Kwaku Alston has photographed some of the most famous faces in the world—from Hollywood luminaries like Brad Pitt and Robert Downey Jr. to President Barack Obama. After graduating from the RIT School of Photographic Arts and Sciences, Alston moved to NYC, and began shooting for major magazines and ad agencies while still in his early 20s. His editorial and advertising clients include Crate & Barrel, Coca-Cola, Target, Verizon, Real Simple, and Time. He now splits his time between New York and Venice Beach, California, and finds that his passion for photography burns more brightly than ever.
In addition to his ongoing ‘everyday people’ portrait series On White, Alston captures the life and culture that surround him in Venice Beach.
What Matters Most
How did you get started in photography?
My high school photo class is where my passion for photography flourished.
Aside from your camera and lighting, what item could you not work without?
My iPhone and iPad Mini. The iPad Mini is like holding a large-format camera in your hands...with the Internet! I’ve found that I shoot differently when using mobile devices.
What is the weirdest thing that happened on a shoot and how did you handle it?
I was driving with my assistants through Pennsylvania late at night on my way to DC to photograph First Lady Michelle Obama. At 1 a.m., I was pulled over by the police outside Harrisburg and we were forced to sit on the side of the road while they searched our car. Since my crew and I were from California, the officer decided to inspect our car for weed—and it did not help that my license photo was ten years old and pictured me as a rebellious youth with a head full of dreadlocks.
Apparently, the police officers did not believe that tattooed photo assistants dressed in casual attire would be invited to the White House to photograph America’s First Lady.
Amongst all of the drama, all I could think about was how exhausted I was and how this would affect me for the 7 a.m. call time. After sitting on the curb for over two hours with no illegal substances found, they let us go. After we settled back into the car for the long drive, I realized that if I had not risen to the occasion and been respectful during the shakedown, I would have missed the opportunity of a lifetime.
Is there anybody or anything you would love to photograph? Why?
There is an endless list, but off the top of my head: The Dalai Lama, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, the president of Iran, African presidents and sacred places. At this point in my career, I feel it’s more important to do projects that matter to me and complement my personal beliefs. If I can use photography to help change the way people view themselves and their relation to the world, then I've done my job. Now that I am a father, it is important to me for my son to see me passionate about doing what I love and making a difference through my art.
What is your biggest challenge as a photographer?
Although the digital age reduces certain costs compared to days of analog, the cost of storing images never stops. One must always upgrade and stay on top of the technology.
How do you stay inspired?
It’s an amazing gift to be able to live a life where you are happy creating something from nothing. Life, and my family, inspires me.
What’s your favorite quote?
“Peace comes from within. Do not seek it without.” —Buddha
Do you have creative pursuits other than photography?
Besides photography, I also love filmmaking, interior design, archery, horseback riding, and am always inspired by traveling.
What’s on your horizon?
Among other creative photography-based projects, I have branched out to create an online store and am intent on taking that to the next level. It’s an exciting project because it provides the platform to share my creative passion directly with the masses. Every sale, big or small, feels wonderful. While getting paid is nice, the true gift is the affirmation that your hard work and passion are appreciated by people—whether it is complete strangers, co-workers, clients or friends and family. To know these people share your creative interests and passions is priceless and incredibly rewarding.
I am also developing a new charity-based portrait series called Take Two, opening a combination gallery and creative workspace on Abbot Kinney called KwakuShop, continuing the 9 Months pregnancy and fatherhood project, and working on small fine-art films.
Which photographer/s do you most admire and why?
You can’t go wrong with Richard Avedon and Irving Penn’s classic iconic images. I also deeply admire Gordon Parks and the barriers he broke photographically and culturally. Fine-art photographers inspire me by the way they document individuals and communities, like Catherine Opie and Carrie Mae Weems.
What excites you about photography right now?
I love how images are being shared over the web, especially through social platforms like Instagram, Vine, Facebook, etc. There is a major shift in how images are perceived and interacted with—photography has been democratized like never before and everyone has the ability to share what excites them visually. Social media is a strong force that affects everyone, from individuals to corporations. Now we can directly engage with each other via various social media platforms being the link that connects us all. Moreover, artists have the power to begin their careers and show their work on a global level without ever having to leave their studio or home. By utilizing the Internet to democratize the image-making process, almost anyone can be a player in this new era of art making.
What do you think of the photography industry at the moment and where do you see it headed five years from now?
The photo industry is in a constant flux, especially with the convergence of stills and motion being incorporated into photography shoots. Now, clients want photographers to work with stills and motion on the same assignment. While I welcome this creative challenge, it’s like doing two jobs as one—but with very different approaches to the workflow. Another big shift is the way that new technology allows anyone to pick up a camera (whether a mobile device or traditional system) and make photographs. If an image is “good enough,” then Photoshop and post-processing can make it incredible. In this new market, strong concepts and ideas are key in creating fantastic images. Creatives have a lot to offer, and it is important to realize the full potential of that, along with building relationships and experience over the years.
Do you have any advice for people just entering the profession?
Take your time and build a career by making images you care about. If you take every job that comes your way, you may end up diluting your creative well—and we all have to refill our well when empty. You run the risk of draining your energy and hurting your career by overworking yourself for money or being driven by ego. At the end of each year, evaluate what projects inspired you and allowed you the creative freedom you need—and then seek more like them.
What’s one thing you wish you knew when you started your career?
I wish I had pursued a law degree or some kind of financial education when I was younger. To keep your career moving forward, it’s important to understand the technical business side. Many creatives have a hard time dealing with this aspect of the business and it is vital to understand. The best piece of advice I have is to save your money when things are good and use that money to rebuild yourself when things get slow. The photo industry is like a roller coaster; you will have highs and lows. If you accept that fact, then you will be okay.