Having shot the likes of Travis Scott, Billie Eilish and Arctic Monkeys, and boasting a client list including Rolling Stone and NME, the LA-based artist unpacks her advice on building a career in music photography
For as long as Pooneh Ghana can remember, her life has revolved around the music scene. Born in San Antonio, Texas, it started as an escape from a high school environment that made her unhappy. “I was always running away to Austin for shows,” she says, “or saving up my money to travel to festivals. Just doing everything I could to get out of there.” When she was 16, The White Stripes partnered with Lomography on a limited edition Holga camera. A diehard Stripes fan, Ghana was naturally drawn to it – and just like that, her love for music became inextricable from photography.
Growing up, Ghana’s father had plans for her to be a pharmacist. She settled for a degree in marketing. But neither were what she wanted to do: she continued shooting relentlessly in her own time, and today – 13 years later – the self-taught image-maker is a leading music photographer. She’s shot the likes of Travis Scott, Billie Eilish and Arctic Monkeys, and her client roster includes Universal Music Group, Atlantic Records and Red Bull, alongside publications like Rolling Stone, NME, FADER and Kerrang!.
Chiefly, Ghana traces her beginnings back to Flickr. “I took a lot of Polaroids for fun,” she says. “I would go and wait and try to meet the bands after shows, and upload them to Flickr afterwards, which started gaining a bit of traction.” The intimacy of these early shots, thanks to the informal nature of Polaroid, seemed to resonate with fellow fans and soon the images caught the attention of influential Dallas-based music blog Gorilla vs. Bear (a platform that has proved instrumental in putting the likes of Charlie XCX, Leon Bridges and Animal Collective on the map in the US). The blog began sending Ghana money via PayPal for film, and she would cover local Austin music events in return. Other music and culture websites caught wind of her work, and Ghana gradually progressed into commercial and editorial assignments.
Much like the environments she captures, Ghana’s portfolio throbs with a raw and intoxicating energy: a visceral mix of smoke, sweat and sheer passion on stage, combined with stolen moments of camaraderie off it. “I try to approach my photography by thinking about the kind of pictures I would’ve wanted on my walls when I was 15,” she muses, considering why her work stood out to commissioners in the early days. “I just want it to be as real as possible; for viewers to feel like they’re peeking into a moment of these artists’ lives… It’s definitely not technically perfect, but that’s what makes it special.”
She shoots across Polaroid, analogue and digital (carrying “an arsenal of different cameras” on her at all times), and cites the sounds of the early 2000s (The Strokes, Arctic Monkeys) alongside rock and punk music of the mid-to-late-70s (The Sex Pistols, Joy Division) as her main driving forces. “All the photos and footage from that time, it’s just stunning,” she says. “It’s so wrapped up in the moment. You really feel the nostalgia, and wish you were there. That’s inspired a lot of my aesthetic.”
Ghana’s main advice for photographers looking to follow in her path? Dedicate the time to researching the right kit for you. Practice, practice, and practice some more. And once you’ve built up a portfolio of work, reach out as much as you can. “It’s all about taking those shots in the dark,” she says. “Just being like, ‘okay, here’s my work, I’m based in X city. If you need a photographer for this festival, or this event, I’m available’.” Similarly, if there’s an artist you want to tour with, send them a direct message. Start small, be persistent, and see how far you can get. “I’ve come to find that the worst that can happen is people say no,” she says, “and you’d be surprised how many people are willing to say yes”. The same goes for introducing yourself to people at shows, and building a network in person.
While it was Flickr in the early days, unsurprisingly, Ghana’s Instagram presence has come to play a substantial part in bringing in work. She cites her 60,000 followers as a product of “constantly sharing my stuff and trying to be active about that, but also trying to be myself at the same time”. Alongside Instagram, word-of-mouth is a big factor in soliciting assignments — so the power of being a ‘people person’ can never be underestimated. “From the feedback I’ve gotten, just from shooting with bands and going on tour and stuff, is that I always make it as chilled, and as painless, as possible,” she says. “Very comfortable, low stress, as though we’re just hanging out.”
Versatility is also key. “Especially now, “ she says, “If you want to do stuff like touring, a lot of times people might ask you to do photography and video. But even if it’s just for your own creative abilities, learning something new – whether it’s animation, or how to develop your own film – can just open so many doors for you.” As well as a multifaceted skill set, she maintains it’s important to be adaptable. “Every show, every festival, every photo pit is different. Creatively, that means letting go of control and just working with what’s in front of you… Or if you’re shooting portraits at a festival, you’ll only have five to ten minutes with each artist. That means going straight into a space and saying to yourself, ‘ok, this is my environment; I’ve got a black tarp and five minutes to work with, how am I going to make this look interesting?’”
Finally, once you do start landing assignments, navigating pay can be its own beast. If you’re just starting out, Ghana notes there are other types of compensation you might gain from doing work for free. “If you’re just shooting a few photos for an artist you want to work with, you need to ask yourself, ‘what is this worth to me? Will this benefit me in the future?’” That said, it’s not uncommon for clients to take advantage: “A lot of times, you know the client has money to pay, and they’re just being cheap. Especially if it’s like a multimillion dollar company,” she says. In these circumstances, it’s worth learning to stand your ground. If they want you, they often find the money. To help with fees and contracts, as well as bringing in more work, it could well be worth seeking out an agent.
Flossie Skelton joined British Journal of Photography in 2019, where she is currently Commissioning Editor across awards, Studio and partner content. She does freelance writing, editing and campaign work across arts, culture and feminism; she has worked with BBC Arts, Belfast Photo Festival and Time’s Up. She is also an illustrator, with artwork published in Marie Claire, ES Magazine, Sunday Times Style and the Guardian.