Zetgeist Award Winning Photo
Darkest Hour at 20th Anniversary Show at DC Brau in Washington, DC
Photographer spotlight: Chris Suspect
"Photograph the music you love, introduce yourself to the musicians in that scene, and become friends." - Chris Suspect
Our third article in this series casts a spotlight on photographer Chris Suspect, who won the award for our Zeitgeist category.
This category tasked photographers with capturing THE image that defined music in 2021. THE picture that makes you stop. Makes you think. Makes you feel. A visual statement of music in 2021. We look through the lens to celebrate the photograph that captured a moment in time, the mood, the spirit of the year. An image of the year in music that could be remembered for generations to come.
Chris Suspect specialises in capturing absurd and profound moments in the quotidian. His street photography work has been recognized internationally and has been exhibited in Miami, Belgium, Germany, Italy, Romania, Georgia, United Arab Emirates, and the United Kingdom.
Suspect’s work has been featured in Rolling Stone, the Huffington Post, Photo District News, LFI Magazine and on the Leica Camera Blog. He also has published photographs in the Washington Post, Washington City Paper, CNN, The Atlantic, Forbes and many other media outlets in the US, Germany, Canada and Brazil.
We sat down with Suspect to learn a little more about his approach to the camera and his journey within the industry so far.
How did you fall into photography, and music photography specifically?
I actually didn’t fall into music photography until later in life. After the birth of my son, we got a camera for family photos. While learning how to use it, I decided to revisit my past. I was 14 years old when I went to my first concert, it was a punk show in Washington, DC. Since that moment I was hooked on the energy I experienced. I saw many more shows and then wound up playing and touring in my own bands. It seemed only natural to revisit the music I loved growing up when I started learning the camera.
And was there a particular image or body of work that was a major inspiration when starting out?
As far as music photography goes, I had a copy of Glen Friedman’s Fuck You Heros and Cynthia Connolly’s Banned in DC. Both books were instrumental, but then I started checking out work by Arthur “Weegee” Felig, Robert Frank, Garry Winogrand and Lee Friedlander. The combination of these artists really taught me how to look at and consider the images I was taking at shows.
What makes a good subject in music photography and what makes a good music photographer?
I find the best subjects are those that inspire you personally. If I am into the band or artist, I am more inclined to be creative or experimental with the shots. I think a good music photographer is one that is not afraid to get close and strongly considers all of the elements that go into a frame, from gesture, composition, light, juxtapositions, subject(s), semiotics, humour, etc.
What advice would you give to someone getting started?
Photograph the music you love, introduce yourself to the musicians in that scene, and become friends. From here your access and approach will grow. Over time you will build a network that will help you.
Also, look at other genres of photography and study the work of the masters. Photographic knowledge can be applied to almost any situation.
How does your approach differ when working with upcoming talent versus established artists?
It doesn’t really. People ask me to photograph because they like my style and have an expectation of what I do. They want a Chris Suspect photo.
Do you think there’s a genre of music that naturally lends itself to powerful portrait photography?
Absolutely not. Many great photographers have made many great portraits of all sorts of musicians. Honestly, the music is secondary. While it may influence the portrait, you are not going to hear it.
Do you have a preference of working on location/on tour vs in a studio? How easy is it to create “tour energy” in a studio? How easy is it to get “studio focus” on tour/on location?
My preference is to work on location. I love the challenge. Of course, it is definitely easier to capture tour energy on location, but there is often so much downtime between sets and shows that getting studio focus is not too tough either. The challenge is finding creative backdrops.
On the flip side, it is much harder to get tour energy in a studio (both music and photography studios). I attribute that to the fact that there is no audience energy to feed off.
I often find myself trying to turn introverts into extroverts and vice versa! LOL, I am always interested in getting something unexpected out of my subjects.
Have you ever been starstruck when photographing someone? How do you overcome that?
Since I started when I was older and had already met a lot of my music heroes before photography, I never get starstruck. It’s like, I have a job to do and so do they. For me, I consider them my professional peers.
How has social media shaped music photography, both as a craft more generally, as well as your personal work?
This is a really interesting question. I have a good friend that shoots a lot of Latin pop stars. He’s convinced that in this day and age, all an artist wants is a good headshot because that’s how we consume music. Our only visual connection to anything we listen to these days is a thumbnail. And this idea also expands to a lot of other photography as well.
I think it’s unfortunate, because more complicated imagery that deserves to be seen larger doesn’t get its due thanks to the size of our phones.
However, I don’t let this stop me from trying to push the boundaries of more involved work. I am shooting for large prints in books and on gallery walls, not what will get me more likes on Instagram.
Who is someone, alive or dead, you’d love to photograph?
I would have loved to have photographed Joe Strummer and The Clash back in their early days.
In one word, how would you describe your photography?
How did it feel to be nominated in the Abbey Road Studios Music Photography Awards 2022?
It was amazing! And, it’s a great honour to be in the same presence as so many other innovative and creative artists.
Have there been any benefits to you since being nominated?
Yes, family, friends and photography people are delighted that I won the Zeitgeist award. And, it has opened a couple unexpected doors for me.
What have you been doing since the awards? And what do you hope is next?
Other than shooting bands, I have been working on some conceptual art projects in Mexico that are starting to come to fruition. I also have a Day of the Dead workshop I am leading in Oaxaca, Mexico this year.