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Breaking In: Portraitist and Lighting Director PAYAM


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BY Aimee Baldridge December 01, 2014 · Published by PhotoVideoEDU

Combine a keen eye for the nuances of light and a warm touch with people from all walks of life, and what do you get? PAYAM. The LA- and New York-based artist is both a photographer who specializes in portraiture and a lighting director whose meticulous approach lends itself to crafting the look of high-end commercial shoots. He talked with us about how he broke into the photo industry in the early aughts and what young photographers need to know to make it in today’s tough market.

Photograph courtesy of PAYAM.

Aimee Baldridge: How did you get started in photography and arrive where you are today?

PAYAM: Besides having to sell my liver and one of my kidneys?

AB: Just one kidney?

PAYAM: Yeah, I got $110,000 for it, and that funded my photography! There's humor in it, but if I were crazy enough to do it I would have. You have to have really good financial backing or be ready to go into debt, because it's really hard. Having a good business strategy and a good way of saving money and not blowing through expenses, to live within your means, is a huge deal. When you launch your career, you should have a good accountant or someone who can help you manage your money.

I was in school to be a doctor but I always loved photography. In fact, I put myself through school by doing photography. One day it dawned on me: Why am I studying something I don't care about? So I finished school and I looked up Annie Leibovitz. Jimmy Moffat, who was her rep at that time, got me an internship at her studio. I was there for five or six months, and then they wrote me a really great letter of recommendation.

I ended up assisting for numerous years. I tried to go out on my own in 2008, but the recession happened, so no one was taking any chances on younger photographers. I ended up doing lighting direction, which was higher-paid. Over time I met producers and agents and creative directors. By being persistent, I slowly made my way to becoming an emerging photographer.

AB: You assisted a number of prominent photographers. Do you know what it was about you that led them to hire you?

PAYAM: Wolfgang Ludes was the first guy who took a chance on me. I talked to his wife, and she was very nice to me on the phone; she just liked the way I spoke. We'd never met, but she thought I was respectful. One of the first times I assisted, we were working on a big ad job. He was shooting 4x5 and I was third assistant on that job—I barely knew anything. I was running cords and doing very simple stuff, but the simple gestures of getting him a Coke and doing little things that made the shoot a positive experience—I think he noticed that.

I ended up working with him until he stopped shooting and went on to bigger and better things. Even when I was lighting big advertising jobs, I would make sure that if he needed a Coke, I'd get him a Coke, or if the creative director wanted a coffee I'd go get him coffee. There was no ego for me, and no ego on set. When I brought on other assistants or interns, I always made sure they understood that I didn't want to see them stand idle for a second. Those are some of the values I had, and I think for a lot of photographers that worked well.

AB: You came to the photography world without connections, so what is your advice for young photographers in the same situation?

PAYAM: Marcus Aurelius said that we're all the same dust from the same ground, and no one is greater than the other. That's how I look at life and deal with people. It may be the homeless guy on the street or the bazillionaire who's in front of the camera—I still try to deal with people with humility and kindness.

This business is very ego-driven. What I suggest to people who have no connections or help is don't forget who you are as a human being, because no one can take that away from you. Be kind and don't forget people. Because you never know where a person might end up.

You also have to work your ass off. You have to be double as good. And you have to put yourself out there. It's a very, very tough business.

AB: What do young photographers need to learn about light?

PAYAM: When I have interns, I walk with them at night through the city and ask them, "Where is the source of this red?" New York City is the best place to learn light, because it's always there—all different sources, textures, temperatures, colors. Go through Chinatown; it's a really great place to walk and see how light falls and bounces off other things, how certain light sources affect skin.

I could say, “Go pick up a book and learn lighting.” But so what? There are a lot of people who know a lot about lighting who can't light for shit, because they just don't understand how the stuff works. I say light is like water. It flows and spills and there's density, and it affects different surfaces differently.

I ask my interns, “Can you see two-tenths of a stop?” They're like, “No.” So I say, “OK, let's practice two-tenths of a stop,” because I want people to see in two-tenths of a stop. No one cares about two-tenths of a stop. But that is refining your vision. It's refining your understanding. It's refining how acute you become to how light affects things.

AB: Are there experiences you'd advise young photographers to have if they want to go into portraiture, not in the photographic world but just personally?

PAYAM: Break down walls and barriers that we all create around ourselves to protect our own ego. We create barriers around ourselves to protect ourselves from that which we don't know, that which we think is greater than us or lesser than us. We compartmentalize as human beings and say, "This is who I am. This is my identity. I'm better than you. I'm always right and you are always wrong." That's how we operate as human beings. Otherwise our ego would fall apart.

So what would I say? Go volunteer. Go relate with people. Talk to strangers. Do something that you wouldn't do. Start to understand people and remove filters and preconceived notions of who you think this person may be. The more you start having honest experiences with people, the less your experiences are influenced by your preconceived notions and prejudices.

That's what I suggest as a life suggestion; forget about photography. We all create narratives in our minds to protect ourselves, to make other people wrong and ourselves right. Removing ourselves from our own shoes and placing ourselves in their shoes—that's a part of compassion. Learning to have compassion and understanding gets you a long, long way. 

In our Breaking In series, we ask successful young professionals in photo- and video-related fields about what it took to get into their line of work, what it's like to make a living doing what they do, and how they made the transition from student days to working life.

This article first appeared in Resource Magazine, a quarterly photo and video publication for forward-thinking image makers worldwide. Dedicated to working and aspiring industry professionals, it is a comprehensive photo, video, and lifestyle platform offering readers the latest insight on photography skills, tech news, gear, and marketing techniques, all brought together with awe-inspiring images. Resource offers a unique, fresh perspective on the innovative, quickly evolving photographic world, emphasizing the work, art, and power of imagery. Resource Magazine is sold at newsstands across the U.S. and Canada, and is available for free in all major photo studios, labs, and equipment rental houses in New York, Los Angeles, Miami, San Francisco, and Chicago.

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