In Conversation with Jonathon Kambouris
Jonathon Kambouris and Ioana recorded this talk shortly before the Coronavirus ramped up and changed everything. It’s striking listening to this conversation now because it’s much about shaping up a creative business. Thinking about how these processes might apply today is a great exercise in retuning our creative process. Because this feels like a different world, in so many ways.
There are many nuggets from Jonathon’s viewpoint that hold up because he gets to the heart of how art and commerce coalesce. You’ll hear him talk about finding his creative voice and how he brings it to the table when working with art directors and brand marketers. It’s eye-opening insight for creators and brand people alike. If you create visual media for commerce, this episode is for you.
Jonathon is an award-winning still-life photographer and videographer who shoots advertising campaigns and brand editorials in the beauty and lifestyle spaces. You may have seen his glossy, saturated images in Wired, The New York Times, in campaigns for Nars, Bobbi Brown, Coach and so much more. Right now, creative directors and marketers want video and moving images more than ever. Jonathon talks a lot about growing and adapting his studio to serve the needs of the creative industry.
Music: Ben Tyree
Transcript, edited for length and clarity
Ioana: Say you’re at a dinner party, and the inevitable question comes up. What do you do, Jonathan?
Jonathon: Ah, it depends. If I’m among people who get the creative field, it’s a very comfortable conversation.
If I’m at a dinner party with people from a different world, I have a lot more explaining to do. Although you’ll be surprised, my in-laws had no idea about my world before I met them. They were very interested in hearing about it.
So, I say I’m a photographer. Often, I’m a man of few words, so my wife has to nudge me to explain a little more.
The first question usually is, “Oh, so you do weddings?” No, commercial photography. Then I get into beauty cosmetics. I can’t say still life to a lot of people because they don’t get what that means.
Ioana: Do you think their mind goes to painting?
Jonathon: For some people, maybe. It’s a vague word to explain something. Usually, I have to get specific. You know, beauty, cosmetics, things you see in a store, advertisements, or videos.
Ioana: How did you get into that?
Jonathon: I’ve always loved being creative. In high school, I was into painting. I loved texture and being abstract with a canvas or an object and painting on it. No restraints.
But then, as I was figuring out my next move at art school, I didn’t know if I wanted to be in fine art. I thought something was interesting about merging business and being creative.
And I found photography again. I was always interested in it and dabbled in it in high school. I discovered that you could have a studio and run it like a business. You could be creative, but also make business decisions and mix art and commerce.
I started falling in love with that idea. I never wanted to be a starving artist and struggle like that. Even though being a commercial photographer, many struggles come with that as well.
That’s how I started getting into it. I assisted and learned how to make a living. Eventually, I went out on my own. I jumped into it to see what happens. And that’s where I am today.
Ioana: You collaborate with a lot of brands. What boxes do those brands need to check?
Jonathon: Even though I have a photography business, the most important thing is to get something personal from the work.
Doing something that pushes me creatively, while collaborating with the brand is the main box to check off.
Getting paid is wonderful, I’m not going to lie. But if I can get something out of a project for myself, it’s great. At the beginning of my career, I didn’t get paid for a lot of editorial jobs, but doing the work was so fulfilling. That’s what keeps the ball rolling for me.
Ioana: Let’s bring a little more color to it. What fulfills you when you shoot?
Jonathon: I always go back to the darkroom days of developing film. I’m so happy I was in a generation where I learned that. When you’re developing a print, there’s no better feeling in the world than when you’ve exposed properly, and you see magic appear before your eyes.
Everything is digital and immediate now in the way I shoot. But there’s still magic to what you see in reality and what you capture. It feels like the darkroom. That excitement fulfills me and keeps me going.
Ioana: That’s such a delicate line to toe because in beauty still life the idea of perfection comes up a lot. How do you make time and space on set for that alchemy to happen?
Jonathon: Yeah, time is a big challenge. Depending on the job, you might also have a lot of clients huddled around you while you’re trying to work.
With lighting, I have to do something wrong first to find what’s right. I’ve been in this industry for a while, and I am more confident now. So if someone wants to watch a wall dry as I’m painting it, that’s fine. That’s the way I like to see it because it’s boring.
Keeping focus on set is very challenging because there are a lot of distractions. You have to find strategies to get where you need to be. Sometimes I can foam-core off my set and be in my world, and a client’s happy to wait until I’m ready to show him where we are.
Others want to be holding hands with me. And that’s great too, and it’s fun to be in the process together.
Ioana: Has anything come up on set that made you reconsider working with a client again?
Jonathon: Most of my jobs are recurring clients, so there’s a reason we’re working together so much.
But sometimes there’s a struggle to connect on set with certain people. For example, there’s an inspiration for what we want to capture, and it’s someone else’s work. Sometimes the client wants our shot to be the same.
It’s tough because I don’t want to do exactly what someone else did. Sometimes it’s so literal it’s a problem because we’re ripping off something else.
Ioana: And it’s not your voice.
Jonathon: Right. So why am I here? You hired me for a specific reason. I understand it’s the inspiration, and that’s great. That’s a starting point. Let’s lift off and go somewhere with it. Some clients can be a little restrictive and so literal that we are recreating what was already made.
And sometimes, it’s not like the Mona Lisa. It’s not this amazing thing, to begin with. So to recreate the status quo is a little counterproductive and discouraging. When there’s head-butting, I wonder how we explore and make something thought-provoking and fresh and stay on brand.
Ioana: I’ve seen a lot of brands use creatives for their skillset and not their vision. It’s almost like they need the technique. Part of what you do very well is towing that line and infusing your vision into the projects you take on.
How did you build confidence to stand behind your aesthetic?
Jonathon: That’s a good question. I started off doing a lot of personal work, which turned into paid work for brands. I applied my work to a brand.
Through that process, I built confidence that my vision is why people came back to me. As I grew, I built a position where I know how to bring vision to a project, and be collaborative at the same time.
Little wins carried me. Not everything is going to be 100% me, but I incorporate little moments of me into projects. It’s like small stepping stones. Every job builds your confidence to the next level, and you grow, and you move on.
Ioana: Where are you steering the ship? Let’s talk about where you’re going.
Jonathon: I want to keep the ship afloat. I’m having a good time. I try not to think too far in advance. Right now, it’s about producing work and growing as a photographer so my business can be part of this ever-changing creative world we live in.
That’s where I’ve gotten more into video. It’s been critical in keeping my business relevant by continuing to provide what creatives want in this industry. The last two years have been a huge growth for me. That’s where I’m going, giving clients moving images as well as still images.
Ioana: How does video fulfill your purpose?
Jonathon: It’s a very different approach. With stills, you are focusing on a single moment that you can stare at forever. So you look at all these things you want to change or how you want to perfect it.
With video, it’s more about the story and how one image moves to the next. It fulfills me in a way I didn’t realize it would.
That’s part of growing. I’m learning more about myself and learning what I want to do and what I don’t want to do.
Ioana: You gotta open up that door and peek in to figure out if it’s you or if it’s not.
Jonathon: Right. And I’m trying to make it me. So far, I’ve been able to have my still and video work feel cohesive and feel like it’s coming from the same person.
I was concerned about matching the video quality to the stills and about how they’d look together. That’s the goal and I work hard to keep it cohesive. I’m making progress, which feels good.
Ioana: You mentioned perfection. What’s your relationship with it?
Jonathon: If you ask any still life photographer, there is no perfection. You’re continually ripping apart what you see. And most people will not see what you see, to that scrutiny.
So perfection is challenging because there’s a certain point where you have to let it go. It’ll never be perfect in your eyes. Knowing when to let go is how you progress—understanding when it’s good enough to release the image and move on.
It’s taken me a while to understand that frustration. You beat yourself up over things. But I’ve gotten to a point now where I can feel comfortable with letting go.
Ioana: Do you think this is about seeing the bigger picture? Not to undervalue the campaign you’re working on, but being able to say, this is one photo out of an entire arc in my career. I can ship it because there’s more to come. And, there’s also growth to come.
Jonathon: Absolutely. That’s where you feel very vulnerable. It’s so personal what you’re putting into an image, no one’s going to know all the challenges you had. All they see is the result.
I feel like a still image gets judged to a large extent, and it can continue to be judged because it’s just sitting there for everyone to rip apart.
So I don’t want anyone to see my mistakes, you know? And it happens. Sometimes you overlooked something or you feel you should’ve shot it differently.
But I like the commerce over the fine art world because I have a hard time working on the same project for months or a year. I’d be turning in circles.
I prefer working on smaller projects, and when I’m done shooting, I can release and move on to the next. That’s where the excitement is for me, where it’s onto the future. I have to ship. There’s a deadline. The client needs it, we have to move on.
Ioana: Do you get feedback at any stage in your process? How do you filter it?
Jonathon: On set, if something needs tweaking. That’s when I enjoy collaborating with an art director. There’s so much happening on set and I’m doing so much, that I can lose sight of certain things.
A talented art director brings your attention to something you could have missed. I see that as collaboration, and I embrace it. I enjoy it. There’s so much second-guessing you can do by yourself. A fresh view can bring something to your attention that you might not have thought about. It keeps the project going smoothly.
Ioana: I see it as co-creation. And we can synthesize feedback. You can map it to your vision and see if it registers with what you want to say. We don’t have to apply every reaction.
Jonathon: The fascinating part of working with brands is some of this stuff can be so subjective. You and an art director can love something. Then it goes to whoever is at the top, and they see things from a different standpoint. Maybe that’s where there’s a problem with the image not representing the brand how they want, or it’s not taking them in the direction they want.
It’s easier for me to step back because it’s out of my hands by that stage. It becomes a different world and a different argument, and, by then, I’m usually on to the next project.
That’s part of the game. That’s part of art and commerce mixing. Being creative and representing a brand while staying on point for both is the challenge.
Ioana: It’s tricky to balance your visual style with that of a brand’s.
Do you feel that internal tension when you decide to take on a job? When you read a brief, what is that inner dialogue around determining if the job is for you?
Jonathon: There are a few things. If a brand comes to me and their inspiration is a lot of the work I’ve done, then I know what they’re trying to convey. If they bring a bunch of stuff that’s different than what I do, that’s where I start to wonder why I’m here and what’s the purpose. Am I just this technician? Because anyone can take a picture. Anyone can light something. But what makes you as a photographer is your vision.
So that’s where I get a little concerned with projects. If it’s something that seems very different than what my approach would be, I wonder how I got into this mix. But at the same time, I got to make a living. So, how do you make this happen?
Ioana: How did I end up on your shortlist, dude?
Jonathon: Right. Where did this come from? That’s one of the challenges in making it all work. It happens from time to time, and usually, one way or another, everything works out. But you feel a bit unsure of your role when you’re working with a client in that way.
When they come to me with a mood board of stuff I’ve photographed, or that’s in tune with my vision, then I know where their mind is. I know how to approach the project and how I can fulfill myself, the brand, and the client’s expectations.
Ioana: And you’re seen. Somebody on the brand side did the research and understands you are the go-to person for this project. You have a good counterpart.
Jonathon: And there’s another side to it too. I have friends at brands, and they’re like, “Oh yeah, we used all your work as inspiration for our next campaign,” but they didn’t contact me for it. So I’m like, “What’s going on here?” That’s part of the game as well. It’s the way it is.
Ioana: This is such a great education for people on the brand side about working with creatives.
Tell listeners more about your business. What is one big lesson that sticks with you?
Jonathon: There are a few. Someone once told me the most crucial thing in your photography is to always pay yourself first.
There are a lot of bills when you’re juggling a studio and a project. Once that check comes in, you divvy it up and pay back people. Always keep a section for yourself. Whether you want to reinvest in your business is up to you, but make sure you give yourself a paycheck.
At the beginning of my career, I was very naive and got myself in a tough situation where I wasn’t doing that. You can fall through a hole fast, and that could be the end of your business. That always stuck with me, pay yourself first. If you can’t pay yourself first, it’s going to be very difficult to pay anyone else. Keep that going.
Ioana: You gotta be sustainable. What else?
Jonathon: Going back to vision and creativity. Take what you love to do, whatever you want to photograph, and apply it to the commercial world. If you’re going to be a commercial photographer, obviously.
Ioana: What is that for you?
Jonathon: I started off being more interested in portraiture. I interned for a portrait photographer, and I came to find out I was a terrible portrait photographer. I didn’t have the personality or relationship you need to capture people.
He could tell I had a relationship with mundane things that weren’t very interesting to most, but became interesting in my photographs. That turned my head in a different direction.
That’s how I got into still life and realizing this is a thing. I don’t have that kind of connection people, but I have it with objects. So I take portraits of objects now.
Ioana: That must have felt so good.
Jonathon: It didn’t at the time, I was devastated. I felt awful. I’d thought portraiture was my thing, and I wanted to get into it and photograph musicians and people. But, it’s true. The connection wasn’t there. It was eye-opening to realize it.
Ioana: So when you started photographing objects, did that feel good?
Jonathon: It did. I enjoyed being in the studio and having the time to explore shape and light, what it did, and how it worked together. With people, it’s more about a moment, the connection. You don’t have time to study the light in the same way because it’s a split second, it’s gone.
With objects, I could take the time to explore and, going back to that darkroom feeling, watch the image magically appear.
That felt very good. It felt at home. It was like slipping on your shoes and going for a walk.
Ioana: That’s amazing. I don’t know many people who can say that about their jobs, in general.
Jonathon: I’m blessed to do something I love every day. It’s enjoyable to express yourself creatively, and if you can make a living doing it, you’re a lucky person.
Ioana: Do you feel like you’re fulfilling your purpose through your work?
Jonathon: Yeah, but you got to keep it going. That’s the thing. You can lose it too.
Ioana: How do you keep the ball rolling?
Jonathon: With every job, there’s a new challenge. The excitement of a new challenge keeps me engaged and excited.
Being a freelance photographer, I don’t work for a specific company. So there is also excitement in marketing, thinking about the new work I produce and who wants to see it.
I got hired to do a conceptual project that was so out of what I usually do, but it was based on cosmetic work I had done. So that was a new challenge. All these new things that come keep me moving along and excited.
And if you are excited about what you do, you’re going to work hard at it. And when you’re working hard and excited, there’s going to be some sort of success. That’s this snowball effect going on right now.
Ioana: It’s a feedback loop. One last question before we wind down. The podcast is called Blissfully Aware. What does awareness mean to you?
Jonathon: Be aware of who you are, your purpose, and what you want to achieve. It’s easy to fall into recycling the same thing over and over again. We have one life to do something fulfilling.
That’s what it means to me—to feel good about what I did and happy about moving along in my career. Every day is different. Some days I don’t feel that way. But, if I look at this past year as a whole, I am fulfilled by what I produced and excited about what’s coming up.
Ioana: It’s like you’re going back to center, to what’s important, and calibrating your work to it.
Jonathon: Right. And about social media, which is an essential way to market. Instagram can be great for photography, because it highlights visuals.
So much emphasis can get put on posting an image you feel great about and then obsessing about what feedback you get on it. Separating yourself from that is hard. Getting distracted in that world is counterproductive in a lot of ways.
Knowing yourself and what you feel good about is separate from what someone’s going to like or how many followers you get because of it. They’re two different things.
Ioana: It shouldn’t be quantifiable in that way.
Jonathon: And it’s easy to feel that way. So that’s another way of being aware of who you are and what your importance is. Know that if you feel right about something, it doesn’t matter if it has zero likes. If you feel 100% solid behind it, it doesn’t make a difference what anyone else thinks.
Ioana: It goes back to filtering feedback. On social media, it’s a big one, especially in light of mental health and the wellness of your business. You can’t hang on to what the Instagram collective says about your work if you’re going to move forward and build.
Jonathon: Right. I need to keep my work out there and keep looking forward. And not get preoccupied with all the busy-ness and regurgitation of visuals and all this stuff that obsesses your life.
Ioana: You’re reminding me that over 4 billion people upload stuff to the internet every day. When you think about that and the responsibility we have to each other, it makes you think twice about what you upload on what you say.
Jonathon: Absolutely. We talked about a lot of good stuff.