Interview: Photographer Lenyon Whitaker, in His Own Words

Lenyon Whitaker is a Virginia-born, Bronx-bred photographer who’s been behind the lens since 2006. He might be somewhat new to the game, but for the past six years he’s shot everything from musicians to sports teams to political rallies. Just like Gordon Parks, one of his biggest influences, Whitaker aims to “capture ordinary moments in an extraordinary way.” The now 35-year-old freelancer is currently a Harlem resident and continuing to pursue his photography passion.

The Start

In around 2006, I was living in Philly and I started with a local magazine called 215 Magazine. I started shooting parties, like a nightlife photographer. I was always in the party scene and shooting people drinking PBR, all kinds of stuff like that. For someone who wants to get into photography, I feel like that’s an easy way to do it. When you become a nightlife photographer, people get to know you in the party scene and it’s an easy way to make connections. After working with 215 Magazine, I still stayed connected with people and eventually that lead to working with GPTMC (Greater Philadelphia Tourism Marketing Corporation). So I started to shoot events, working with the city of Philadelphia, and I got to shoot a lot of shows.

Shooting Kanye West

That was great. Last year I was working with Essence Magazine in the online department. I was the photo editor and I would also shoot for them. I was able to go to the Essence Music Festival and shoot a lot of the shows that were there. If you see a lot of the bigger names on my site, it was from when I was working that festival. It’s one thing to say you were able to shoot a Freeway show in Philly. I mean that’s great, but when you get a chance to shoot Kanye West — that’s a wow moment. So it was pretty exciting to cover that and actually get some good shots from those shows.

I’ve noticed from a technical standpoint, festivals are usually easier to shoot because there’s more light involved. At the same time, you don’t get a lot of time to shoot each artist. You only get maybe the first two songs and then all the photographers are escorted off. It’s tough, it’s a matter of trying to get creative a little bit but at the same time just shoot the shit out of the show. Make sure you’re technically sound, but take as many shots as you really can. If you’re only able to get two songs, the last thing you want is to go review your images and for every shot the microphone is in focus, but the person isn’t.

On the Field w/ the Philadelphia Eagles

I was working with a friend of mine who was fortunate enough to shoot the Eagles games and calendars. He was able to get me on the field to shoot. I felt that was a great opportunity to try my hand at sports photography, build my portfolio, and just have those shots available to say “here’s what I can do.”

The experience was great, it was my first time actually being on the field as opposed to the stands, especially way up in the bleachers. To be on the field was overwhelming, but there was no time to sit there in awe. You have to almost act like you’ve been there. Following the lead of the other photographer, handing him whatever equipment he needs, and still finding time to get my shots in. One of the challenges would be not having the right equipment. For me, just having nothing too dramatic, or at least specialized to sports. Also, you have to realize that you have to shoot at a faster shutter speed to capture the action. It was a challenge to keep the subject in the center of the frame or anticipating where players would be during certain plays. That’s why a lot of my shots on the site were more from a photojournalist perspective. Players coming out of the tunnel, a cool crowd shot — I can take those types of photos. That’s where my eye is, more of a photojournalist. I think concert photography can be almost as challenging as sports photography, especially if there’s an artist that is moving around a lot. I haven’t shot Busta Rhymes, but I imagine it’d be hard to keep up with him.

Instagram

I read a lot of articles about the debate whether it’s messing up photography or whatever the issue is, but personally I enjoy it. If I’m walking around and I see something cool in Harlem, where I live now, I enjoy sharing my work and getting feedback. It keeps my eye busy, I think that’s what it does for me. It’s not all the time that you want to carry around your big camera. Sometimes you just want instant gratification in terms of making a photo.

I enjoy seeing how other people see the world. You might take someone who’s nowhere near anything creative career-wise, but they may have a creative eye. Everyone likes to be creative,like, ‘oh wow, someone threw away a brides dress and it’s hanging out of the trash can – let me take a picture of it and make it black-and-white.’ Everyone has a vision of how they feel a photo will look like and it’s always cool to see that.

Rallies & Political Work

I feel like a lot of people shoot fashion and that’s great, I love looking at those images, but sometimes as a photographer my interest lies more in covering real life events. Things that may matter to a lot of people, political issues and everything. Just be able to convey a message with images. Ultimately, my goal is to do more of that type of work. Eventually I’m looking at New York Times level photography, that’s my ultimate goal as a photographer.