Interview by Kazeem Kuteyi, Photography by Kahlil Hernandez
What piqued our interest in having a conversation with Ahmed Klink was not just his impressive portfolio but his story. (He has shot for XXL, Slam Magazine, The Source, PitchFork, Barcardi and has photographed many celebrities). In our conversation, you’ll find a person who left the medical field and jumped right into a career path that’s known for its uncertainty. Recently, he co-founded Sunday Afternoon, an artist representation company and creative studio with his friend Shane Griffin, a multi-faceted designer. Over Tacos, we had a great conversation about his early beginnings, $10 paycheques from Pitchfork and what success means to him.
How do you go from having a medical degree to doing photography?
I grew up in France and I graduated with an engineering degree in Paris in 2006. For a year I couldn’t really find any work and I was pretty interested in pursuing a PhD in biomedical engineering. I eventually got the opportunity to come to New York and study at Mount Sinai School of Medicine. During my year of unemployment, I discovered a point and shoot my Mom had bought on a trip in Japan – an old Sony Cybershot. It was just sitting there in a drawer. I started taking it everywhere with me, wandering in the streets of Paris at night. It grew on me, I loved the feeling of freedom it gave me. I knew I was leaving Paris and I really wanted to capture the last moments of my life there. My friends, the street life, the different neighborhoods, the diversity. It is funny when you live in a city, you never think about the things you see everyday. This camera really opened my eyes in a certain way, I started noticing little things here and there. Moments.. It was really cool. Once I got to New York, I just kept it with me. My roommate in my first apartment was also a photographer. We both loved music, we started photographing concerts and shows indifferent venues. This was like in 2008, Pitchfork was starting to take off and they were always looking for live photographers so I hit them up. They liked my work and I started shooting for them. I did a lot of concerts, I shot a lot of up and coming artists — I remember shooting Lykke Li back when she was still relatively unknown in 2009.
The health field is where you can make a lot of money right?
And you are pursuing something that is considered risky to a bunch of people.
So why would you do that? Is it happiness that you are chasing?
I was showing up at work everyday right and at night I was shooting concerts. Then sometimes during the day I would be at the hospital and people would say to me what are you doing here, you take good pictures. I was a Ph.D student and I was not really getting paid but I had housing and all of that so I did not have the pressure of making money through photography. I had bit of money from my Ph.D and a scholarship that allowed me to pursue my passion without having to compromise. Oh shit, I cannot shoot for $10. Pitchfork used to send me $10 cheques in the mail. I was ashamed to go to the bank to cash $10 cheques. I would have to wait to have 20 of those cheques. I wrote that in their Wikipedia page and they kept on deleting it.
Haha, can I keep this in the piece?
Okay, because no one can delete this!
Definitely keep that. It is a story that is amazing to me. My Ph.D was four years and I was pursuing photography while I was doing that. I did a lot of homework. Shooting shows is cool but was sort of limiting in a way. I was like, “I want to shoot for magazines and I want to shoot billboards”. These $10 checks were cool but if I was really gonna do this, I had to be able to make a living off of it. I envisioned bigger things for myself and I asked myself, “How the fuck do I do that?” I did my homework, I started looking for photo editors of magazines that I liked etc. One thing led to another, I met people and I started getting assignments. My first assignment was in Source Magazine and they were not paying any money either but I was like “oh shit, a print magazine!”— plus The Source, I mean I used to read The Source!
Yeah, that is the Holy Grail.
It is definitely part of hip-hop culture for sure! I was pretty stoked when I got an assignment with them. The way I got the assignment for The Source was because in 2009, a Belgian online publication sent me to shoot this music festival here in New York. I asked the folks at the festival for PR contacts of the bands that were playing and they sent me back the entire MASTER LIST of every PR contact of every band that was scheduled to play in the 3 days. Fucking Jay-Z was headlining! You can imagine…
You had the golden list!
Yeah I had the golden list. So then I emailed every band’s PR and I was like, I work for this publication and I will be in the press area. I asked if they could give me five minutes with their bands so I could take a portrait. I was the only idiot there who brought a white background and I set up lights. People were like, “What the fuck are you doing?” You know, obviously some people said no, Jay-Z’s PR never got back to me — but some people said yes. I got The Cool Kids. I photographed Vampire Weekend. In three days, I had like a full portfolio of images — it was basic, on white portraits but they were cool, they were engaging. I went to The Source with that portfolio and they are like, “Hey, this guy knows how to photograph celebrities”. My first assignment for them was Kevin Hart. I got lucky. Kevin Hart in 2011 is not Kevin Hart now. Till this day, it was the funniest photoshoot I have ever done. Once I saw the assignments coming in, I felt more comfortable doing them and of course I wanted to graduate. It was important to me. I wrote my thesis, presented it a to a jury and they are like, “what are you going to do next?”— I said I’m going to be a photographer.
How did your parents react to that?
They supported me. They knew I was shooting on the side. It was not like I dropped the ball and said I was moving to LA to become an actor. Everything was a gradual process and I think they were able to witness my growth. Once I started getting in print magazines, I think that was a big one for them. I am sure they saw that I did not suck at it. Honestly by the time I graduated in 2011, I knew it would be hard for a year or two but I knew I could sustain myself with a little bit from photography. I started shooting for different magazines, Slam Magazine called me. That was cool. I used to hang their posters in my bedroom. I am a huge basketball fan. I used wake up at 3:00am in France to watch the games. The Bulls, the Knicks, the All Star Games.
Who did you shoot for your first cover?
My first cover for SLAM didn’t happen for at least 2 years. My first assignment for SLAM was a basketball camp for the deaf in Atlanta ran by Mike Glenn, a former basketball player who used to play for the Knicks. He runs this camp for the deaf in Atlanta. It is 300 kids from around the country coming to play basketball. It was an interesting session because I could not speak to them and I wanted to shoot portraits of them. I do not know sign language so I had to find another way. Their eyes were so expressive. They communicate in different ways, the way they interact with the camera, it was fascinating. I think these kids made me a better photographer that day. SLAM liked the photos and then they got me to shoot the Big Punk section of that magazine which was about kept shooting for them. After several more assignments, they gave me my first NBA player and cover. It was Russell Westbrook. I think that was in 2014. I was in Miami for Art Basel. The Photo Editor of Slam at the time (the super rad Melissa Medvedich) texted me and was like, “What are you doing on Monday? Do you want to shoot Russell Westbrook in Oklahoma city?” I was on vacation, I did not have my cameras haha. It was one of those situations where you say yes and figure out how to make shit happen after. The budget was super tight. I remember I had to put the flight on my Dad’s credit card. I called producer friends in New York if asked if they knew any rental spots in Oklahoma where I could rent lights, equipment, etc. There was none so I literally had to pay $2000 to bring lights from Tulsa to Oklahoma City. I did not make money at all on this shoot. The entire budget went to lights and equipment. We had a pre-light session on the Sunday and shot Russell on Monday. It was stressful but luckily, everything came together. Russell was dope and we took some great pictures.
You are self taught right?
Yeah. I mean a lot of people put emphasis on lights and how to light a set but it is not as hard as it sounds. I think if you have a good understanding of how light behaves, you can pick it up really quickly. For me, I was more interested in the interaction I was having with my subject rather than just lighting it perfectly. Sometimes the lighting is not perfect but the moment you catch is amazing. I think that has to count for something.
What is the best way to make a subject comfortable?
I think that you just have to relate to them. A lot of times when I shoot a celebrity, I have never met them before. I go online and try to find out what they like, how old they are, and I try to find something we can relate to. Have they been in a show that I watched? Have they made music that I listen to? I try to engage with them— I think that is super important. But if they want to be quiet, let them be quiet. I play off of their personality.
How do you develop the discipline since you are self taught?
Discipline in what sense?
Well I mean, you are not handing in assignments to anyone or you do not have anyone to answer to as per your progress in your learning. I always find people who teach themselves things fascinating because you want it so bad, you will do anything to learn.
Yeah, for me it was really about finding out what type of pictures I wanted to take and how do I make that happen. I was shooting live shows and I wanted to shoot portraits, lifestyle campaigns etc. — How do I get there? No one is going to hire me if I cannot show that I could shoot portraits, so I started doing that. I wanted to shoot lifestyle campaigns so I started shooting my friends partying. I built my portfolio off of those images. It led me to shoot liquor campaigns, Now I shoot for Bacardi, Smirnoff etc. I think it is important to know what you love shooting and find a way to make it happen.
You started at a time when there was no Instagram and it was not about numbers or perception.
Right. I think instagram is an incredible tool for photographers but it is easy to lose your way, particularly if you are coming up in this era. People worry about getting followers likes. I get that but it shouldn’t be all about that — Really. I know some of the best photographers in the world and they have 600 followers on Instagram. I think that as a photographer and more generally as an artist there are things other than followers and likes you have to strive for. If you want to be a celebrity on Instagram, that’s fine but I do think that is a different job in a way.
How does one stand out?
Just do you! Do you! Don’t limit yourself or let people categorize your work. A lot of photographers become known for a certain style on instagram and they can’t really evolve from there because every time they will post a photo, that is what their audience will expect from them. It’s sort of a blessing and a curse. I think that you always evolve as an artist.
I never want to take the same photos I took five years ago. Just do you, experiment. Try something new. I recently started shooting with a bunch of colors and gels — The first time I tried it was for my cover shoot with Future for XXL. After it came out, I got hired to shoot in that style a lot more. I think that’s great. People reward you for taking risks and trying new things. Of course, now I see that style popping out everywhere haha. But it’s great to be in a place where you can influence pop culture in a way.
I think there is a lot of pressure for photographers and image makers to conform to a certain aesthetic because of what they see is successful Instagram. It is hard but you have to take risks if you want to stand out.
But do you think part of the problem is that brands are giving these kids free kicks in exchange for a social media post? If a kid sees another guy getting free stuff because they own a 5D, they might want to follow and do the same. At the end of the day, free kicks doesn’t pay the bills.
Of course. In the grand scheme of things, social media is still relatively new and I believe everyone is still trying to figure it out. No one has the cheat codes yet. Brands and advertisers included. If you are a photographer or an artist, you have to know what you want. Getting free sneakers is cool only if it’s gonna get you where you want to go. Maybe free kicks is the new $10 check Pitchfork used to give haha. It’s a good starting point.
How do you deal with failure?
I have failed a bunch of times. I never want to lose a client to another photographer but it happens. Some people are better photographers than me, some people are willing to take less money than me… At a certain point you have to be okay with that. I never think about failure as an option when I go into a project. I do not see failure as an option. When I transitioned to full time photography, I was broke for a while. When my Russell Westbrook cover was on stands, I literally had $4 in my bank account but I had a Russell Westbrook cover on the news stand. I was very proud.
It is up to you to what decide what failure or success is.
Yeah. That cover was success to me.
At what point do you quit a part time job to pursue your passion full time?
You got to make a jump. That is what it is going to come down to. Having a job makes you comfortable in a way so you are always going to wait for the assignment that is going to make you quit — but then that assignment will never come if you do not quit your job. It’s sort of the chicken and the egg. But I think it’s a personal feeling. It is whenever you feel ready.
Is school important to you when it comes to creativity?
School is important and it teaches you a lot of the fundamentals. The thing is, college in America can kill creativity because of the insane costs involved to go to college. Kids graduate from photo school and they are 200K debt. They have to work right out of school and in the photo industry, it is really hard to get your foot in the door. A lot of kids assist and can’t really dedicate time to shooting what they love. A lot of people who go to school for photography don’t end up photographers. That’s kind of crazy to me. If you love photography that much, you need to shoot. I obviously understand they have to repay their student loans. But yeah… You really have to find the strength to remain productive and creative, I think. Be patient and never lose sight of your goal. It will happen.