Kanye West is one of my inspirations in life.
[Originally written in 2011, reposting here]:
Although he is hated by many, I love his ability to hustle and constantly innovate when it comes to his music and career.
If you take a look at his work, he continues to innovate while breaking borders in the hip-hop industry.
I feel that street photography is the same. Depending on who you ask, street photography can be controversial as well (depending on your technique).
However there are many things that you can learn from Kanye West that can help you become a better street photographer. Read more and find out.
Back when hip-hop was about baggy clothes and being a gangster, Kanye West was wearing preppy and tight clothes. When people were rapping about guns and hoes, Kanye West put out albums which talked about life and religion (Through the Wire and Jesus Walks). His 808 and Heartbreak album continued to break borders as well as his 30-minute music video for his song “Runaway.”
When it comes to street photography, it is important not to get pigeon-holed into a certain style or methodology. In my older work I shot like Henri Cartier-Bresson, using geometry, backgrounds, and integrating people into the scenes. However nowadays I am fascinated with Bruce Gilden and have been getting extremely close to people while using a 24mm lens and an off-shoe flash.
If you have a new idea, technique, or style in mind– feel free to apply it in your own street photography work. Experiment using different focal lengths, how you approach people, or even how you post-process your images.
2. Borrow ideas from the masters
In many of Kanye West’s songs, he samples from old classic songs like Marvin Gaye, Lauryn Hill, and Nina Simone. However he doesn’t bite off the songs directly, but rather remixes it and creates it as his own. Check out his sample list here.
Let the same apply to your own street photography. As I have been told by Charlie Kirk, consume tons of photography books and draw inspiration from the masters.
Study the work of Henri-Cartier Bresson, Brassai, Helen Levitt, Robert Frank, Weegee, and many more. Don’t try to re-create what their shots look exactly like, but use similar focal lengths (Henri Cartier-Bresson’s 50mm or Bruce Gilden’s 21-28mm) and try to experience what they did.
3. Be controversial
Kanye West is definitely one of the most controversial musicians in the entire industry. From his George Bush Incident to his Taylor Swift debacle, everyone in the news is always talking about him. Although this garners him a large number of haters, it helps get his message spread and overall makes him more popular. In a strange way, his over-exuberance is even darling.
“Following the rules” of street photography can often be boring. Try to create images that shock, entertain, or even amaze your viewers. Get extremely close to your subjects, use a flash, shoot in extraordinary places, or get fascinating reactions from your subjects. Although you will get criticism from others for creating controversial images, your work will inevitably reach a larger audience.
4. Don’t let the haters get to you
Kanye West is also probably one of the most criticized rappers in the world. Whenever he tries something new (singing with an auto-tune or wearing preppy clothes) he always has a large number of critics who try to put him down. However he keeps his head up high and sticks with whatever he does, regardless of what others say.
Apply the same ideology when it comes to your street photography. Don’t shoot for others–shoot for yourself. Shoot what makes you happy, rather what will appeal to the general crowd. If you are constantly out there to please others, you will inevitably make yourself miserable. Although you want to take helpful criticism from others, disregard overtly negative and unhelpful comments.
Kanye West never rests when it comes to his career. Not only is he a talented producer and rapper, but he also owns his own record company and has many business ventures on his place (starting his own clothing line, collaborations with Nike and Louie Vuitton, and even owns a chain of restaurants). Also early-on in his career, he would constantly make new beats for artists every single day and would always be on the hunt to make new connections or get his music out there.
If you want to become a better street photographer, hustle and shoot street photography every day. Yes, everyday. I believe it is better to shoot consistently everyday for even 15 minutes than shooting for several hours only on the weekends. By building your consistency of shooting, you will continue to improve your craft and start seeing the world in a more profound way.
Although Kanye West has an ego the size of a planet, he doesn’t do all of his work alone. He has collaborated with many other artists including Jay-Z, Lupe Fiacso, Dr. Dre, Nas, Talib Kweli, and many others. By collaborating with all of these artists, he created invaluable connections which strove him to create even better work (while getting his name out there).
Considering collaborating when it comes to street photography as well. Find other street photographers you look up to and meet up with them and shoot with them. Whenever I am shooting with fellow street photographers, not only do I feel more confident in the streets, but I push myself to capture better images. Also by having other street photography collaborators, they can give you helpful comments and critiques on your work which will make your photos more memorable as well.
7. Strive for the best
Kanye West has a weird obsession for being the best at what he does, which is producing and rapping. Although he does let it get to his heads at time, he always strives for excellence in his work, and it truly pays off. Almost all of the songs that he releases in his albums are huge hits and his new albums always have a ton of buzz.
When it comes to your street photography strive for only the best as well. When you decide which images to upload to Flickr or your portfolio, only choose your best images. Be fastidious about editing and don’t let any “so-so” images through your filter. People judge you based on the first few images that you show, so make sure to let every image count. Remember, it’s all about quality not quantity.
If you have ever attended a Kanye West concert (or know anybody else who did) they are entertaining as hell. Kanye West doesn’t put you to sleep. Rather, he amps you up and gets you singing and rapping along to his songs. The energy of his concerts really pump up the entire crowd which turns out to become a feedback loop. Kanye West gives the crowd energy, and they give him energy back.
Apply the same thought to your street photography. Nobody likes to see boring images. Shoot images that are interesting to look at and entertaining. Apply humor to your photos and make your viewers laugh. If you look at the images of Craig Semetko, they make you confused by what’s going on but are often hilarious. Oh yeah, and did you know that Craig used to be a comedic actor and writer for about 20 years? Don’t shoot photos that put your viewers to sleep.
9. Share your soul
Kanye West shares a lot of his personal life with his audience and listeners. In his song “Hey Mama” he pours out his soul and love for his mother. In another one of his songs “Roses” he describes the story of his dying grandmother. Kanye West does come off as an arrogant and cold bastard at times, but he is definitely human like the rest of us. Even in his new song “Runaway” he has a line that tells everyone to “…have a toast for the douchebags” (ultimately referring to himself).
Show soul and emotion in your street photographs. Don’t make cold and lifeless images. Take photos that jump out at the viewer and touches them in some certain way. Tell a story that reminds you of your childhood or something you may have experienced in life. Let your viewers experience what you are experiencing. People love to relate.
10. Be political
Kanye’s YEEZUS album is one of my favorite songs. It is extremely political.
He talks about for-profit prisons, institutionalized racism, and the KKK (through BLKKK SKIN HEAD).
Ultimately, he wants to make political and social change through his music. He wants to empower people, and to remind us, that we have the power (already) within us — we just need to let it loose:
If you need to empower yourself, listen to ‘ALL DAY’ before you shoot. Or listen to ‘BLACK SKINHEAD’. Empower yourself.
For inspiration, learn from these contemporary titans: