Behind the Cover: AB+DM on shooting Willow Smith for Nylon

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“We wanted to create something that felt limitless.” Inspired by Michael and Janet Jackson’s iconic Scream music video, the creative duo unpack their latest futuristic fashion story

As a creative duo, AB+DM – made up of Atlanta-based photographers Ahmad Barber and Donté Maurice – have barely been on the scene a year. In that time, they’ve shot over 30 covers: the likes of Zendaya, Cardi B, Naomi Osaka and Anne Hathaway, for titles including Essence, Vogue Hong Kong, GQ and In Style. More startling, still, is that they’ve achieved all this in the same year that a global pandemic shut down the production industries. “Every day definitely feels like a ‘thank you, Jesus’ moment,” says 26-year-old Maurice. “A true blessing.”

For the latest cover of Nylon, the pair were tasked with capturing Willow Smith – artist, Red Table talk host and all-round Hollywood royalty – as she rages headfirst into a new “pop-punk” era. Now known professionally as WILLOW, the 20-year-old daughter of Will Smith and Jada Pinkett Smith has come a long way since her Whip My Hair days. She even shaved her head on stage during a punk rendition of the 2010 hit last month: an act she describes as marking a “monumental [time] in my life, when things are really changing”.

AB+DM’s energy as they talk about Smith over Zoom is infectious. It’s 8:30pm in London, but chatting to them is like a welcome splash of water to the face. “Before we knew we were doing this job, we were jamming out to her first single when she did her big rock unveiling,” says 30-year-old Barber. “She’s such an inspiring person to shoot, because you just know she’s going to be down with the get-down” (“Oh, she definitely was,” chimes in Maurice).

© AB+DM for Nylon Magazine.

Taking place over the course of a day at Popsicle Studio, LA, the shoot yielded two eye-popping alternative covers: in one, Smith looms over the lens in a futuristic black and white Annakiki outfit; enclosed in a white box, yet larger than life. In the other, she dons a striking Schiaparelli headpiece (think extra-terrestrial meets heavy glamour), her bare skin bathed in rich shadow (“Somehow, a Schiaparelli piece always ends up on our sets,” Barber laughs. “Every shoot,” echoes Maurice).

Karen Hibbert, senior vice president of creative at Nylon, had come to the duo with a creative treatment inspired by Michael and Janet Jackson’s iconic Scream music video (1995). In it, the brother and sister cavort around a block white, hyper-modern spaceship. Maurice and Barber then countered with an extended moodboard, pushing the concept further: “How can we make this more modern? How do we bring more of a punk couture vibe to it?” Much of their research consisted of scouring Smith’s past shoots  – as well as how Scream references have been produced and reproduced in popular culture – in order to conjure something utterly unique. “Everybody’s seen black and white. Everybody’s seen LED walls,” says Maurice. “We wanted to create something that felt limitless.”

The day wasn’t without its challenges: trying (and, for a long while, failing) to make strobe lighting work in tandem with an LED ceiling; grappling with the stark reflectiveness of the Schiaparelli headpiece (“I made the mistake of wearing a white shirt that day,” laughs Barber). But ultimately, Smith made it easy; diving into the concept, and making it her own. “There was no push back,” says Barber, warmly. “No aversion to what we wanted to do.” Generally, AB+DM like to choose shots on set – “It’s like America’s Next Top Model,” jokes Maurice – and the singer got stuck into this part of the process, too. 

© AB+DM for Nylon Magazine.

Central to the pair’s success, it seems, is their ability to build connections that run “deeper than the job”. Hibbert sought out AB+DM to shoot Smith after hitting it off with the pair when they shot Olivia Rodrigo for the May issue. “We try to think beyond just what’s happening on set,” reflects Barber, “like, okay, we got the job done — but how are we following up? How are we communicating? What are the relationships that we’re developing?” On the slim chance that a publication’s creative team wouldn’t fall in love with them, “we want the talent to say it’s either AB+DM, or the highway,” laughs Maurice. 

After listening to them finish one another’s sentences for an hour, it is surprising to learn that Barber and Maurice only connected for the first time via Instagram in 2018. After admiring one another’s work from afar, they assisted each other on a handful of shoots, before launching AB+DM Studio in May 2020. In fact, the pair are full of surprises. Barber has a degree in biology and maths, and nearly opted for medical school; “I’m a super nerd,” he says. Maurice had originally planned to be an actor: “Yeah, that didn’t work out at all,” he laughs. 

They’re both self-taught in photography, but ultimately, they “became mentors to each other”. Where Maurice specialised in portraiture and intimate shoots, Barber delighted in capturing movement, fashion and wide angles. Where Barber considers himself the “mental, cerebral” part of AB+DM – nailing their logistics, processes and gear – he describes Maurice as the “the feeling, the soul”: constantly joking and dancing around with the talent. 

“Once we met, we realised we were so in sync in a way that felt honestly uncanny,” says Barber. “Since that moment, we’ve never looked back.”

© AB+DM for Nylon Magazine.
© AB+DM for Nylon Magazine.
Flossie Skelton

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.