Karan Teli‘s path to music photography was anything but typical. A self-described hip-hop fan at heart, he initially went to university to study law before eventually taking photography in 2018. “I think I actually prefer people knowing the work but not knowing too much about me, like Frank Ocean,” he shares. Today, Karan’s photographs have appeared in GQ, Dummy Mag, and many more.
Dave East, Jorja Smith, PARTYNEXTDOOR, and SiR are amongst the many to walk in front of Karan’s lens. His genuine approach to capturing moments—”Taking pictures I’m proud of and that the people I’ve worked with are happy, that’s always the most rewarding,” Karan shares—is undoubtedly a big part of what draws people towards him. Karan Teli is paving a way for young photographers across London to be themselves and do what they love.
For Behind The Lens, Karan Teli talks to us about turning his passion into a career, the most rewarding part of photography, and much more! Read below.
What sparked your interest in photography and what drove you to take that passion and turn it into a career or something much more?
I never saw myself doing anything like this, especially with photography. It started for me as a writer; I had a blog during university where I would write articles about music or sports, along with an occasional interview with a local musician, but even that, I just saw it as a hobby or a way of expressing myself. But it wasn’t until my friends Bobby and Hus came to me with an idea they had for a while, an online publication called 14HQ; which really put the battery in my back.
They really just showed me and made me believe that this doesn’t have to be something I see as a hobby or just something fun; it’s something that we can really turn into a legitimate business and make something ourselves, from the ground up. From there it was just straight tunnel vision. That was around September 2016 when we officially launched. It wasn’t until January 2018 that I started photography; I knew I wanted to start photography but I had no idea where to begin. That’s when my friend Amos introduced me to film photography.
Sitting here 3 years later, I can say he changed my whole life. That night I bought a Yashica Point and Shoot Film Camera and just started shooting. Parties, concerts, portraits of friends, you name it and I was shooting it. It’s something I just fell in love with overnight. Around March, I quit my job in Zara and just went for it.
I knew I had a few months before I realistically needed to get a new job to pay my bills and rent, so I knew I had 3 or 4 months to really try and make a name for myself and build some type of portfolio. I wasn’t worried about the money at that point. I knew people weren’t going to pay me right from the start when I have no portfolio, so that’s what I really worked on. I had no network, no industry contacts, nothing. It was all about building it from ground zero.
You have photographed some of the hottest names in music. What is the biggest misconception about working with artists and what do you enjoy the most when working with artists?
Each experience is different, but the thing I enjoy the most is just the energy that you feed off from them. When it’s a live show, there really is nothing better. I’ve been an avid concert attender my whole life. So to be able to go now, as somebody ‘working’ and capturing certain moments of history is what’s most enjoyable, especially if it’s an artist I love.
Sometimes I’ll forget what I’m actually there for and be having way too much fun. Security will come up to me sometimes saying, “aren’t you supposed to be working?” But that’s a luxury that shooting on film gives me. After I’ve taken a picture, it’s done. I can’t stand there and analyse, I just have to move onto the next shot. So it gives me more freedom to enjoy the show.
The biggest misconception I would say is simply the artist relationships. There are so many people behind an artist in their team; those people are just as important too. Very rarely are you going to instantly have a personal connection with an artist, especially if it’s your first time working together. But if you build a relationship with their publicist, assistant, manager and people like that, people whom they trust and can vouch for you, it’s the key to building a real working and personal relationship with artists.
A lot of the time photographers and creative directors are often overlooked. Do you think that social media has helped change this narrative or made it easier to move throughout the space?
There’s no question it’s made it easier for people to move through this space. People are a lot more accessible than you believe. Opportunities can really be created through sending one DM or having some of your photos go viral on Twitter. Instagram is just another way of showcasing your portfolio and hopefully building relationships through there. You can connect with other creative people through socials; anything from asking advice to working on collaborations.
I don’t think that narrative of being overlooked will ever completely change though. As a photographer, you’re only as good as your subject. You know that the ‘talent’ will always come first. It’s no secret that the higher celebrity status the person in your picture has; most people will believe it to be a better picture. But the people that understand the creativity and the work that goes behind taking great pictures, regardless of the subject, will always appreciate the photographers, creative directors, make-up artists, stylists, and so on.
Whether it be shooting live shows or on the sets of music videos, how do you best capture emotion and energy?
When you shoot on film, just live in the moment. Realistically, you aren’t going to be able to take 200-300 pictures at a gig/video shoot, so you have to pick your spots. Stay focused and stay ready, because you never know what moment might create a memorable picture. I try to wait for people to genuinely be smiling and enjoying themselves before taking pictures.
That way it’s more real than me asking somebody I don’t know for a picture, where they’ll probably put up a peace sign or middle finger. I may have shot them, but what did I actually capture? Are they even going to want to see that picture, or would they rather see the real ones? The ones where they might not have even realized you took their photo, but you captured a real moment. That’s how I try to approach shows and music videos.
What is the most rewarding part of your job as a photographer and what is the most challenging?
The work is always the most rewarding. Taking pictures I’m proud of and that the people I’ve worked with are happy, that’s always the most rewarding. But being able to provide opportunities for other people getting into photography is right up there. Being able to give photographers photo passes for live shows, bring them on sets to do BTS, or shoot their own portraits and help them grow their careers is always rewarding.
The most challenging thing is just staying the course and moving forward when it seems impossible. You might have work until 6 PM but then a concert from 9-11 PM then work the next day at 9 AM. That might be 4 times in a week, and you’ve made no money from it. Then you have to sacrifice your weekend plans to do two more shoots, but at the end of the week you’ve actually lost money because of all the traveling, and in my case, film development. That’s when it’s most challenging. But if you love what you do, then it’s easy to stay the course and believe that eventually, things will change.
What advice do you have for young photographers who want to work with artists?
Get active. There are live shows on every day. Go shoot with local artists and build a portfolio of work. DM artists or models and try new things, try new concept shoots and expand your body of work. My first month in photography, other than the occasional concert, I was only shooting my friend Jackie. Anytime I got new film, wanted to try new camera settings or different concepts, she was my muse. Use the people you have around you. Those shoots with Jackie helped me learn a lot about photography early on.
That phrase ‘it’s not about what you know, it’s who you know’ – unfortunately, it’s true. Get out there and network. Message PR companies and labels, even if it’s for a cup of coffee or a lunch. Actually, try and build relationships with people. If you want a photo pass for a live show, just email the artist’s publicist or label representative. It sounds impossible, but really, 5 minutes on Google and you can have the email for both those people. Don’t be afraid to email the same person 3 or 4 times asking the same thing; sometimes people will genuinely just miss an email.
What are you hoping to explore with your photography in the near future?
The sky’s the limit. A lot of my work recently has been event work or live shows, but that’s just a small part of what I want to do. I definitely want to work on editorial projects and portraits. Definitely work on some more campaigns. I’ve got a few passion projects in the works that hopefully one day can turn into books or exhibitions. That’s the vision anyway. But those things take time. I don’t want to rush and put out a product that’s a 7/10, just to have it out there. I’d rather take my time and have it at the perfect level.
If you enjoyed our chat with London’s Karan Teli, peep our interview with Marko The Shooter!