How Shervin Lainez Started a Career In Music Photography -- With No Training

Shervin Lainez
Ani DiFranco

Shervin Lainez

Since moving to New York City from Washington D.C. in 2010, Shervin Lainez hasn’t stopped grinding. As one of the most in-demand portrait photographers for musicians, Lainez’s work has been featured in Apple ad campaigns and on albums by Ingrid Michaelson, Sara Bareilles and Emily King. He has shot everyone from Courtney Love to Walk the Moon, and continues to dedicate his time to giving musicians the best possible portraits for their projects.

Billboard recently sat down with him as he reflected on the past eight years in New York with no formal photography training, and how female singer-songwriters turned his world upside down.

How did you become interested in photography?

I loved going to shows in D.C. I kind of became obsessed: I couldn’t write or perform music, so I kept asking myself how I could contribute. I carried gear, sold merch — I was the guy who just said, “Use me.” I didn’t always want to be a photographer, but I always knew I wanted to work with musicians. Since I couldn’t make music, I thought, maybe I could be a publicist, a manager, but I realized that the biggest way I could contribute was visually.

At some point in my early twenties, I thought, “Hey, maybe I can take pictures.” I went to college for communications, and I had never taken a photography class in my life. It’s a cool story, but there are people who are real photographers who have degrees [in photography], and when they hear that, they’re like, “Yikes.” People work for forever to have careers in photography: they go to school, they intern, they assist [more established photographers], and I never did any of that. I literally just thought, “I should take pictures,” and I started doing that.

Shervin Lainez
St. Vincent

Why did you decide to move to NYC?

Eventually, I outgrew D.C. — there’s only 20 or so local bands there — so someone told me to move somewhere else. I thought that L.A. was too far, so I picked New York. I came here not knowing anyone. It was a very gradual, organic process, because I moved here blindly. There was no anxiety surrounding my move — I just picked up and left. Of course, looking back, that seems crazy, but at the time, it didn’t seem like a big deal. When I think about how uneducated I was, I realize that I just took a leap of faith. I didn’t know anybody here and I had no “in,” but I had a website full of photos of D.C. bands and I hoped that someone would let me shoot them.

So how did you get started in New York?

I shot anyone who would let me for free; anyone who was a musician and would let me photograph them, I did. I needed to build a portfolio here, and that’s how I met people. It was sheer persistence. [I mostly shot] local indie bands and singer-songwriters. I had no access to big artists. Think any young, female singer-songwriter who played Rockwood Music Hall, those were the first people who opened themselves up to me in that way. I took a year of shooting as much as I could, adding those photos to my website, meeting managers, and about two years after moving to New York, I started really getting work.

It’s funny that you mention female singer-songwriters, since you’re so closely associated with some of the best, including Sara Bareilles, Ingrid Michaelson, and Regina Spektor. Would you say you’re partial to shooting female singer-songwriters?

Honestly, if I shot nothing but female musicians [and singer-songwriters] for the rest of my life, I would be 100% content with that. They are the most giving subjects, and they were the first people to allow me to have access to them. They were the most trusting [in my work]. [Shooting female musicians] is what I’ve done the most, and what I love to do the most. And because of people like Regina, Ingrid, and Sara, I have been able to shoot more women, because [up-and-coming singer-songwriters] love and respect them. It’s definitely been my vibe.

Who were the first few big artists you photographed?

When I first moved to New York, my roommate was randomly friends with Ingrid Michaelson. I couldn’t believe it, I kept saying, “Wow, you know a famous person.” I came from such a small scene, so I was determined to shoot Ingrid. I was so stubborn — I’m a Virgo, we’re all assholes. I showed her my stuff, and it took around six months, but I finally got to shoot her. We got along really well, and she told me she wanted to put my photo on her record, and — I was so young — I was like, “Yup, I’ve made it! That’s it for me!” It was the first thing I did, and I was like, “I’m a star.”

I got a big chip on my shoulder very early, and New York very quickly showed me that you can think you’re a big shot all you want but no one actually cares. She was a great entry point for me into the industry, though. I shot this Canadian band, Metric, after, and word kind of spread from there. Bands started letting me shoot them, and I was doing it for super cheap — basically free.

And Regina Spektor kind of changed my life. She was the first artist I shot where the photo went international. The biggest thing was that when Apple released a new iPod in 2012, they used Regina’s album cover that I shot as the promo photo on the iPod. The photo was on billboards, it was everywhere. People emailed me from that, saying, “I saw your Regina photo. I love your work, I love her, let’s work together.” It was the first time that something like that happened, and I started to pick up steady work from it.

[Regina] let me into her life in such a big way: she said, “Anytime you want to come with me, just come and take pictures.” She would do late night talk shows, like Letterman and Conan, and just let me shoot it. It was such a big thing for me to be legitimized in that way. Her label started asking me to shoot other artists, magazines would use her photos and credit me... Everything just sort of spiraled from there, and it was the first time I experienced what it’s like to have your photos everywhere. It was a really big moment for me.

Why do you only photograph musicians?

I thought that taking photos was the best way I could contribute to a musician’s project. The day that I [decided that that was what I wanted to do], I became obsessed with it. Musicians are all I have ever photographed. I feel like what you do early on in your career is what determines what you do as an adult. Had I started off shooting actors, I would probably still be doing that. But there’s something really special about music and the people that make it. It’s a really narrow lane, only shooting [musicians]; it’s really specific. But because [I only shoot musicians], it’s become my specialty and people come to me for it now. It’s cool: I only shoot only the things that I want to because I’ve only ever shot the things that I wanted to.

Shervin Lainez
Troye Sivan

It seems like you’ve shot everyone at this point. How have you kept such a low profile?

I don’t try and get attention on social media; I’m not that great at it. I don’t use hashtags, I don’t really engage [with my followers]. A lot of photographers are flashier than me — they take pictures with the artists and hashtag the artists’ names — but I just don’t really care. At the end of the day, it’s not about me. It’s about getting the artist’s vision across and telling their story how they want it told.

So now that you’ve been doing this for a while, what’s next? Do you want to continue freelancing? Any plans to join a publication?

I really love being my own boss. I would love to art direct shoots, or shoot features for magazines. I remember I did a cover shoot [for a music publication] with Panic! At the Disco, and there were just a lot of rules. I think it’s a cool challenge for me to work within those parameters, since I’m so used to shooting just one-on-one with the artist. I promise, I’m going to shoot a Billboard cover one day. [Laughs.]