Cam Kirk, originally hailing from PG County, Maryland, embarked on a photographic odyssey that would lead him to become a revered figure in the industry. Born and raised in Maryland, Cam eventually found himself in Atlanta after enrolling at Morehouse College in 2007. This move would transform his life, as he decided to make Atlanta his new home and creative hub. During our interview, Cam Kirk, also known as Cameron Kirkland, shared his experiences, insights, and wisdom, offering a fascinating glimpse into his journey as a photographer and entrepreneur.
Where are you from?
I'm originally from PG County, Maryland, and was born and raised there. I moved to Atlanta in 2007 to attend Morehouse College and haven’t left since. So, Atlanta has kind of adopted me.
Do you remember what age you were when you first picked up a camera?
The age I was when I first picked up a camera would have probably been somewhere in the range of eight to ten. I grew up in a photographer's home. My dad's a photographer, so I used to have to assist him on set on certain photo projects he had. So, that was my first time actually picking up a camera, but never in like a professional setting or anything I was passionate about. My first time really picking up my own camera would have been in April of 2010 when I bought my first camera.
Do you remember your first paid gig as a photographer?
When I first started doing photography, the first work I used to do was for local artists; I was managing an artist at the time. I started using my camera to kind of document his life and document some of the things he had going on. From there, a lot of other local artists in Atlanta used to hit me to do little things with my camera. So, that was some of my early work. Then I used to work at parties and nightclubs. I was the original photographer at Beer and Tacos when it first launched, and then I started to work at this club called Esso on the east side. It was really, really early work I was getting, I think, at Beer and Tacos, like $40 a night to do that. At club Esso I was getting $75 a night. So, it was like, really, really early work. But a lot of it was like little clubs or local artists and things of that nature.
How did you find yourself making more money and more connections? When did that shift happen? Or what job was it that made that happen?
The cool thing about it is that it wasn't so much that I found new relationships. It was the relationships I had; they became the best versions of themselves. So, when I was managing my artist, well, my artist at that time, I don't manage him anymore. At that time, he used to hang around another upcoming artist, and that artist was K Camp. Me and K Camp have had a relationship now for 10-plus years. At that time, he wasn't “K Camp” or famous, but he turned out to be. I also used to do some photo work for a sneaker store in Atlanta called Fly Kicks. One owner went on to own TRG, and the other owner Ebonie Ward, went on to be Future and Flo Milli's manager. So, it wasn't so much that I just found brand-new relationships. It was like, the relationships I had and the people I kind of had the privilege of working with early on really started to become somebody. I mean, I met Metro Boomin in a dorm room. So, I was just lucky enough and had the vision to surround myself with people who had great potential, and their potential paid off, which in turn allowed me to collaborate and have my work seen on a much larger scale.
I know a lot of photographers who really like shooting artists as well. But a lot of them are talking about how sometimes the pay isn't good, they might not be treated fairly, or sometimes they are even put in dangerous situations. So, what would you say are some of the cons of being a hip-hop photographer?
I wouldn't necessarily classify it as a problem with hip-hop or anything in particular. It's more about being at the early stages of your career. In music, you are more of a documentary photographer. That's the best way to classify it. So, in any form of documentary, when you are immersing yourself in someone else's world, it's real life. You are capturing real-life moments. I mean, real-life things happen. So, it doesn't matter if you are with an R&B, Country, or Hip-Hop artist. You are subjected to whatever world the artists you are working with. So, I would say that anytime you are doing documentary work, there's a level of danger that can come into play because it's not a controlled environment. There are a lot of variables.
But I mean, you hit it on the head. My early work, yeah, I've been in high-speed police chases. I've been shot at. I've been in handcuffs; I've been involved in entourage fights. Yeah, I've been in everything, and it is not something that I think a lot of the younger photographers have to go through. It is not as much of a rite of passage as it was when I first started, which is a blessing. A lot of your local artists are performing at places that only the major artists used to perform at. So, the looks and stuff that you get now are much bigger than at an earlier stage. With back in the day, you could be kind of locally famous for a longer time, which keeps these artists in the neighborhoods and involved in street life, where now you take somebody like Sexyy Red, who has blown up. I mean, she's probably staying in five-star hotels or better everywhere she goes. The lifestyle is just completely different. There's so much more money involved.
What inspired you to become an entrepreneur?
A lot of it is some of the struggles and stuff you mentioned earlier. You know, and music-based photography, specifically, what I found was, if I maintained my position being two feet in the music industry, I was going to be subjected to music industry protocols and hype. And what I mean by that is that most people in the music industry have a short lifespan. It's a very front-and-center, in-the-spotlight type of career path and position. So, I felt like if I'm just to fit in the music industry; there's a chance that after five to six years or so, it doesn't have enough stability in it to say that people are still going to want to see my work. Or that I'm still going to be a cool photographer. So, I felt like I had to diversify. When I thought about ways to diversify, I thought about just business and having a staple, specifically in my city. It's something that can kind of stand the test of time. I mean, you have certain businesses, landmarks, you know, just think about our neighbor Magic City. They've been there for close to 40 years and still thriving and still going. I thought about legacy places, legacy businesses like that in Atlanta, and thought about creating one for myself. So, when I started Cam Kirk Studios, I had that in mind.
I had thought of establishing my own legacy and not being dependent on what artists I was working with today or tomorrow, but more of like my ideas being put on Front Street. Then I thought about the position I was at in my career. I was five years in as a photographer. I was kind of tired of being a documentary photographer. I wanted to advance my position. So, I knew I needed to learn studio photography. I needed to be able to be a photographer so that the artists I wanted to work with could call for bigger projects. I knew a lot of that depended on me having my own space to bring them to and a comfortable environment to work with them.
I knew I needed a studio. I knew that Atlanta didn't have a lot of options that I felt were relatable and culturally relevant. So, I saw a void there. I was like, if I need a studio, and I feel this way, there are hundreds if not thousands, of more people that I’ve been inspiring throughout my career that would probably feel the exact same way as they are starting to get inspired to get into photography. So that was kind of like the void I saw. Then I was like, man, I've always had a business mind. I tell people all the time that I'm 50% creative and probably 50% business. For me, it’s half and half. I'm not, like, overly creative. I really enjoy the days I'm on set as much as I enjoy the days I’m at my office and sitting at my desk, or having a team meeting about what we're doing tomorrow, or what we're doing next month, what our goals are. I have that same passion for both. So business was always on my mind, and I was going to start a business. A studio was the first one.
I know you had a lot of the people who have helped you to get where you are. Who are some of the people who helped you bring that idea of Cam Kirk Studios to life?
I have had a great team that helped put that in place. I definitely would not have had Cam Kirk Studios if it wasn't for one of my co-owners, Keenan Litmon. I met Keenan when I was just doing my own thing with photography. He's always invested his time, energy, and resources to help me achieve the best version of what I was trying to achieve. It was honestly his spirit and the way he treated me, which is what kind of inspired the culture of what Cam Kirk Studios is.
It’s to help one another, look out for each other, and put others above yourself at some point. It’s about being open to having other photographers around you. That was the kind of spirit that I think he brought to my life. So, he was the first individual that really helped me launch it and get it off the ground. I also have my lawyer, one of my best friends, J. Rose, who was like a business partner of mine. He was also involved early on and really helped me see it through and just give whatever advice or late-night talk about the game plan or whatever; he was there to help with that.
I had my assistant at the time. Maddie Ivey. She really helped from a creative perspective. Just really put the foundation of what we stood for creatively, the design of the space, the look and feel of what Cam Kirk Studios is, like the brand. She played a major role in that. I'm sure there are so many more I could name. You know, another is co-owner, Marley. He came in about a year later into the start. He brought a level of hustle and business strategy that really allowed us to scale from a business perspective and a monetary perspective. So, we had a lot of hands in, really helping bring the vision to life, and I definitely wouldn't have Cam Kirk Studios as successful as it is without all of their involvement and a few others as well.
Can you tell me a bit about the Collective Gallery and what your goal was in creating it?
We launched Collective Gallery about three years ago, maybe four years ago. The Collective Gallery was like a natural evolution of Cam Kirk Studios and my career. I started as a solo photographer, then built community around creativity. During the process of running a studio, I got to meet so many other photographers, creatives, other people that were inspired by my work. I got to mentor a lot of people. Although we were filling a void, we are also giving them a creative space to work at. I still realized that some creatives still needed more hands-on support and guidance. I could only mentor so many people.
So, the idea of the Collective Gallery came about because I was having so many young photographers ask me the same questions like, “How do I turn my craft into an actual sustainable business?” That's where the idea of starting a label came from. In the same way, Coach K and P got QC, Master P had No Limit, and Birdman had Cash Money. It’s like the same concept.
If I have a little bit of the blueprint, then maybe I can start a label, sign other photographers and help guide their careers, and create other careers similar to the one that I created for myself. That was the original game plan. The blueprint I follow with my own career is kind of heavily inspired by the music industry and artists I've had the privilege of working with. A lot of the artists I've worked with have started their own labels, so it’s just kind of my way of doing that same exact thing. To this day, we're a label, but we also have an agency component that allows us to work with a lot of major brands on a really high level by handling all their production needs and things of that nature. So, it's been a great journey, the last three, four years from a revenue standpoint. My biggest business to date.
Can you share a specific example of how the collective gallery's approach has positively impacted photographers’ careers?
When we started our label, we signed three artists probably within our first couple of months of existence and then went on to sign, I think, about five more. So, throughout our time, we manage the process of not only securing work for them but also managing the inquiries that come in to strategically placing them in certain rooms or with certain brands.
Throughout our time, our artists have worked with artists directly, not even including myself, have worked with like Netflix, Halle Berry, Latto, Rick Ross, Squarespace, Bacardi, eBay, Nike, and Adidas. I mean, the list goes on, on a lot of opportunities we have been able to provide. Although a lot of the talent on our roster had a lot of things going on before, I can confidently say the work that we have done together with the artists is some of the biggest work in their portfolio. That's something that makes me proud. I think they have generated a revenue stream that’s pretty sustainable, like maintaining their lifestyle and things that are needed. So, I'm really proud of that. We really help like all across the from brand partnership deals to photoshoots to establishing new revenue streams to producing their events or galleries, etc. We have had our hands fully integrated with their careers.
Looking back at your journey during your career, what personal or professional accomplishment are you most proud of, and why?
It would have to be both Cam Kirk Studios and Collective Gallery. The number one reason why I'm most proud of that is that those are two projects and business ventures that are completely standing on the shoulders of me, my vision, my investment, my leadership, and my creativity. You know, when I started Cam Kirk Studios, it was very important that I did. I didn't even lean on any of my industry relationships, to be honest, like. There are still some friends I have in the industry who have never been to my studio. We have been doing this for six years. I never wanted anybody else to feel like they created or did this for me. I wanted to really step out on my own and see what I could create for myself. So, that's what makes those two very, very, very, very proud accomplishments for myself and my career. I mean, I love all the photo workouts I'm able to do and the things I'm still consistently doing and the longevity I've had in the game for 11 years, and the growth I'm still seeing. But those by far, those legacy pieces are, by far, some of my favorite accomplishments.
What do you think is a great piece of advice to give creatives?
The best advice I can give creatives is that it sounds very cliché, but I think it's the most important thing is studying and mastering your craft. Whether you're a photographer and learn the ins and outs of how to use your camera, how to operate your camera, how to work your camera, but also the industry of it. Learn how photographers can generate money, learn how they license photos, learn the legalities of photography, and learn about copyrights. Learn about all these other revenue streams that you can directly monetize your work with. Once you can understand the industry and the business, then I think you’ll have an easier time manipulating that, creating your own style, your own flair, and deciding what you bring to the game.
You have to know the history of it. You have to know the photographers who came before you and their work and what steps they took to be where you think you could be because nothing's new under the sun. I think those same things apply to any form of creativity. Like the music industry, you want to learn in the music industry. It makes no sense that rappers are still signing bad deals when you hear about bad deals every single day. You hear about that, but if you don't take the time to learn it, you can still be subjected to a bad deal. So I think it's all about educating yourself and continuing to train and educate your mind, continuing to learn, continuing to stay hip to trends and new things that are happening in the world, and finding ways to make sure that your hip and up on new things that are happening in your industry. AI is huge in the creative world right now. Know how to manipulate that and work with it. It's going to be critical for the next 10 years.
To unleash your creativity at Cam Kirk Studios, book the studio at http://www.camkirkstudios.com. If you are a creative who is interested in joining the team, visit http://www.collective-gallery.com. To view the projects Cam has worked on, visit thecamkirk.com. Follow Cam Kirk on Instagram @thecamkirk and the studio @camkirkstudios. Like on Facebook at http://www.facebook.com/thecamkirk.