Enjoying the view.
Visible Man: Cam Kirk & the Shifting Gaze
Cam Kirk flashes a smile at the Genius headquarters as he awaits the details of his promo efforts for the day.
Okayplayer sits down with Cam Kirk, an electrifying photographer with his own distinct and intentional style, to talk about the shifting gaze in culture.
In his 1952 novel Invisible Man, Ralph Ellison says, “I am invisible, understand, simply because people refuse to see me. Like the bodiless heads you see sometimes in circus sideshows, it is as though I have been surrounded by mirrors of hard, distorting glass. When they approach me they see only my surroundings, themselves or figments of their imagination, indeed, everything and anything except me.” In this context, he is referring to the condition of the black body, and 65 years later this still holds true, especially as it relates to the state of the black artist.
I met up with Cam Kirk during one of his press runs in Brooklyn. Cam is quiet and very intentional with his words. His voice is soft at times (not muted), but he commands your attention when he speaks. On our way to the conference room, we pass a pretty substantive offering of Thai food nearby. I begin to crack jokes about how much damage I could do to a plate in the moment, which leads to me asking Cam if he’s a foodie. “To be honest, not really. I eat to stay alive,” he responds. As he sits down to be briefed on the expectations of the promotional effort which brought him here, Cam retreats into the warmth of a two-toned black and white hoodie. The ask: Cam is to annotate a few of his own photos for a social media campaign.
“So in this photo, 21 [savage] is not surfing the web, he’s actually engineering his own songs because he’s talented like that.” During the segment, he speaks passionately about photographing artists like Future and Lil’ Yachty. He reminisces fondly on the moments in which the photos were taken.
Most mainstream American cultural publications, much like America, are afflicted by the white gaze— a supposition to view the world, and subsequently, create content, that is meant to appeal to a white audience. It’s a gaze that causes creators to ask, “How do we make this palatable for white viewers?”, “How do we ensure that they understand?”, “How can we make white people feel validated through this work?”, and lastly, “How do we not offend white people?” But the true danger of the white gaze is not that it exists, but that it is prioritized. The gaze that makes Ralph Ellison invisible in 1952 is the same gaze that claims Kylie Jenner started a new trend with “boxer braids.” This is also the same gaze that watches intently as Cam Kirk describes the story behind one of his most iconic photos of East Atlanta rapper Gucci Mane, and immediately responds, “OMG he’s so big. Look at his belly! I love Gucci!”
Cam is a man that seems very in control of his desires. He’s cunning and he’s savvy. He also is capable of performing magic, his special trick— Cam knows how to make himself invisible. During his time on assignment, I can’t tell if Cam is completely unaware of the gaze rested upon him and his work, or if he, like Ralph Ellison, just wants to survive. There are moments where Cam is active in driving the conversation, and there are moments when the conversation consumes him, becoming mostly superficial banter about industry goings-ons, Instagram comment bots and Katy Perry. Every once in awhile, he chooses to retreat back into his hoodie. I recognize here that in the same way that Cam is not foodie indulgent, he’s also not very self-indulgent. He really does only eat to stay alive. But even moments of silence, Cam is still the coolest guy in the room.
For the first time since the day began, it hits me that I am sitting alongside the Cam Kirk, a guy who helped to mold the visual point of reference for some of America’s biggest contemporary hip-hop acts like A$AP Rocky, Migos, 21 Savage, and Rae Sremmurd. I am sitting alongside a man who is responsible for helping to elevate some of the most hyper-visible black boys in the country, out of obscurity, and into a gaze that will either celebrate or berate them. Only time will tell.
The new generation of hip-hop, like all of the generations before it, is fighting a battle to evolve and bring along with them, a fresh perspective. The new generation of hip-hop deserves a new lens through which to be seen. Cam acknowledges that he has had a part in helping them shape that image and expresses that he does not take that responsibility lightly. In an age where hip-hop has grown to have a larger global appeal than ever before, image has become central. Fans are more likely to retweet or like a picture of an artist before they get familiar with a new track, so the first visualimpression has to count. In order to stay alive, the photographers who capture these artists have to evolve as well. Each and every time he captures a frame, Cam says he wants to humanize his subject— to get the viewer to see them beyond just being a rapper, as an actual person. He mentions a shoot he did with Young Thug as the perfect example of what he means.
“So I’m with Thug at his house, and he’s on the counter eating corn pops. It’s something as simple as that. It’s a real moment. Stuff like that, to me is what makes a dope photo. It’s nothing gaudy, it’s just corn pops. But rappers eat corn pops too.”
Like the subjects of his photography, Cam Kirk did not get his start by playing it safe. If you scroll to the very beginning of Kirk’s instagram, you’ll find his first post on September 12, 2013, “Officially a published photographer!! Pick up the latest Respect Magazine and check out my 5 page spread with Mike Will Made It by @elliottwilson#camkirkphotography.” But Cam began taking photos well before then. Kirk, a Maryland native, visited the campus of Morehouse College in Atlanta and was able to convince his parents that he should attend under one condition: he’d be a doctor. While being clear that his intent was never to deceive, Cam tells me that ultimately he decided to change his major to marketing after the first semester. His parents were not particularly thrilled, but Cam was able to negotiate his way out of returning home and finesse a path forward for himself in Atlanta. In 2010 during his junior year, he threw a concert at Morehouse in collaboration with a student organization, took out a loan and booked Wiz Khalifa to perform. As he recalls, the concert was a major success, a success he was unable to commemorate because he did not have a camera. The inspiration began here.
Cam serving as the official backseat DJ between press stops, sharing some of his favorite tracks with OKP
En route to the next stop on his NYC press tour, I snag the aux cord in the car and ask Cam to DJ the ride. I want to get a sense of his taste in music. I want to know what inspires him. As Cam, Ryan (his publicist), John (his manager) and I cruise through Friday evening NYC traffic, Cam kicks off his set with “Hey Young World” by Slick Rick. He tells me the story of how he once went a whole year without rap music in his youth because he was on a mission to purify his spirit and “get right with God.” Old school rap was his re-entry into the genre because he found certain aspects of it to be less problematic, and this song particularly stands out in his memory. As he shuffles his music selection into more current sounds, with each track comes a story. He comments on how much he enjoys Desiigner, even though he reps Atlanta and he’s “not supposed to.” He talks about his reverence for Leon Bridges. Cam flexes his marketing degree from Morehouse College a bit as he mentions the importance of branding and how consistent Leon’s brand is. A Sampha track introduces a conversation about vibes, and how Sampha’s vibe is one of his favorites. “I’m involved so much with trap music that I can’t just play it every day,” he says. Of vibes, Cam says they keep his work inspired. “As a photographer, it’s important to understand when to create a moment, and when to just document a moment.” I tell him that’s definitely a word to live by. He agrees.
During the car ride, Cam also speaks passionately of his encounters with Gucci Mane, and when I ask him about what it’s been like photographing the legend post his 3-year jail sentence, he is quick to remind me that despite popular belief, Gucci has always been this man.
“The Gucci that the world is seeing now, is the same Gucci I’ve always known. Y’all are just seeing it in a different light because that’s the Gucci he’s choosing to show you now. People want to stigmatize him.”
As Cam continues to speak in Gucci’s defense, I can’t help but be reminded of the gaze and how it in many ways, does stigmatize rappers, and more specifically, black men like Gucci Mane.
Cam has been wearing his invisible cloak to photograph rappers like Gucci since 2012. Back then, Cam would use his invisibility to discretely take candid photos. “Gucci was one of the first people to address me by name, with respect. It was never, 'camera man, aye you,' none of that. And a lot of artists never gave me that” he says. He’s telling me the story behind one of his most well known photos, a photo of Gucci Mane seated holding an AR15. Cam says he doesn’t regret taking the photo, but sometimes he wishes it wasn’t one of his most popular shots.
With his particular lens, Cam wants to humanize his subjects, who have thus far mostly been high profile black men, in ways that mainstream media does not. There is a particular intimacy in Cam’s early candid portrait work, an intimacy that can only be achieved through proximity and a shared experience. He speaks of Metro Boomin as a brother and of many others as friends. The shared experience of blackness and artistry has allowed Cam to grant subjects like Gucci a certain humanity, way before mainstream publications like Vogue would have ever thought of having him as a coverage topic. Gucci Mane, like Cam and like Ralph Ellison before them, was an invisible man, at least until he was behind bars long enough that the white imagination could commodify his street appeal and whitewash his return to the streets. In Invisible Man, Ralph Ellison says, “When they approach me they see only my surroundings, themselves or figments of their imagination, indeed, everything and anything except me,” and now more than ever, I understand why that exact photo of Gucci Mane hangs on full display in the office of the publication slated for the last leg of Cam's press tour. Cam is excited to see it anyway.
It’s been two years since Cam Kirk debuted his creative brainchild “Trap God” in an abandoned Atlanta church. His one day only interactive photography show dedicated to Gucci Mane himself drew the attention of artists, publications, and onlookers from all across the world and guaranteed that he would never be an invisible man again. As we continued our journey in the car, he reflects on the times that he could show up in public and blend in. The candid nature of Cam’s photos once upon a time, depended on his ability to be invisible. Now under the watchful eye of gazes galore, Cam’s magic show is evolving.
This summer he will partner with the Collective Gallery in Atlanta to launch a 7 week intensive, geared toward teaching selected attendees ages 17-24, the intricate workings of entertainment photography. Throughout the remainder of our day together, several sources ask Cam, “What’s next?” to which he never hesitates before waxing poetically about his new educational venture. To hear Cam Kirk speak about this summer mission is to listen to a man speak power over his dreams. Cam is no longer an invisible man, and this summer he will bestow the gift and the curse of visibility to 5 deserving students.
The best defense that black artists may have against the white gaze is the utilization of black media and black artists of complementary mediums, like photography. Black hip-hop photographers like Barron Claiborne who captured the iconic “King of New York” photo of Biggie Smalls in 1997 or Chi Modu who captured a widely regarded photo series of Tupac Shakur in 1995, are often times relegated to a cult level of acclaim for their work. While just as good, if not better, these artists like black artists across many different genres and mediums, took a backseat in the public consciousness to their counterparts employed by major publications like Rolling Stone and even The Source at the time. The power of social media, Cam’s business savvy, and the level of inspiration in his work will not allow him to sustain a life of invisibility, whether he wants it or not. Cam Kirk’s notoriety is an important part of not only reclaiming the narrative but shifting the gaze. A responsibility he may not have asked for, whenever Cam Kirk releases the shutter on his camera, the gaze becomes ours once more.
Wallace Mack is a writer who is interested in exploring culture and the ways in which black millennials create, and choose to engage with it. Follow him on Twitter (@themackint0sh) and his published work is available at playinitcool.com.