Believe it or not, pristine photo-ops and snapshots require more than just wielding a camera.
Enter Armen Keleshian, who has snapped flicks of everyone from Kanye West to Future, all the way down to sports icons such as Kobe Bryant and Floyd Mayweather.
In an exclusive conversation with HipHopDX, Keleshian talks how his international trek enabled him to be positioned into capturing the lives of some of the game’s most prominent figures.
Photo: Provided by Armen Keleshian
HipHopDX: How long have you been out here in L.A.? In the mix, as I’ve seen you all over. Give me the rundown. When do you get to start?
Armen Keleshian: I moved to L.A. eight years ago, but I’ve been in the scene shooting for about five.
HipHopDX: When you moved, were you a photographer?
Armen Keleshian: Yeah, I’ll give you a little bit of the back story. I was doing this back home in Beirut, Lebanon in the Middle East. And I started small there. I started in the small comedy scene there. I had a friend of mine that was doing comedy shows. I would just take my camera with me. I would get some photos. This was, at the time I was 17, 18 years old. Just take some photos, try to figure out a lighting situation, how cameras work, and all of that.
After about a year of doing that, that same dude that I was shooting and doing my thing with, he had a radio show. And that radio station was basically like the iHeartRadio of the Middle East. So they just brought me on to shoot their concerts. Just kind of like an in-house photo intern kind of thing. And then that’s how I started, man. That’s how I got into the music scene out there.
And then I met Steve Lobel. And after that, pretty much everything changed. So when I moved to L.A., I hit up Steve and we had met in Lebanon when he brought out J. Cole at the time. I said, “Yo, I’m in L.A., I’d love an opportunity to come shadow you. If you ever need content, I’d love to come and shoot.”Just getting them going around. And Steve said, “I got you.” So, he put me on here in the scene, connecting me with a lot of people, took me to a lot of events, a lot of places. And that’s how I built relationships and slowly started to grow.
HipHopDX: That’s awesome. Shout out to Uncle Steve.
Armen Keleshian: Yeah man, shout out to Steve. He really helped put on a lot of people, and I’m one of them.
HipHopDX: Back in Lebanon, who would you say were the first rapper that you were able to shoot, and develop a rapport? Who’d be the first rapper that let you get close to them? Was it J. Cole?
Armen Keleshian: I’ll say it would be Wiz. He and I have a very good relationship. Funny enough, so I was shooting at the time with SKEE TV, with DJ Skee and they had a show on, I think on AXS. And he was just doing these shows. And I just linked up with Wiz on one of the episodes there. And we just kind of like hit it off. And then at the time, I was also working part-time at the Apple store. So he came in one day, and he was trying to get a phone, and I saw him, we connected. He’s like, “Yo, you’re my guy now, we’re homie.” So every time he needed some of his Apple stuff, he would hit me anytime there was a music video shoot.
And then I got a chance to do a few shows here in L.A. when he was doing the 420 Tour with Snoop. So Wiz became a really good friend of mine, I guess. So, up until this day, anytime he sees me it’s all love. I’ve done a lot of BTS stuff for him. I’ve done a lot of concert shots, performance shots, in the club. So it’s just kind of like we maintained that relationship over the years. He’s like one of the homies at this point.
HipHopDX: That’s awesome.
Armen Keleshian:He is a great dude.
Photo: Provided by Armen Keleshian
Honestly, a lot of people don’t know about him, but he’s very open. He helps a lot of people. He helps put a lot of people on. And he does it behind the scenes. He doesn’t advertise it. He doesn’t want the light to be shed on that. He wants other people to shine. So, I respect that about him.
HipHopDX: What’s your favorite event to shoot? Is it an album listening? Is it a concert? Is it behind the scenes, shadowing an artist? What drives your passion?
Armen Keleshian: I think my passion lies in shooting the places or the situations where a lot of people don’t get to see the artists in. So whether it’s in the studio, whether it’s backstage getting ready to go on stage, or during a music video set, if they’re just chilling in their trailer getting ready. So it’s the situations where the everyday lifestyle that these people do, that you wouldn’t get to see unless you’re involved with them, or you work for them, or you’re a part of their camp.
I mean shooting concerts and festivals is a lot of fun. That’s how I started. But then I just kind of built the relationships to go a little bit further than that. So I’m always looking to get that exclusive shot. Like a portrait shot or in the moment. Like maybe getting a haircut, maybe sharing a moment with their daughter, their son, with their child. Whatever. With their family, with their moms. And I feel like that’s where a lot of the exclusive content is, I guess. The things that are putting me on the map are the photos that you don’t really see shot from the pit during a concert. The pit photos are used for press, this and that, which is great, but then there’s photos that are more like lifestyle that are more unique.
I got an opportunity to do that stuff because of Steve. He just kind of opened the door for me, and I was always in the backstage area. Like we would go to Nipsey’s hood, hang out with Nipsey, and shoot him playing video games — that kind of stuff. So I feel like just having that access has kind of grown me into becoming that photographer, more than just shooting from the pit, or doing the events which I still do obviously.
HipHopDX: Now that you’re certified in the space, what do you do with all your inventory? How do you package up the next step of your brand?
Armen Keleshian: So that’s actually a really good question ’cause I’m working on that at this exact moment. I feel like I did this enough, where I built the name in the event scene. The concerts, the events, the Live Nation, the Goldenvoice and all that stuff. So I just really wanted to grow a little bit more out of that. Just because not only am I a photographer that could take photos, but I also offer a lot of, I do a lot of stuff on social media. I market myself. I grew my following, specifically just by making sure my images get to the right place at the right time. If it’s an exclusive event I got contacts at Complex, at Billboard, at XXL. I’m sending my images to them and they’re using them for articles and features.
Photo: Provided by Armen Keleshian
But now, I’m trying to grow beyond that. I’m trying to go work with labels or creative agencies that are working with these artists to develop a plan for their next album release, their single release. Or, if they have an activation at ComplexCon. Something that’s more of a collaboration, rather than just being at their shows. Because an artist nowadays, because of their social media presence and their voice, they could do a lot more than just sing and rap and produce. They’re actually their own brand, their own entities. And a prime example of that would be JAY-Z.
He’s one of the best to ever do it. But, he also owns Roc Nation. He’s also involved in the NFL. He’s also involved in the alcohol. So he’s tapped into multiple things. So I’m trying to do that, utilizing my relationships that I’ve built with the camera and the photo career, with the scene to just kind of grow. And I’ve always had this dream of being involved more creatively than just taking a photo. Sure it’s good on Instagram, it gets you a following. But I’m really trying to dive deeper, more into the creative side of things. Just be part of that whole journey, rather than just in that moment.
So I feel like that’s what the focus is next. To just work and develop an artist’s brand image creatively for those purposes.
You have to be able to stand out. You’ve got to diversify your content because everyone with a camera can be called a photographer. Now it’s a lot easier than before to get access to shoot events and concerts. So it’s like how do you utilize that specific exclusive access, to turn it into something bigger than what everyone else is doing.
HipHopDX: As a professional in the space, what would you recommend someone up-and-coming to do to separate themselves from just being somebody with a camera?
Armen Keleshian: When you have a camera it opens a lot of doors for you, depending on how you work the camera, how your photos come out, who you know. It’s when you build those relationships, build those relationships from the very beginning, knowing that you’re more than just a camera person. I mean that is if you are a creative person, you’re a human being. I don’t think anyone should look into making a career out of music photography. They should use that as a stepping stone to something bigger and greater. So you could be a music photographer that gets your foot in the door that way, but let’s say you’re really good at maintaining relationship. You’re really good at A&R’ing. You’re really good at finding talent. You can utilize those relationships into working your way into a label, starting your own label, connecting with people that are doing more creative stuff.
And I feel the one thing a lot of people do is they put themselves, including myself, I did this for the longest time, is you put yourself into this box. That, this is what I do, this is what I’m known for, I’m going to keep riding that wave. Well after a certain while you’re going to be, “All right, well I outgrew this, I achieved everything I wanted to do. I made her name into the music scene, I got a decent following. So, what’s next?” So you just get hit with that wall. And that’s when you realize, “All right, well I’ve got to do something else with this.”
But just always keep that in the back of your mind ahead of time. And that will get you the clout on social media and everything you need. But, at the end of the day, you have to look at also feeling fulfilled, doing what you’re doing and loving what you’re doing. I don’t think anyone that has a passion for photography, and anyone that gets their foot in the door that way, wants to end up just being in the pit at age let’s say 45, 50, when you have a family, you have children, this, that. I feel like you would have to expand out of that, not because… Well first of all, financially, you would make a lot more money doing other stuff than to just be that guy. But also being able to take your career to the next level. And that’s part of the longevity of your name and your career.
And I feel like there’s a really good example that we have nowadays. If you look at Lenny S., Roc Nation’s SVP, started off as JAY-Z’s photographer. Now he’s the right-hand man, involved in CÎROC, involved with Dreamville, involved with Kevin Hart. He’s involved, tapped into everything, right? Lenny is kind of one of the gatekeepers in the music industry. But the way he did it is, he utilized his relationships and slowly built up. And obviously, he started with JAY-Z early on. So, if you’re affiliated or anything with JAY-Z or Roc Nation, you’re good. But, he worked his ass off to get there. It’s not just like, it wasn’t a hand me out hand me down for him. It wasn’t a handout. He was working his ass off. It’s paid off. Now he’s managing Khaled. He’s doing 20 other things. He has his own brand.
So, that’s the prime example of who I aspire to be. I look up to Lenny and the way he works, and everything he does, and the way he moves. And he’s very well respected in the music scene, the photo scene and business in general. So, I feel like going back to the question you asked me. I feel like having that vision ahead of time, and knowing that there’s always an end goal that’s not just this, is very important.
Check out Armen on Instagram @armenkeleshian for even more exclusive photos of your favorite rap star.