Cam Kirk on Nurturing Budding Hip-Hop Photographers Out of His Atlanta Studios
In Rae Sremmurd's eerie banger “Real Chill,” off 2016's SremmLife 2, Slim Jxmmi raps, “Can a n---a hold a Cam like Kirk?” He means Cam Kirk, the photographer behind the SremmLife 2 artwork, who has snapped striking portraits of mainstream trap stars, including Young Thug laughing over a bowl of Corn Pops, for years. A past exhibit was based on his cover for Gucci Mane's Trap House III mixtape, while his Slaughter King art helped introduced 21 Savage as an intimidating new rap voice. Jxmmi's question was meant to be hypothetical, of course -- a high compliment. Yet lately, Kirk has been keenly interested in mentoring the next Cam Kirk.
Last July, Kirk opened Cam Kirk Studios in a downtown Atlanta office suite across the street from strip club and hip-hop fixture Magic City. He wasn't satisfied with editing photos out of whatever recording studio producer friend Mike WiLL Made-It booked on any given night, but Cam Kirk Studios is now part office, part photography studio, part art gallery -- with its rotating art and his own Gucci Mane portrait on the walls -- and really, part training ground.
Between shoots for clients like Nike, Adidas and Yo Gotti, Kirk invites novice photographers to book an hour for free. Learning how to shoot takes time, and Kirk allows for that; staff will even guide them through and pose for a shoot, all for the sake of learning.
“I've been a photographer for about six years now, and for four and a half of those years, I was never in studios,” Kirk says. “Not because I couldn't afford one, or I didn't have access. They were intimidating to me as a photographer. These warehouses look so massive. The lights are so big. It's like, where do I start? That's how a lot of young photographers feel coming up. How do I make this work?”
Last year, Kirk also launched Collective Gallery, a nine-week photography school that didn't require tuition or equipment from its five students. While citing the work of Harry Benson, Jonathan Mannion and Petra Collins, Kirk taught them how to find their point-of-view and build a strong portfolio. They gained hands-on experience by snapping Metro Boomin for Atlanta United.
“I was looking for students that I could put on the front line, who were truly taking this opportunity seriously,” he says. “They weren't just looking for Cam to tell them how to get around a celebrity. They'd say, 'I want to learn the technical aspects of photography, and I want to learn the business.'"
Kirk hopes to relaunch Collective Gallery in 2019 with a sponsor or ambassador, after having paid for the first iteration out of pocket. Still, he has already seen his teachings take effect: One graduate, Malik Golar, went on to become Jeezy's full-time photographer. Another, Jon Canon, regularly snaps photos of 21 Savage. Past students have gone from learning at Cam Kirk Studios to booking it.
Despite his father being a pro photographer himself, Kirk only thought to buy his first camera when he wanted a picture with Wiz Khalifa, who he booked for a concert at his alma mater Morehouse College. He even entered the local hip-hop scene six years ago as a videographer, when WorldStarHipHop was king, until the advent of Instagram helped realize the storytelling potential of a single photo. From there, Kirk would sometimes be the only cameraman posted up in Atlanta concert photo pits.
Today, Kirk says that he sees a budding creative class walking in and out his doors, sometimes with their parents. He has told at least one 16-year-old not to skip school to shoot at the studio. Still, he can't help but be impressed by their willingness to take initiative.
“I think the creative community, to me, is getting much younger, picking up on things at a much younger age, which is amazing,” Kirk says. “I mean, at 16, if you're already shooting at photo studios, imagine you at 24. You're going to be a super professional, killing it, whereas I just started shooting at 24. Just to see kids figuring out what they're passionate about early on in life -- it's really exciting to see that through these doors.”