We have all seen their work, liked their photos, and gazed at their videos. They are the unseen artists and one of the driving forces of the music scene. They are photographers.
We got the chance to talk to Seattle-based photographer Kainalu Ramos about the art, challenges, and inspirations behind his decade-long career. Ramos has photographed some of the biggest events in the country while working with a plethora of amazing DJs.
Can you tell us a little bit about yourself and your background?
I was born in the small town of Mililani in the middle of Hawaii. I moved when I was six to Washington and I’ve been here ever since. I started doing photography in early 2012.
How did you get into concert and festival photography?
I had a clothing brand called Artists in Motion. I would email managers of artists and be like, “Yo, I’d like to bring so and so a hoodie at the show”.
Eight out of 10 times I’d get no response. But the two times that someone would reply, I’d get to bring some of this clothing that I made and meet the artist. I’d tell them that I’m also a photographer and I could shoot their show for free.
I’ve always liked EDM, and over time I saw this ability to get into shows for free plus do photography. It was a match made in heaven for me. It was an interesting way to start my career that’s for sure.
What would you say are some of the biggest challenges when shooting photographs at festivals and nightclubs?
Some of the real sticking points for me are just being aware of your surroundings and listening more than you speak. As cliche as it might sound, you have to be a ninja. When you’re working this job you’re not supposed to be seen. It’s hard for me because I’m like 6’2 standing up behind ATLiens and they’re significantly shorter than me (laughs).
Also being a ninja doesn’t mean just being out of sight. It means being silent, It means being observational, and aware. I think that’s the biggest challenge for sure.
I don’t think people understand that cameras aren’t built to be used in nightclubs. They’re built to be used sometimes for outdoor photography or studio photography, but a club is one of the most hostile environments for that type of technology. Even outdoors, for example, I shot Beyond Wonderland at the Gorge and my camera shut down because of the dust. And then with nightclubs, people are bumping into you and not paying attention and sometimes not being very considerate and not being aware. So there is a level of challenge there.
As you mentioned, you work with the dubstep duo ATLiens. What is the relationship like between you as a photographer and these artists or the creative teams behind them? Are there any challenges there?
I do primarily work with ATLiens and I will take on other opportunities if need be, but being on a creative team with a specific artist gives you a lot of direction as far as helping build their identity and their brand.
You got to find someone that already complements what you have going on, and ATLiens and I have a similar darker vibe. Some of the shots I do are heavy black and white, I do a lot of experimental grain type stuff, stuff that’s just kind of peculiar and odd. That goes with what they have.
To finally be in a position where, I’ll ask what is good or bad and they’ll tell me “I trust you, whatever you make,” is so great. The experience of working with one individual, or in my case, a duo is such a blessing because I just get to curate with them. I don’t have to, like, spread my energy out into different projects.
How do you as a photographer try to stand out?
So if you ask this question to 10 different photographers, you’re going to get 10 different answers. I think personally, my way to self-brand or sell myself is I specialize in developing presets in heavy grain and black and white. So those are the traits of my artistic branding.
Some people might say they determine their value by turnaround time, or by editing style, or by how good you are at flying a drone. There are so many answers because there is such a wide spectrum of media nowadays. Everybody distinguishes themselves in different ways.
For myself, like I said, I’m working on multi-grain. If you have seen my posts lately, a multi-grain is like this high-grain study of black and white and I strive to be a black-and-white photographer because that’s kind of where my roots are.
When I began photography, I would enter competitions in high school and I actually took first in state and first in my district two years in a row for black and white photos. It’s been almost 11 years now and I’m starting to hone my brand and my identity. I’ve also been trying to do my blog which is definitely a good way for me to introduce myself to others, and give them an idea of what I’m actually doing.
Do you have any artists that have inspired you in your career?
It’s a compilation of inspiration from many photographers that I came up around. One to shout out is David Veltri who I knew coming into the scene. He was someone that I admired through both his work ethic and his work. What he puts out is so selective, but also so well assigned to what he believes is his art. I think it’s amazing. I pick and pull pieces from all of my inspirations.
With the distinction of branding, you’re in a way paying homage to all of these people that you came up learning from or being inspired by like. Another inspiration of mine outside of EDM is Ansel Adams. If you know that is an incredible black and white landscape photographer.
Are there any golden rules or unspoken practices that most photographers in the scene try to follow?
One of the unspoken things, and it’s not necessarily something you might get told or not, is to wear all black. This circles back to being a ninja. You have to be able to blend into the shadows of the stage. You’re not the forefront, you’re just documenting the artists. So I’d say wearing black is definitely one of them.
Another etiquette thing that kind of goes unspoken but it’s noticeable if you don’t do it is paying attention to who is on stage and when they’re shooting. Say you’re on stage and a new guy comes up and doesn’t notice that he gets in your shot. Or if the set that you’re shooting has two guys, one in the crowd, and one on stage. You have to make sure that you’re not hogging the stage for too long because the guy in the crowd is trying to get shots of the artists without you in it. It all just goes back to that sense of awareness. It’s all kind of tied into that.
What are some of your favorite venues to shoot at and why?
Man, that’s a good one because there are just so many. I could go on forever about the places I’ve had the pleasure of shooting and it’s such a blessing because a lot of people don’t get to see that view from the other side.
So while being really appreciative of that for sure I want to say the Showbox Market is one that has a special place in my heart because that’s where I shot my first EDM show for Boogie T and Squnto in 2018.
Another that I have to shoutout that has an amazing staff is The Marc in San Marcos, Texas. Incredible staff and super accommodating like that is one of my favorite venues. The last one would be the Brooklyn Mirage that place is an incredible spectacle to see.
Do you have any career goals or milestones that you’re trying to reach?
What I will say is I’ve been a full-time freelancer for the past year, and that has given me so much freedom. That is a goal I meet every day and I’m thankful for that every day. I’d say going forward, I want to be an international photographer. I’d like to do an international tour of some sort or do some work overseas. I’d also really like to move into artist management, which I know is completely outside of this interview.
But once you’ve done this long enough, you start to think, “I have all this knowledge and all these connections, how can I utilize that to get to the next level?” That’s kind of what my goal is.
If you don’t mind me twisting your question a little bit by saying the goals I have already accomplished. I flew into EDC on a helicopter and got to shoot it. That’s something very sentimental to me. This year, I shot all of the festivals that I wanted to shoot. Lost Lands, Caverns, etc.
But going forward, I would say I want to get into the bones of what I love doing rather than worrying about an Instagram post or any sort of notoriety. I just want to continue to feel fulfilled. So that’s definitely the goal.
Is there anything you would like to promote? Any shoutouts or announcements?
I’m going on tour with ATLiens, very excited about that. It starts on January 21st. Shoutout ATLiens and that whole team for trusting me with their vision and allowing me to act within my creative means.
A couple of inspirations I’d like to shoutout are David Veltri and Matt Cary aka hxphy on Instagram.
Shoutout to Ching, his name is C.2.H.2 on Instagram. He’s the first person to hand me a gig which was that Boogie T show I mentioned earlier.
And honestly a huge, massive shoutout to everybody who has ever even looked at my stuff. Because it’s a big sea of people out there. There’s a lot of content to consume. There’s a lot of media and if you’re rocking with me from day one, thank you so much. I can’t express anything but gratitude for that. Also, my podcast is coming back in 2023 If you’re a listener or reader and you know that I podcast, check it out.
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