It’s undeniable that photography is art. Capturing one’s interpretation of what constitutes visual intrigue through the lens of a camera denotes inspiration. Visual art has not only been a staple of urban culture, but a cornerstone of it’s mainstream appeal. Ismail Sayeed (Calligrafist) is an artist who’s persistence and eye for imagery is setting his work apart. As an in-house photographer for New York’s SOB’s, a coveted music venue in Manhattan, Ismail has shot myriad acts including Raekwon, Stalley, Dej Loaf, Rae Sremmurd, Fabolous, and more. Incorporating his passion and inherent skill for Calligraphy, (decorative penmanship, art of writing) Ismail’s artistic reach and vision stretch far beyond the snap of a shutter. We sat down with Ismail to discuss photographing artists, calligraphy, cameras, inspiration, and how he plans to create a platform for curating art in it’s purist form and the steps he’s taking to transform that vision to a reality.
RESPECT.: Being a photographer and creative, where do you grab inspiration from?
Ismail: “I get inspiration from everywhere honestly. People, environment, life. It really just depends on who and what I’m shooting. I may shoot an up and coming artist, so I get inspiration from their drive and energy. Or if I shoot an artist with a legacy, I get inspiration from that. Like last night I was shooting Funk Flex, I’ve never shot him before. So just being able to sit with him one on one and embrace his energy is great. I always just try to soak up what’s around me.”
RESPECT.: Now you’re the house photographer at SOB’s. How did you land that and what’s the atmosphere like while shooting?
Ismail: “Yeah I’m one of two. It was just consistency. I used to be first in line and pay to get in. I used to just post pictures all the time and after a year and a half one of the interns was like, “Yo, I see you posting pictures all the time, come have a meeting to be the house photographer”. So I got an interview and on the spot they were like, “Ok next time you come, shoot for us.” It was just tenacity. I just used to go shoot artists I liked. Stalley was the first artist I went to shoot there, he’s one of my favorite rappers. Then I just realized I loved to shoot. The atmosphere really just depends on the show. They get a lot of surprise shows and a lot of exclusive shows. SOB’s allows me to shoot bigger shows, lesser shows, and everything in between. It’s a great place for me to spread my wings because I get to shoot the engineer’s booth which looks down on the stage so I get great angles. It’s just been a great opportunity.”
RESPECT.: What have been some of the most rewarding shoots for you personally at SOB’s?
Ismail: “It would have to be Luke James. He performed two nights and I was front and center, the whole thing was very intimate. That show was one of the best in terms of shots and creativity and just the show’s energy itself.”
RESPECT.: Do you book shoots outside of the venue?
Ismail: “The thing about SOB’s is it allows me to meet managers and network. I’m more of an event/concert photographer, but recently I started to build a studio in my apartment, so I’ve started to book shoots outside of just the venue. I shoot for others too like Raekwon, Maino, and Lil Cease. My goal for this year is to be able to say I shoot everything; studio, weddings, etc. SOB’s has allowed me to build all of that.”
RESPECT.: Now describe your visual art as well.
Ismail: “I’m a calligrapher.”
RESPECT.: When did you get into that?
Ismail: “That started for me a a young age. Being born and raised Muslim, Arabic was something that was always intertwined in my life, so I started writing Arabic at the age of like six or seven. I started doing graffiti and cartoon sketching as well and as I got older I realized that I loved beautifying words, which is all calligraphy is. When I was 16 I really just started focusing on that. I actually just got booked to do a mural in L.A. It’s something that really calms me and is the foundation for everything else I do. It’s intricate. You have to take time and pay attention, you’re really building something with words.”
RESPECT.: What do you typically like to shoot with in terms of equipment?
Ismail: “I shoot with a Nikon, it’s a D3100. It’s a good intermediate camera, but now that I’ve gotten better I definitely need a wider frame and a bigger body. I’m actually getting ready to get a new camera since I’m traveling to L.A. soon. As far as lenses, it just really depends. I like to shoot events (non-concerts) with the 35(mm) and I recently started messing around with the 50(mm) fixed lens. I’m learning that fixed lenses make you better. You have to move around, step back, and get angles. Having the zoom is great, you need it, but to know how to really work a fixed lens is dope. For concerts I use the 50-200(mm) because it allows me to get facial expressions. It allows me to really move around. I have to switch out lenses every 10-15 minutes trying to get different angles. Photography is very creative. For instance, I’m a sneaker head, so when an artist jumps, I’m trying to capture his feet, the mic, everything. I’m always trying to create a moment. I’ll take 300 pictures and may only use 50, but I want to make sure I get a broad understanding of everything that’s going on.”
RESPECT.: What’s your editing process like?
Ismail: “I’m kind of new to editing. I actual prefer the rawness of a shot I don’t mind my shots looking how they look, but I’ve learned that you have to use your flash, you have to use photoshop at certain points. Just being the artist that I was and being arrogant and ignorant at times I would be like, “No, this is my expression,” but recently I’ve allowed the knowledge to follow me and learn from it. Editing shots from SOB’s is easier because they allow me to be creative. When shooting for someone else, they have specifics so it’s pretty straight forward. My biggest issue with editing is time. Somedays I might shoot four or five different things, I might have shots that I want to edit right away, but won’t have time because of other events going on. Basically, I love the rawness of how I shoot, but editing is a must.”
RESPECT.: Ok, you can shoot one man and one woman, music or non-music related, who are they?
Ismail: “Wow. Hmmm, that’s a great..wow. (Laughs) Well my favorite artist is Lupe Fiasco, so to be able to shoot him for a day and soak it all up, I would definitely have to say Lupe. For a woman, I would have to say my mother. She passed away when I was 13 and hasn’t been able to witness my success so far, and just knowing the woman she was and her beautiful soul, I would love to just capture who she was. To take that from my lens and my angle and capture how I see her would be amazing.”
RESPECT.: What’s ultimately your end goal?
Ismail: “I want to be known as an artist and not just a photographer. I’m a calligrapher, I have a clothing line, I manage a catering company. I’m currently working on a restaurant and an art gallery. My end goal is to kind of mesh all of it together and create a platform where art can grow. I’m big on the youth and the coming generation. I’m active in both the Muslim and non-Muslim communities, just everything. I do want to open an art gallery that’s based around everything that I do. Photography, canvas art, sneakers. I want the gallery to be a base of all activity. Art to me isn’t what people may think like visual or painting. My brother is a chef, I’ve seen him piece together different foods and make an amazing dish. My sister is a teacher and the way she pieces words and things together and the end result is an amazing project for her students. This all goes back to the first question you asked me and my inspiration comes from people. I want to curate art through the expression of life.”
RESPECT.: What would be one valuable piece of advice you’d give to an up and coming photographer?
Ismail: “Work hard. It’s cliche’ and everyone says it, but it’s really true. Like even SOB’s, I left work early, I waited in line for hours just to get a spot in the front. Do not give up. Also, learn your craft. I’ve really been able to soak up what my OG’s have to offer and you have to be open to learning. Build a portfolio and ALWAYS have your equipment on you because you never know when you can capture a moment.”
View Ismail’s Work BELOW
Follow On Twitter @Calligrafist
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