that. I hope my mom watches this.
The Business Side | Marketing Before Social Media
Kelvin Bulluck: I want to just talk about a couple of quick things with your, career, past school. You really seem to have a lock on this whole idea of business and marketing yourself. I saw your, abstract marketing campaigns where you would, put up stickers across the city, this was pre social media.
How did you know to do that kind of a thing? Where are you getting your business acumen from? Most creatives, they tend to be creative, but the business side of the house is lacking.
Kareem Black: I think that on that ground floor question, why was I doing it? I needed to get business. Once you are in the pool, there is no real plan B kind of thing. I am not good at anything else except for this, so, it is this must work. Now you become aggressive at telling people who you are and what you are doing.
Why the abstract marketing? The sticker campaign happened with a friend of mine, my brother, Matt, who I mentioned earlier. It started off as a play on the Basquiat and the Warhol their boxing, whatever, we p**** K-Vans, but then it was, but I was a graffiti writer.
In high school, I am on people's rooms, lowering their property values, running from police. Graffiti's is abstract marketing. As I have grown older, I have been appreciating it less. It was like, why not put my billboard on that wall over there?
Then you go back into the history of Cox and Rev’s, all these sorts of great graffiti writers, but that were not just doing spray paint, they were doing we pay. That is where it came from. It is a billboard for me that I can put on whatever.
It was before social media and it was novel in that way, but it was very invasive and aggressive, and you are going to see my sticker. You might go to my site and that was, graffiti slash, it was that world.
Version: Landing First Campaign
Kelvin Bulluck: Did it help you get some of the bigger campaigns or, how did your first major campaign come about?
I saw that you, your first major one was in 2005, when you had the, the Verizon campaign. How did that come about?
Kareem Black: I think that the Agra DMP track marketing was a thing. I think it was spoken about inside the industry, and I think that is what I was meant to do, and my website was on all.
How I got my first campaign, there are a couple of different kinds of abstract marketing. You could do a hundred other things, but what I would do back then, I would be out at the industry parties shaking hands and kissing babies, was one of the stickers I put out.
As photography is concerned, I think that the actual photography is probably about 15% of it. The rest of it is, can you show up on time, can you come in under budget? Can you market yourself?
I did all the footwork, so, my first ad campaign, it was Verizon or something else, but let us say Verizon, because they happened within a month of each other and the Verizon was a bigger one, which is why I remember. You probably have seen it.
That came from a, amazing woman named Celeste Walters, who I am still in touch with today. We would sing karaoke together sometimes, and I had been to a couple parties, but it is these personal relationships. The first ad campaign came from that.
Woody Allen says 90% is just showing up. A lot of my luck came from just being in the room. They would be there at the industry party, and if you had noticed somebody who's ex-wife, that is how that happened.
Black Photographers and Opportunities |Racism vs. Showing Up in the Room
Kelvin Bulluck: There is this whole conversation, especially now, with people of color, having access to certain opportunities, and being in the room. It sounds, as you said, you have been incredibly lucky. You have had a lot of opportunities. You have made quite a few opportunities as well.
Do you feel you being a black photographer has impacted your opportunities?
Kareem Black: I think that we live in America, racism is a thing, it is a factor. I think that, I give basically everybody the benefit of doubt until proven.
Otherwise, I have been this industry, especially in New York, I think is different than a lot of places. Has raised affected probably, but in both directions.
I have been hired for jobs because I think that people think I would get along with the subject, and as I can tell, because I am black. I have not gotten jobs because it was like, it is a NASCAR thing, and he might not know about it. I am, a big NASCAR fan. I was, but I was not big NASCAR guy. Many people do not know, they would assume that I was not.
Racism is super interesting in this industry. We need to be in the room. Getting in the room is the first step, but that is not the only step. I have benefited from being able, once you are in the room, can you have a conversation? You must charm people in the room.
A lot of people I grew up with, were not listening to Metallica the way I was, so if I am at a party and somebody says something about Metallica, I can join in. If I something about skateboarding…. these things that are not traditionally black.
I have benefited from that being in the room, but also being able to have a conversation in the room.
Kelvin Bulluck: I like how you put that. It places the onus on both parties, because on one end, they need to accept us into the room, and on the other end, we need to be open and willing to step into the room and be, charming.
I think about situations where I find myself in and, I, prior to the pandemic, I would try to make it up to New York, once a month, and I would go to certain events and would think, I do not know how they are going to receive me being black. Then, I get that out of my head.
I start, talking to people and by the end of the night, I am not even thinking about it anymore. On one hand there is racism, no doubt about it, but we do also have to take steps and try to stack the deck in our favor as much as possible.
Kareem Black: If I walk into a room full of black people and I have no idea what they are talking about. Then I am not going to do you…….. I do think at the end of the day in an ideal world, New York is an ideal world than most places, then it is about how you perform, and can you make the other person money? That is the business brain.
Hopefully, When I am in those rooms, that I am proving to you. I am probably going to come in under budget, and I am probably going to relate to the talent, whoever it is, and we are going to make money together.
New York has always been ahead of a lot of places where it is, hire that guy, he is going to make us money. I may hate the guy. There has probably been a bunch of racist dudes that hired me, but I can make the money.
Obviously, I am being myself, it is not on some sellout, it is, do you need a photographer? I am a dope photographer. Okay! I get along……! We are in an interesting situation now, black lives matter, but also Me Too.
There are a lot of, people who are black female and black female photographers, or coming up through the ranks too. Which is dope!
What I would ask and what I would hope for everyone who is a beneficiary of that, is when you get on set, be dope, do what you do to the best that you can do it. I feel that, justifies me. If there is a black photographer that is coming up now that has been given it a look that he or she may not have had before kill that it. That is amazing! The more black photographers there are, the easier it is going to be for me. It is selfish, it is for you, but the more normal it is for me. When I was coming up, it was me, Matthew Kwaku and maybe three other people, it was not awesome, not a lot.
Impacted by the 2008 Market Crash | Lessons Learned
Kelvin Bulluck: You progressed in your career; everything was going fine. You were growing, you were in your groove. 2008 hits and market crash. Every single industry is impacted. What did that mean for you, and how did you overcome?
Kareem Black: I was thinking about this. It is interesting because in 2002 in 2008, my career was this, and everything was fine and dandy. I got a pension for going out and partying, in my twenties, probably living outside my means. It is the first time I had any real money, and a lot of that was spent on dumb stuff.
2008 happened and suddenly, I cannot afford a bunch of nothing, and I am not working a lot, but 2008 was a blessing because it is it brought you back to the nexus of it, why am I here?
I thought I am here because I loved photography. Do you love photography Kareem? Okay, let us do photography. Do you love being a photographer? I was going a little bit in that direction before things crashed.
This is a young guy, who believed what people wrote about it, that was a refocusing moment for me. I take it as a blessing, and I learned a lot. It makes what we are going through right now, which is probably measurably worse, easier.
If I survived 2008, Then I can do this.
Kelvin Bulluck: Hopefully, that seems to be a theme where you are in situations where, you had the bubble, then it crashed. Then you had the economy crash 2008 and now we have this pandemic. You are going to be okay. I am sure you will probably have another style, that comes out of this. I believe I read that during that situation, that it is where your, feels good let us go a static came from.
Kareem Black: Yes, it was like, I have a camera, I do go out, I do know people in these situations, so why am I not photographing? It started to become a body of work and then, fast forward it was a Reebok campaign, Smirnoff campaign. Obviously, I do not think that is organic, I had a great agent then that was helping me to realize that I could, sell that sort of thing.
I would have never known that the pictures I am taking and my friends at parties could be a Reebok campaign.
Kelvin Bulluck: I like that because, there is that recurring theme of other people showing you, and a way, helping you progress without that agent, saying that who knows what would have happened?
Kareem Black: You are right. Strength is knowing what you do not know. For instance, in Matthew and Kwaku’s class, I knew that I did not know a lot. My failing in 2008, was thinking that I knew a lot, banged down a couple pegs and just be open to there are people I know who have been in it a long time, more than you and listen to them or not, but appreciate what they are saying. It is not as straight forward as there are people who say you go here, now go here, do this. It is more, huh, you have a good point, towards what I am doing, and I am not going to take all of it, but I am going to take these pieces. You are getting some good advice and be open for that.
Many people are too vain to not accept, even if it comes in the form of criticism. What are you doing right now? Do not do that anymore. You really do need it, no doubt about that.
Eye Surgeries Explained
Kelvin Bulluck: One other thing that I did come across that I found to be interesting was you have had a series of eye surgeries, right? For me, if I am going through something that, I am thinking, oh my God, the thing that I need most to do, the thing that I love most…….
How do you cope?
Kareem Black: I do not know who I am going to disappoint right now, but they were eye surgeries, but it is not somebody's cutting into my eye. I do not know if you noticed, but I've long eyelashes, and sometimes they get implanted in the….
Kelvin Bulluck: I know what you mean.
Kareem Black: …every few years, I must get them cut out and it is the underside of my eyelid. It is eye surgery in the way that a root canal surgery, but a lot of people hit me up like, oh my God, it is not LASIK. I feel maybe I should make that clearer next time.
The ophthalmologist, he calls it surgery, He also does check for cancer. There is no cancer, but it is not the surgery that I think a lot of people are thinking. It is basically weird, because of my eyelashes.
And it makes a stye, I must get it opened and cut out.
Kelvin Bulluck: Anytime somebody has got to do something where they are going in and they are cutting, somebody might have had a bad night and now I flipped. There is still that element of wow, this could go left.
Kareem Black: If you see the sties that I get, you would rather have the eye surgery. I always tell people that I am, I am not a good enough photographer.
Kelvin Bulluck: I feel you.
Kareem Black: I cannot have this thing, cut it out, please. I must be the one at the party. I must be able to charm people and you cannot if your eye looks weird. Many people hit me up about that and it is not that serious. Maybe I should word it different next time.
Kelvin Bulluck: I am keeping it in. I feel that is something that is important, and it still shapes who you are, even as an artist and your experiences.
Power of the Camera
Last thing, I read a quote, you said this, it speaks to the power of the camera. I am just going to read this quickly.
“It says I live for unique experiences. I love life. I want to see as much of the world as I can before I die. Photography helps me do this, and as a means of recording, documenting, and instigating these adventures.” – Kareem Black
That part where you were instigating the adventures that resonates with me on so many different levels. When I think about how this black box with a mirror in it, and other mechanics has, allowed me to travel internationally and I am looking at sunsets in London and then, I am in Costa Rica and I am in Toronto and I am only here because of this camera.
Kareem Black: I am really feeling my own words but instigating. I think that. The interesting thing about photography is that if you are, taking pictures, of someone and they have agreed to be there, they probably want to be.
I think that a lot of photography is that positive reinforcement and they are feeling good, but you are making them feel good, so you can get what you want out of them. You are, that happens almost in every shoot you are in, you are making it happen, but the greatest photographers make the subject feel they are making it happen, but you are really instigating it.
You are behind the camera the person that you are shooting, see a lens, and there is something romantic for these people and it plays on their ego. They do not know that they are doing stuff, but you are flattering them.
Even if you are not saying anything and nobody is immune to flattery. I think that. Capturing life and moments, but the instigation, that sort of the mental thing that I am super attracted to, I know that I am making you do stuff.
Ninety percent you do not know that I am making you do stuff, but ten percent you know what I need. It is an interesting game that we play with this little box with some glass.
It is an interesting psychological game that we play, and I really enjoy it.
Kelvin Bulluck: Kareem, hey man, I appreciate your time. This was a dope conversation and, there is a confession, when we were in Miami, and I told you, I am in New York quite often because I live in the DC area and I traveled up there, and he [Kareem] said hit me up sometime.
I am thinking to myself; I am never going to hit this guy because I have seen the feels good let us go. I have seen the gently used rooms. I am thinking if I hang with this guy, I will either end up deathly sick or die. I appreciate you for taking the time and, when this is all over, I want to have a drink with you, man.
Kareem Black: We should safely hang out; those days are pretty much behind me. If you are in New York or if I am in DC, let us look up, and let us have a drink. That would be cool.
Show Outro | How to stay Connected
Kelvin Bulluck: All right. That is the show. I hope that you enjoy my chat with Kareem Black. As a reminder, if you go to the website, whatmakesyouclick.com, you can find this episode, you will be able to access the show notes and any useful links that were mentioned, so that you can continue your learning process as always feel free to, and comment on the Instagram and Facebook posts. You can follow us there as well at whatmakesyouclick, and if you enjoyed this episode, please rate and review on iTunes or wherever you get your podcasts.
[Outro Music Playing]