capturing the freaks of life: photographer kareem black

August 3, 2010
He is the self-proclaimed American dream. He has seen poverty, beauty; destruction and life begin and end. Through photography, he’s experienced only the reflection you see in a black and white. Kareem Black, 34, native of Philadelphia who now lives in New York is living his dream; different scenery, people and pleasure. Presently Kareem calls Manhattan home and shoots for an array of publications, including Flaunt, Fader, GQ, Vibe, Verizon, Burger King, Vitamin Water and Kool Aid among others.

Capturing the freaks of Life: Photographer Kareem Black
Interview Simóne Banks

To check out more of Kareem’s work, click here

What type of activities consumed your time as a young boy?
I’ve always been an artist. I started drawing, painting, and doing comic strips. I found photography through painting. I would take photographs of the models that would sit for me. In the end the photographs were more interesting than the painting. They became more valuable and it took less time. I’d be in the attic painting, staying up for days painting and drawing and it was my only interest literally at an early age. I’m so fortunate I found this artistic ability of an art vision where I can actually make money. It’s fun for me. I do this in my spare time. Photography is very commercially viable. I’m not good at anything else. It’s fortunate that everything worked out that way.

Was your family always supportive of your artistic endeavors?

I mean, yes, they were. They didn’t quite understand what I did. My mom is a doctor; my dad is a college professor. My family members are all over achievers. I was always the artist. They still don’t understand what I do; that, I don’t have a steady paycheck or insurance. I don’t have a job! It’s great for me. I make a ton of money, I’m one of the lucky ones. What my family understands is that you have to get a bunch of degrees and go to a bunch of colleges. My mom can’t comprehend not having a regular job. So, they are definitely very supportive, but it frustrates me at times because they just don’t understand my art.

SVA is a dream school for most art students, what type of experiences did you have during college?

I went to art school. It’s not a real school, its art school. It’s more heavily weighted to artistic endeavors. It’s what you make of it. I know people I’ve graduated with that are waiters now. If I wanted to be really rich, I’d open an art school, because you don’t owe anybody anything. I have a BSA degree in photography, I think! It’s what you put into it. A lot of people never saw me in school, I worked hard in school. Your degree is never promised, you have to really earn it. I did well because I got into it. Especially in the NYC area, while I was in school I would drop off my portfolio at ad agencies and photographers. People in art school in Minnesota don’t get that opportunity.

Who is Kareem Black…in reference to your work?

That’s a new question! I’m not sure. There are a lot of different sides to me; I have a lot of different interests. I like looking at life, in a different way. I think that there is a difference between a specialist and a generalist. I consider myself a generalist. Specialists do one thing extraordinarily well, but I do a lot of things well. I tend to look at my work like that. There is a lot of humor in my work. Sometimes I walk in a shoot and not know what I want to do. But why would you want to know what you’re going to do? There is no test there for you. Hopefully, there will be a large number of jobs available so that as I grow, my voice becomes bigger and I’ll become capable of representing my art my way.

What was your most memorable experience since you’ve been a photographer?

I don’t know, I think that my life is so abstract that I don’t know what I’m going to be doing tomorrow or where I’ll be traveling. I’ve been so fortunate to live my life the way I do. A lot of things I’ve been lucky to do a lot of people haven’t because of photography. Like going to Sri Lanka after the Tsunami or seeing the Panama Canal or touching pyramids in Egypt. But all this has been able to happen, because I take pictures. Every time I think about it. I’m like WHOA this is f***ing crazy. People are going to pay me a bunch of money to take pictures and live in a crazy hotel. Sometimes, I hope that people don’t discover that I’m just a normal guy. Because then this dream might end. My life is NUTS! I get it though, in a weird way, I’m getting away with something. Like Verizon doing a commercial about me. They wanted a print ad, and they wanted me to include myself in the ad campaign. There were two other people, and they did a 60 second spot about ME and my photography. That’s NUT! Verizon is like a big corruption on the Stock Exchange, and they did a 60 second spot about me! To me it’s interesting, because I realize what they want to do and the demographic that they want to hit. Like this is a lot of fun, I don’t have the right to B***h about anything.

Where are some of the places you’ve traveled?

I usually go to third world countries, Sri Lanka, Iceland, Egypt, Panama, Mexico, France and I’ve been all over the USA. In the future Stockholm and Amsterdam.

What is fascinating to me are the 7 wonders of the world. My trip to Egypt was big because I’ve always been fascinated by that country. So it was a definite culture shock. I realized that there are no poor people here. There are no starving people in America. It gives you insight on what you have, what we do to other cultures, why we do it to other cultures, how other people see us. I think it’s different when you actually travel to other countries. Then you can discover what “I” and “we” are. It’s not always a pleasurable experience. You want to reach out and do something, but then you feel awkward because you can’t help everyone. Sri Lanka after the tsunami was very emotional for me. The things I saw were unimaginable. I was sitting there and all I could equate to what I saw were the things I saw in the movies. I can’t take myself out of what I’ve seen. I know what to look for and how to prepare myself for the unexpected. That’s why being a photographer is such an inner experience for me.

What’s your inspiration?
Because I enjoy doing what I do, and the way I live. In the grand aspect, everyone wants to leave a mark. Everyone is afraid of dying; I don’t care what anyone tells you, no one wants to die. That’s why people have children so that they are remembered. For me, it’s taking pictures, to affect people I may not even meet; to approach a world audience. When I thought it would never be possible. I want to see as much of this world as I can before I die. I never want to meet people who are like me; I want to meet people who are unlike me. To engage people all around me; even if they don’t believe what I believe. I think that artist can change the world. People from other cultures, communities, walks of life can relate to how we view our art. It’s a conversation. A lot of things people end up saying to me or open up and admit would never say to me if I were just a random person. That’s the big inspiration of mine, using art as my conversation. Just like walking down the street in NYC seeing my billboards and people will look at me, and not even know that I did that billboard. That’s where I’m already interacting with them, without even saying anything. That’s the perk of what I do.

What’s your biggest fear?
Getting a desk job! I think not having the freedom that I do now. Like getting locked up, that would suck! I don’t know how people do that, not having access to anything or being able to see the world. Not being able to do what I’m doing right now. Not doing anything inspiring is my biggest fear. Why wouldn’t you want to live life. I know people in Philly who have never left Philly, or the country. That’s so weird to me. How could you not want to experience the world?

Is there anyone that you would love to photograph?
I’d love to photograph/hang out with William Shatner or the whole cast of Star Trek. I’m totally fascinated by celebrity culture and what it has become. I have the biggest crush on Lindsay Lohan. I’d like to photograph and hang out with her. I see what she’s about. She’s just so smart to me and using what she has at an advantage and gets away with it. Like she’s saying, “yeah I’m young, sexy, deal with it” She’s not necessarily about anything, but from whom this culture has made her is fascinating. I’d like to photograph Bush, President Barack Obama, and Bill Clinton; these are the giants of our time. I’d like to photograph The Queen of England as well. Wouldn’t that be interesting, to be in the same room and deal with someone like that? Bill Clinton and Bush are at the top right now.