Cam Kirk is seated on the couch inside his photography studio next to a window that overlooks Atlanta’s famed Magic City strip club. The space is decorated with photos from Kirk’s career — including the renowned black and white shot of Gucci Mane holding a rifle — the framed pictures highlighting the photographer’s accomplishments like platinum records on a music exec’s walls. On this day, two young photographers are working in the space. Despite Kirk’s reserved, fly-on-the-wall persona, he has become a major figure in the Atlanta hip-hop scene with national recognition, while acting as a mentor to photographers like the two men here today, who are inevitably looking to replicate his success. And he knows providing a place for rising talent to shoot is just a small part of helping them.
Much like the rappers Kirk’s photographed — Gucci Mane, Young Thug, Migos, Lil Baby, Metro Boomin and 21 Savage among them — since he got his start in nearly a decade ago, his career has grown to include merch, brand partnerships and live activations. Now, inspired by the record label model, Kirk is launching a “label” for photographers called Collective Gallery, where he plans to provide signees with a monetary advance and the support to execute projects.
“We’re modeling it mainly off of the business structure and model of the typical music label. We wanted to make it a clear distinction, that we’re not just trying to be another photography agency, we’re actually trying to push the narrative further and show that musicians shouldn’t be the only artists signed to labels,” he says. “Why not extend some of these resources to other creatives that have the same influential power and backing, and that are providing the same type of substance to the culture?”
Kirk and his Collective Gallery team — president John Rose, vp Aurielle Brooks, director of business operations Kyle Bailey and head of A&R Marley Miller — are currently running the new company with their own funding, pointing to the advance they’re offering artists as the main difference between Collective Gallery and more traditional photography agencies. “I could buy jewelry, car, house [or] whatever. But this to me is a bigger play,” Kirk says. “This is the impact. And this is something that can actually change the world.”
Now 30, Kirk first moved to Atlanta from Prince George’s County, Maryland to attend college at Morehouse College where he majored in marketing. Kirk grew up watching his photographer father shoot weddings and special events, among other things. Still, it wasn’t until he booked Wiz Khalifa for a show on campus and realized he hadn’t taken any pictures during the event that he took up photography.
Since then, Kirk has become one of the defacto documentarians of Atlanta’s hip-hop scene, parlaying that into work with brands such as Nike and Adidas, a merch collection with clothing and camera straps, and exhibits such as the wildly successful “Trap God” photo show honoring Gucci Mane that was held in an East Atlanta church in 2015. Today, there are a number of notable photographers who have made names for themselves in hip-hop, but when Kirk first started this wasn’t the case. He says he struggled to get agencies and brands to understand that the genre could be a vehicle for marketing.
“Now everybody wants a hip-hop photographer, which is a blessing for me because I’ve been able to shoot a lot of global campaigns as a result of it,” he says. “But at the time when we were reaching out to agencies, they just didn’t take hip-hop photography or hip-hop art serious.”
There’s been a learning curve to this business, too. Kirk says he didn’t monetize the “Trap God” show the way he could’ve, missing opportunities for merch, a longer exhibition, a traveling version, or even charging a door fee. “We look at other exhibits that popped up as a result of that or inspired by that,” he says. “The Trap Museum [has] been up for a year now. It’s a direct reflection of what Trap God could have been or evolved into.”
With Collective Gallery, Kirk and his partners will take the lessons they’ve learned over the past almost-decade and provide young photographers the tools they need to execute projects to their fullest potential. To that effect, Collective Gallery is a direct result of Kirk’s career so far, but also the mentoring opportunities he’s created for rising talent. “A lot of photographers get caught in that hamster wheel of constantly providing a service for other people,” he says. “But can [they] do that while at the same time building [their] own entity over here? That’s what we try to get people to do.”
Two years ago he opened Cam Kirk Studios, where he says he now has 400 bookings a month, ranging from shoots with rappers such as Gunna recently to novice photographers looking for a place to work and possibly network with hip-hop’s powerplayers. In addition to hosting A-list and rising talent, the studio offers free hour-long sessions, making the space both exclusive and accessible.
Around this time, Kirk also launched a free nine-week photography camp, also called Collective Gallery, that trained six photography students on shooting inside and outside a studio, creative directing, styling and working with artists. They even got to shoot a session with producer and artist Sonny Digital. One of the participants went on to become a photographer for rapper Jeezy. “I always wanted to create some sort of fraternity type of thing where we could come together without the fear of competition and be able to share ideas, and create an ecosystem of support for one another,” Kirk says.
Collective Gallery plans to sign its first photographer in the coming months, but right now the team is focused on getting the word out — even if that means others pick up on the idea and run with it themselves.
“I’m gauging success of this concept [based on] the overall landscape of the photography industry and not just particularly my company,” Kirk says. “If my company only has one photographer, to me, that’s not as successful as if my company has one [and] five other labels have 10. Even if [another company has] more than us, now the playing field is starting to even out.”
When you’re coming up appreciate every inch of success and progression as you make your way to the top.
It was always obvious to me that photography was my calling because it was the easiest thing I have ever tried to master. Plus my name is literally “Cam” so it should have been obvious so much sooner.
I never had a problem working with others because I have always been confident in my own abilities and never feel threatened by providing opportunities to others.
Something most people don’t understand is life is a marathon and not a sprint. Too many people are focused on the now and are not planning for the long game.
I am learning how to be a boss and how to manage my empire and scale business. Working as a photographer I have spent most of my career working solo and now I am adapting to life with employees and a staff.
Spotlight is a Billboard Business series that aims to highlight those in the music business making innovative or creative moves, or who are succeeding in behind-the-scenes or under-the-radar roles. For submissions for the series, please contact firstname.lastname@example.org.