This is an interview done in 2013 with the well-known event photographer, Rukes. At the time, electronic dance music (EDM) was the fastest-growing genre in the US and the live music scene for DJs was exploding across the world. Rukes had already established himself as the foremost photographer within the genre, and I was fortunate to get a chance to interview him during that time. It remains an interesting read for anyone interesting in music photography, so I decided to reupload it. Below you can read about Rukes’ background, his work and his thoughts on the electronic music scene.
– Hi Rukes. Nice to be speaking with you. I heard that you worked with video games prior to professional photography. What brought about the switch?
I always wanted to work in the game industry, and since I studied journalism in college I started writing part-time for websites like Gaming Age, which nearly got me a job at IGN. Ultimately though, I ended up at Acclaim in New York and worked there full-time until it shut down. I then moved to California because there were more game companies out there, and I took up photography as a good excuse to get into clubs like Avalon and see my favorite DJs. But the club soon offered me a position as their in-house photographer. The job was only a little less money than working with video games, but it involved a lot less work days, so I decided to switch courses and things ended up working out.
– How were the first few years of photography for you? Did you struggle to get your career off the ground?
A little bit. Luckily, I had support from DJs like Hybrid, Sasha and Junkie XL, who saw that I had skill and pushed me to keep going. One of friends, Travis Oscarson, used to work for Getty Images as a photographer, and he helped critique my work by telling me which pictures were the best. So I started to figure out how to maintain that level of photography and slowly got better.
– I’ve heard that you don’t use Photoshop. Is that true?
It is. Prior to 2010, the only adjustments I made would be to the brightness, contrast, saturation and sharpness from the in-camera JPEG. Once I discovered Adobe Lightroom and switched to using RAW files, I discovered more tweaks such as rotating, spot removal, filters and a few color tricks. To this day, I’ve never cropped an image, aside from rotating photos that aren’t leveled, and I’ve never Photoshopped any of my work.
– Many photographers within dance music get upset when their photos are used without permission, but you’ve done the opposite and allowed people to use yours. What led to that decision?
It depends on the situation. Of course if someone uses a photo with no credit or back-links, they do have to pay. But I’m pretty lenient if the artist credits me or links back. In the end, I own the rights to pretty much every photo I’ve taken, so a good bit of give and take with the artist helps in the long run.
The few times I’ve seen photos used commercially without my permission have been in ads for random small clubs. I think artists know not to use my pics without my permission by now. The worst is usually Tumblr – people on there will take an image of mine, remove the logo, crop the photo, apply their watermark and post it. A quick email to Tumblr DMCA usually gets the photo removed and the person’s account probably gets deleted too. An example is when an eighteen year-old kid in Australia posted Photoshoped versions of my pictures on his Tumblr, and then used a fake Rukes account to give props to them. Needless to say, he stopped using my pics pretty quickly and “rukes.tumblr.com” was transferred over to me.
– Can you explain what the difference is between a nightlife photographer and a DJ photographer?
A nightlife photographer is someone who takes pictures of the party itself: the audience, the festivities, the dancing, etc. Galleries like that typically have no defining story; the event could have taken place anywhere and there’s no way to tell otherwise. But a DJ photographer is someone who concentrates solely on the artist and makes him the center of attention, which usually involves photos of the DJ from the crowd’s point of view and vice versa, as well as photos in-between.
– What are some of the biggest taboos of DJ photography?
Getting in other photographers or videographers shots. You need to balance out taking your own photos and ducking out of the way so other people can get a turn. It’s important to figure out the pecking order, especially at big festivals where photographers think they should be on stage even though they have no reason to be there. If the event doesn’t have strict press rules, then the people shooting for the festival or the DJ usually get priority.
A big one that many photographers overlook is making the subject look good. No matter how nice a photo looks in terms of composition or colors, if the DJ is doing an odd face that makes him look unappealing, the photo is still trash.
Lastly, using flash is a big taboo. A few DJs completely ban it because photographers sometimes go crazy with it, and some even treat the DJ booth like their own studio and start rigging lighting. I would suggest to get a decent diffuser, try to point it up and away from the DJ’s eyes, and don’t act like the paparazzi. DJs have to work too, so blinding them isn’t a good idea.
– Given the festive environment of these events, how do you draw the line between enjoying the party and doing your job?
Well, I don’t party or drink, so my camera only goes down when I’m backstage with friends or taking a breather when I have all the photos I need.
– As something of a celebrity yourself, do you ever get bothered by fans or other photographers that want your attention at festivals?
Yes, constantly, and especially if I’m in the press pit at a big event; tons of people tap me on the shoulder while I’m taking pics, or they ask for me to take photos of them. I have to ignore most of those requests because I often use a telephoto lens anyway, which makes it impossible to take a picture of someone at close range. The best time to talk to me is usually when I’m walking around or not taking pictures. I’m more than happy to take photos of people then.
– Just about everyone seems to be showing up at festivals with a camera of some sort these days and expect to get into the photo pit. Does that obstruct your work at all?
Yeah, that happens a lot lately. Thankfully, most festivals have multiple tiers of access, from the pit to unpublished credentials that are made for main stage access. But most festivals have way too many photographers on stage for the first day of the event. They usually find a way to impose the right restrictions by the second day though.
– Do you have a team of people that help you with your photography work?
No I don’t, and I have no intention to get one. There are many photographers who know their work isn’t very unique, so they have to aim for quantity over quality to earn a living, and they keep a team of photographers on staff to keep the flow of work constant. I want people to know that every photo on my website is taken by me, and not by some random person I sent out.
I’ve done short stints with a bunch of DJs lately, so it all depends. Summer in the US usually coincides with the European festival season, so most DJs are overseas now. Once fall hits in the US, then the touring season begins and I get pretty busy.
Towards the end of the year, I might do a few quick tours with Zedd, David Guetta, Calvin Harris, Avicii and a few others. I never have too much planned more than two months ahead of time because things could easily change.
– People say the EDM bubble will burst at some point. Will you branch out to other genres as a form of insurance in case that happens? Or other types of photography, like fashion or fine art?
I’m trying to work in other genres, but it’s getting more and more difficult due to the success of EDM. As it gets bigger, I get more work and there’s less time to try other genres. But I still have it as a goal to start moving into pop and rock.
I’m not into portraiture work, so fashion or fine art wouldn’t work for me. I like the challenge of using natural light, and setting up artificial ones is foreign to me since I learned photography in the dark. I occasionally do glamour modeling photos for friends, but I tell them not to put my name on the pictures – I’d rather not be contacted to do more of that. However, I just started doing press shots, and recently did the ones for Calvin Harris and Krewella, so I’m starting to feel comfortable with that line of photography.
– What’s been some of the most interesting experiences that you’ve had recently in your career?
Just plainly travelling the world has been a great experience. I think the most interesting part has been seeing how different crowds react to different DJs. I have other great experiences apart from that, but most of them probably can’t be mentioned in an interview because you had to be there to believe it, or I was asked not to share the story (laughs).
– Is there anyone among your photography peers that you particularly respect for their work?
Caesar Sebastian is great; his work is in a completely different universe than mine. Rutger Geerling is great too, and is probably the best in Europe; we complement each other very well at Ultra Music Festival and never bump heads in the pit. There’s also Danny Mahoney in Vegas. He takes care of everything at Wynn and Encore and is a really great photographer; I call him the Vegas Rukes (laughs).
– Thanks for talking me Rukes. As a last question, can you share something interesting about yourself that most people don’t know?
I’m a pretty big foodie, so Yelp is one of my favorite apps when traveling around the country (laughs). Plus, I take a lot of food pics on Instagram.