He’s Cool Like That: Q&A with Celebrity Photographer Kareem Black

I always wanted to be one of the cool kids with cool being spelled with a capital K because..it’s just more cool. I always wanted to be a part of the hip and happening set. The folks that party like rock stars and look like fashion royalty.

But alas, I’m not cool. Perhaps, it’s because I’m awkward combination of book nerd, TV addict and whatever happens when you mix sugar and spice and everything not so nice with Harlem swagger.  An “interesting” combination, yes. Cool? No.

Unlike yours truly, photographer Kareem Black gets to hang out the cool kids like it’s his job to do so. Oh wait, it is his job. And he does it well. Kareem’s subjects have included our favorite messy play cousin, Bravo’s Andy Cohen, R&B singers Chris Brown and Cee-lo, the fabulous Amanda Lepore, a romantic M&M, a Burger King on a bear skin rug, and the delightful madness that is the Lower East Side.

So this nerdy girl asked to have an audience with Kareem who, not only gets to hang with the cool kids, is a cool kid himself.  I’ve been a fan of Kareem’s for a while following him on Facebook, Twitter, Tumblr and checking out his websites. (I know it sounds like I have stalker tendencies, I don’t…Really, I don’t).  What makes Kareem so cool is that he’s fun, funny, accessible, intelligent, and oh so very talented.

In between shoots, Kareem took a break to answer some questions giving insight into his work, which is his art, and the coolness that is Kareem Black.

Amanda Lepore (photo: Kareem Black Photography)
Photo: Kareem Black Photography

The Ride: Hey Kareem! Thanks for taking the time to chat with me. Love your work. Let’s get this party started.  Complete this sentence: I knew I wanted to be a photographer when…

Kareem: I was always a visual person. Before I photographed, I painted for years and drew comics for years before that. I think photography is just the most recent manifestation of what ever my artistic journey is…Not to sound too artsy, but ya know…

Photo: Kareem Black Photography
Photo: Kareem Black Photography

The Ride: Describe your style of photography. Who or what has influenced it?  From the looks of things, it seems to be heavily influenced by the downtown, LES (Lower East Side) scene.

Kareem: Well like most people there are a few sides to me. I do live in the LES and have for years so that is a very strong influence on me artistically and lifestyle wise. It can really be best seen in my new site WWW.FEELSGOODLETSGO.COM where I’m really running around with my G10 and shooting the strangest of situations and shenanigans that I find myself in on a regular basis. That site is turning out to be sort of NY/downtown/fun-centric. It’s what I see when I go out at night. But there is a side of me that is a giant fan of the great photographic masters like Avedon, Eggleston, Penn and Leibovitz. That part of me loves more composed images that are more about shape, color, composition, and light. That sorta of work you can find on my main site WWW.KAREEMBLACK.COM

Photo: Kareem Black Photography
Photo: Kareem Black Photography

The Ride: How nervous were you on your first celebrity shoot? Or maybe you weren’t nervous at all.  By the way, who was your first celeb and what was it for?

Photo: Kareem Black Photography
Photo: Kareem Black Photography

Kareem: The first celeb I ever shot was KRS-One and it was for the cover of On The Go magazine in 1999. The fact that I was photographing KRS-One didn’t make me nervous but the fact that I was in college and I was shooting for the cover of a magazine did make me extremely nervous. I had a sense that if I f**ed that shoot up my career would have been killed before I was even in its infancy… or at least that’s how I felt at the time. I think a good photographer is somehow always scared of the fact that his or her career may end at any moment…It drives you.

The Ride: How do you make people feel comfortable in front of the camera?

Kareem: I just try to be myself.

Kayne West (photo: Kareem Black Photography)
Photo: Kareem Black Photography

The Ride: I read that you graduated from SVA (School of Visual Arts). Both my sister (who’s a photojournalist) and I (who is a whatever) took a few classes there. Why SVA?

Kareem: A teacher I had in high school in Philly, a great painter, Philip Corey, suggested I go to school in NYC. I think I applied to a few: Parsons, Pratt, etc., but SVA gave me the biggest scholarship. I think it was the correct decision. SVA is in the middle of everything. I learned a lot there.

The Ride: What are the advantages of going to an art school versus going to a “regular” college/university and getting a degree in something more “traditional”?

Kareem: I don’t know. I’ve never gone to a regular college so I really don’t have an experience to compare art school to. I would say this however: The diploma that you get from art school is basically worthless. It can’t be used on a resume and in the art world one’s commercial worth isn’t really based on it. I believe one must take as much time to perfect and work on one’s craft in art school as he or she possibly can because after you graduate that’s all you really have. Conversely, a Harvard diploma seems to be something that has weight and can open doors. My BFA from SVA hold no comparable credentials. I’m judged on my body of work. Know what I mean?

Photo: Kareem Black Photography
Photo: Kareem Black Photography

A bit of randomness…

Favorite comedians(s)

Dave Chappelle, Norm MacDonald, My boy Howard, Adam Carolla

Location of your favorite park bench

When I first moved to NYC, I would sit at the feet of the Twin Towers in the little area that was between Tower One and Tower Two. It was a great peaceful place to think at night. Obviously, I haven’t been there in a decade. I also love (to this day) to go down to Washington Square Park when it’s warm and hang out with all the chess players. I know all those guys and have for years. Really amazing people down there with great stories.

Favorite energy drink

Beer

How do you like your hamburgers?

Medium Rare

Is about “working hard” or “working smart”?

Kareem: Both.

The Ride: I love the Rocky theme song. Iconic. It really gets your juices going even after all these years. If I had a theme song, mine would be  “Hustlin’” by Rick Ross or “Run this Town” by Jay-Z featuring Rhianna & Kanye West.  What would be your theme song?

Kareem: “Run like Hell” by Kittie, “Ignorant” by Jay-Z, “Satellite Mind” by Metric

Andy Cohen (photo: Kareem Black Photography)
Photo: Kareem Black Photography

The Ride: And now an Oprah moment:  What would you say to the young Kareem?

Kareem: 1) Don’t ride a racing bike drunk. 2)  Invest time in memory strengthening exercises. 3)  Be more aware of the feelings of others. 4) Don’t fear or apologize for what you are ever.

The Ride: On a super serious note, you traveled to Haiti with a group of artists to document the devastation following the earthquake.  What was that like? I can’t even imagine. How has the experience changed you as a person?

Kareem: I hate to sound dark when I talk about Haiti, but it’s the first place I’ve traveled to where I felt such a lack of hope. It’s a place where, without drastic action by the international community, I could see it becoming a failed state like Somalia or something. I’ve been to “third world” countries all over the world including Sri Lanka right after the tsunami in 2004 and I’ve NEVER seen anything like Haiti. It really leaves you feeling helpless and wanting to just save who you can from that hellhole. Honestly, I think Haiti made me a more cynical person, more jaded and very aware that some stories won’t have happy endings…at least not for a looong while.

The Ride: How has it informed your art?

Kareem: To be honest, I’m not sure if it has. Haiti was sort of a traumatic experience for me that, for the most part, I try not to think about. The group I went down with is doing an art show at the end of the month to gather money for the charity that sponsored us to go down and that feels good;  but in a larger sense I don’t think it changed the way I approach my work that I’m aware of at this juncture.

The Ride: I’ve noticed that you support/promote the work of friends/colleagues more than you promote your own. What would those friends/colleagues say about you?

Kareem: Well yes, its true, I love and support my friends as well as the art of those that I respect. I love the notion of a community of artists. But it’s also true that I promote myself in a pretty hardcore fashion. I’m a total press whore (We are speaking, aren’t we? *smiles* ) I love the strategy of self promo. I love the game of playing the game. It’s like chess. I like marketing, I guess. My friends push me hard as well. I think that we all realize that it takes a village. I have their backs and they have mine. Strength in numbers sort of thing.

Photo: Kareem Black Photography

The Ride: Tell me more about FeelsGoodLetsGood.com. It’s a cool web address and I love the photos on the site. I get the feeling that it’s like a movement in the be loud and proud vein. Right? Wrong? So far off the mark it’s crazy?

Kareem: Feelsgoodletsgo.com is what I shoot at night. I have two sites: www.kareemblack.com is the main site. That’s what I shoot during the day and for commerce. It’s all celeb, advertising, published work etc. Feelsgoodletsgo.com is me out at night with my mates having fun in downtown Gotham. The concept of it is about a year old although up until a few weeks ago it was called something else. I see a lot of strange things in my adventures and I love recording them. That’s what FGLG is.

Photo: Kareem Black Photography
Photo: Kareem Black Photography

The Ride: When I was a bitter younger woman, I had a button that read, “When I die bury me upside down, so the whole world can kiss my ass.” I thought it might be my epitaph should I meet an untimely demise.  What would you want as your epitaph?

Kareem: He lived smart. He worked hard. He died with out debt, He died without regret.

The Ride: I love my life because…

Kareem: Honestly, it really is a lot of fun.

Thanks Kareem for an awesome interview.

Kareem Black

Kareem Black on Twitter (@kareemblack). Kareem Black on Tumblr (Part Megatron, Part Vagabond), Kareem Black’s Websites (Kareem Black Photography Feel Good Let’s Go)


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