Photographer Spotlight: Kaj O'Connell
This week in our spotlight series we welcome 23-year-old photographer Kaj O’Connell, who was nominated in our In The Studio category for his intimate shot of Canal Kn!ght and Knock Monsterr taken at his makeshift home studio.
Born in Berkeley, California, Kaj currently attends UC Santa Cruz as a student of Philosophy. With a vision all his own, he documents the intimacy of his early adult life. In this piece, Kaj touches upon how it felt to be nominated for this year's awards, his biggest inspiration and much more.
How did it feel to be nominated in the Abbey Road Studios Music Photography Awards 2023?
It was a great honour and a shock. I knew how many people were applying and to be recognised out of the crowd like that felt incredibly validating.
Why do you think it is important to create a platform like the MPAs to showcase music photography?
The art-world has always been gate-kept. With the rise of social media and with the help of incredible platforms like the MPAs, the barrier between the hidden talents of the world and the upper levels of artistic recognition begin to dissolve.
Have you seen any benefits to you since being nominated?
The greatest benefit is just the validation. I have a list on my phone of every single competition, gallery, zine, newspaper, etc. that I apply to and I write whether I was accepted or rejected next to the name. It’s not an anger thing at all, it’s just a way of keeping track of how much work you put in, and how much rejection it takes in order to see success. The acceptance rate is definitely less than 10%. But that’s the funny thing, you finally get accepted by a competition like the MPAs and people don’t see all the other things you applied to and were denied from. It requires so much fruitless labour to see any progress.
How did you fall into music photography specifically?
I’m not a music photographer per say - I just had a photo of my friends in the studio and knew it was perfect for the MPAs.
Was there a particular image, body of work or photographer that was a major inspiration when starting out?
Seeing Vivian Maier’s work was my first real “wow” moment for me as a kid getting into photography. This photograph specifically was the first time I thought “Damn... That’s the goal, that’s the direction”.
What makes a good subject in music photography and what makes a good music photographer?
I couldn’t tell you, I think photographs and photographers are a case by case phenomena. You think you have some rule for or against something and the next day you see a kid breaking that rule in the best ways possible.
What advice would you give to someone getting started?
Buy a cheap digi-cam. Modern cameras tend to be soulless, embarrassing to take out, frustrating, and expensive. Shooting film handicaps new photographers by not allowing them to practice their eye frequently enough. The initial learning curve of photography is all about trial and error - when you’re worried about how much each frame is going to cost you, you have very little room to develop your eye. So buy a cheap digicam and bring that little thing everywhere you go. Print your pictures on regular cheap paper at a local office supply store and staple together your own little handmade books. Most importantly, don’t listen to me and do whatever feels right to you.
How did you go about building a portfolio?
It’s not something you can force over night. Just close your eyes and think about what subjects you want in your photos. Then go into the world and find those subjects and photograph them as often as possible. The portfolio will just be an accidental by-product of that process.
What are your top tips you can give to any music photographer?
When the light is sh** shoot black and white.
What are some post-processing techniques that can enhance your music photography?
I can’t give any specific Lightroom preset lore but I think something people misunderstand a lot about real photographers is the insane, unhinged, bombastic amount of time we spend editing, re-editing, sequencing, and resequencing our work. My work ratio is probably around 15% out shooting, 85% editing in my room, by myself with the lights off.
How do you create a distinctive style and visual identity in your music photography?
Edit, edit, edit, shoot, shoot, shoot. If you put in your 10,000 hours, the style will come naturally. You’ll get bored of imitation, make some happy accidents, and ta-da! your style appears.
Creativity / Inspiration:
Can you share some insights into your creative process? Are there any specific techniques or equipment you prefer to use?
I primarily shoot with cheap, old, digi-cams. I used the Olympus C-5060 for the photo that was nominated. I bought it for $45 on eBay.
What elements do you priorities when framing your shots?
I don’t know, it’s almost entirely subconscious. I just let my hand point and click when it feels right.
Who is someone, alive or dead, you’d love to photograph?
Working with artists:
How does the photographic process differ between working with introverts and extroverts?
Just a case by case thing. It’s more to do with their energy than their social disposition.
Have you ever been starstruck when photographing someone? How do you overcome that?
Not yet. I’ll probably not overcome it and forget to breathe and run out of air halfway through a sentence. Real professional stuff, yaknow?
In one word, how would you describe your photography?