MOUTHWASH — An Offbeat Experiment
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Spending Time with Kameron Richie

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We recently sat down with long-time friend Kameron Richie. Kameron is a freelance photographer, producer, and project manager.

Kam talks to us about his time at VSCO, his thoughts on social media, some printmaking theory, and how he's processing the current state of our nation.

MW: Thanks for hopping on and being down to chat Kam. Where are you calling from?

KR: I’m over in Berkeley, California.

MW: How long have you been over there?

KR: I’ve been in Oakland and the East Bay area for about four and a half years. I think. There’s a lot of things I like about it. The East Bay has a pretty large Black community that is also creative, which is amazing. The weather is really consistent. Coming from Texas, and I was in Colorado for a bit, that consistency is nice. 

MW: So, correct me if I’m wrong, but you’re currently a freelance photographer, right?

KR: Yeah. Photographer, Producer, and Project Manager, mainly.

MW: How did you fall into the medium of photography?

KR: So, I didn’t study photography. I actually studied printmaking and graphic design. I was trying to do this double bachelor’s thing when I was in college, and it was quite stressful, and a lot of work. So I ended up finishing with printmaking. But my last semester, I enrolled in a class focused on film photography. And it just stuck with me. I ended up wanting to leave Texas, and I eventually got a job at VSCO. I made the move from Austin to Colorado, and eventually to the Bay Area. And while working at VSCO I was freelancing as a photographer simultaneously. So over time I feel like I’ve been able to keep going with the craft and continuously learn new things. 

MW: It’s crazy to see the influence that VSCO has had on a lot of our peers and contemporaries. It really enabled a lot of people to be seen and heard.

KR: Exactly. I had about four different roles across my time at VSCO. The history there starts with a lot of wedding photographers, or people who shot film when it wasn’t the popular thing to do, or lived in the Pacific Northwest. And as it grew as a community, you had this second wave of influential creatives coming into it that worked in the New York office. They really advocated for this cultivation of a creative community. And that was done by enabling people to be creative. Giving them an opportunity. A platform to show off. Seeing my friends start to make concrete decisions about what they wanted to do creatively was a blessing, and something I advocated for while I was there.

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MW: I think about this spectrum: On one end are the community builders, who are bringing everyone together, and on the other end are the members of the community. In VSCO’s case, it seems more like community enablers, and the creative community. Do you resonate with one side more than the other, as someone who was forming these communities while also making things yourself?

KR: I think I’m really good at bringing people together. So leaning more on the side of a community enabler. One of my projects while I was there was hashtagging as a means to find black creatives on the platform. And at first I was doing it for myself, but it got turned into this collection under the name ‘Melanin’. And that allowed the black community to have a way to share their work in real time and find each other, or others like them. But it’s interesting, because I do feel like I am in the community at the same time. I feel like a facilitator. And looking at it now, whether it’s for production, or my own shoots, I like to assemble a team of people that I think are good at a certain thing. It makes for a more streamlined process, and it’s more fun than trying to do everything yourself, for example. 

MW: Definitely. So, you spent your time at VSCO. At what point did you transition from working at these companies to working for yourself?

KR: Like I mentioned earlier, while I was at VSCO I started working for myself on the side. After some time, I eventually ended up at an agency that’s here in the Bay Area. And that really tossed me back into a world of making content at a large scale. Which was really fun. Producing shoots for Nike and Jordan and what not. It’s cool to say I’ve done those things. But it was also a huge learning experience in regards to what it looks like to define a brand’s identity. And it was really hard work, which people sometimes forget to leave out. Working with a team to make sure everything is going as expected and expectations are being met. And now at the end of that, I’m back working for myself again. And I know that trajectory might sound more jagged than how it really was. It was an overall pretty fluid transition through it all. Coming from an art background, there’s always been the conversation around wanting to have a steady form of income and working something that’s larger than myself. But at the same time, I have my own agenda and things I want to pursue. 

MW: Now that you have control over your job, are you giving yourself the latitude to work on more meaningful projects, even if that means turning down better paying contracts?

KR: It’s a bit of both. I really try to accept projects that are personally interesting to me. And if I keep the focus on whether or not the project is interesting, it helps so that I don’t have to draw that line all the time. The line is normally drawn for financial reasons, unfortunately. Similarly, I really like learning from others. So I don’t mind photo assisting or being a PA, to be able to apprentice under someone that might have more experience than me in a certain subject. Especially when the project is good and the direction is tight.

MW: I feel like most people are way too prideful to try and actually learn like that. Assisting on a project that wouldn’t have their name on it, just for the sake of learning or being a part of something cool.

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KR: Exactly. Recently I worked for two photographers that I’ll mention. The first was Dana Scruggs. She’s incredible. She photographed Travis Scott for a Rolling Stone Cover somewhat recently. But she was doing a project for Apple that I got brought on to. Learning and seeing how she controlled the room as a photographer was incredibly impactful for me. It was a lot different coming from an Agency point-of-view. We were always the ones responsible for maintaining the status quo for the shoots. So coming in as an assistant, being able to follow her lead, was really inspiring. After that, I worked on a project for Vogue with Dana Lixenberg. And she’s a legend. She was doing this project on Moms 4 Housing in Oakland, which is an organization that is fighting legally for homeless mothers to have affordable housing. So I assisted Dana and Olivia Horner from Vogue on the project. It was shot on large format and really took me back to my film roots. Watching her framing and how she composed each shot in order to get the right picture was important. Because it’s large format, each picture is going to cost a certain amount of money, a certain amount of time. Her attention to detail is on another level. Learning is a huge part of image-making right now, and always I guess. If you come at it with a lot of ego, how far does that really get you?

MW: You’re just going to get stuck. And photography being such a diverse medium, with so many different formats and styles, it would be such a shame to not try and make that into a melting pot and learn from everyone, you know?

KR: I agree completely.

MW: So formally trained in printmaking and graphic design. Do you still think about what you learned from your undergrad? Is it still showing up and reapplying itself in different ways?

KR: Yeah definitely. In printmaking I studied a lot of minimalism that was outside of print. Studying the work of Josef Albers for example. My professor, Jeff Dell, was providing a lot of material and reading around the theory of printmaking, and what it would eventually come to be as. Walter Benjamin was essential in those studies. He practically predicted video and the internet back in the late 20s and early 30s. It’s all really interesting. Printmaking is mostly about disseminating information to the masses so that essentially the poor have the same access to art as the rich. And there’s a lot of overlap in that sentiment to what it is I want. Working a lot with social media, obviously through VSCO and Tumblr and Instagram. Social media is as much of a matrix as a piece of paper. I don’t find them to be super different. 

MW: That’s interesting. So social media is like the modern day printing press.

KR: Yeah. You’re just making copies, you know? 

MW: Do you think about Instagram in that way? Do you consider who you’re targeting and what they’re seeing?

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KR: I look at it as a tool really. Most people attach their identities to social media. That’s just how it’s been set up over time. But working around social media, and seeing the multiple sides of it, there’s a disconnect for me. It’s a pain point because I view it as a tool of making rather than an identity.

MW: It’s tough. I’ve found so many great resources and met so many good people through social media. But it’s a necessary evil. If I could have it my way, I wouldn’t have to feel the need to have Instagram in the first place. But then I never would have discovered the people I love and the information I use on a daily basis. It’s all very contradictory. 

KR: That’s what I’m saying. There’s always a negative aspect to it. Because it does affect people’s mental health. I definitely support people taking breaks from those kinds of things. What you put on Instagram doesn’t have to align with your identity because the internet forms this barrier. And people get confused about that. Your friend is excited to post their successes and the new car they bought, but they’re not sharing any of their failures, or if they’re feeling depressed for six months, you know? It doesn’t really go on the feed. Doesn’t fit the aesthetic.

MW: Do you think people should post more of their failures and how they’re actually feeling? Because that also doesn’t sound like the healthiest alternative. Maybe everyone just needs to go into therapy or something.

KR: I think everyone should go to therapy, for sure. But I think that really from the top down, the companies that are running these social media platforms need to think about how they’re being used more intently. If all their money is coming from ad revenue, that shifts the conversation to: How can we get as many eyes on this as possible? Then you have to really start to wonder what fatigue looks like for your viewer. What are the consequences of keeping people glued to these apps? And then, there are also a lot of questions around what they are doing with the data that they’re collecting. It’s such a huge thing. 

MW: I want to take a second to talk about Terracotta, which is your visual moodboard right?

KR: Yeah. It’s stemmed from a blog I’ve kept on Tumblr for a long time.

MW: Do you still keep it up?

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KR: Yeah. I’ve been collecting images and video and design on the internet for a long time. And that’s kind of what I mean when I say I use social media as a tool, use Instagram or Tumblr as a visual tool. I use this platform called Savee to archive what I’m finding. I love it. Collecting images that are visually striking to me. That’s what I like about Instagram more than posting and getting attention, is seeing things that actually interest me. And then going back after three or four months and sifting through my archive to see how it’s changed. And noticing what styles I’m gravitating towards. And there are practical elements of moodboarding for sure. The monetization of moodboards is like the ability to create a really specific treatment or deck. And that’s a great skill to have. But at the base of it, using visual media as a means to add to the conversation. Connecting two images that were made for separate occasions and finding the overlap. What an important skill to have.

MW: Do you think you’ve defined a visual style through your moodboarding? Or is it not there yet for you?

KR: I feel like if I were to ask someone else, they would say I have a style. But for me, I’m just pinning down what I like. And that much hasn’t changed over time. But visually, I guess it ebbs and flows. I would say that I like having more of an aspirational idea of what it is I would like to be making. Whether or not what I’m actually making ends up looking like those references is another story. But that’s why we do it. Moodboarding to inform the work we make in hopes to make it better. It all goes back to learning.

MW: As a freelance photographer, do you still do personal projects? Or is all your work now technically a personal project?

KR: I guess most of the work is personal for me. Usually when I do a personal project, in the truest sense of it, I end up getting work afterward that is in the same lane.. I recently shot an editorial for Tidal Magazine in New York. And even though that wasn’t a paid gig, in my opinion it was a personal project. But some of the work I’ll do, to pay my rent for example, won’t get shared or put on my portfolio. And that’s fine. I’ll share the work that I’m interested in and that reflects me because it makes for a more interesting conversation.

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MW: Is there anything that you’ve been working on that you’re excited about?

KR: I feel like I’ve been talking about the idea of making a book for a long time. But I feel like where I’m putting my time and energy into, is like actually printing for the first time in a long time. And a lot of the work I’ve made has been printed and distributed through traditional channels like magazines for example. But actually printing my own work to live by itself. I stepped away from printmaking for a long time, and viewed the internet as the place where these things would live. But now I’m at a point where I want to print my work just to see it and to have it. I don’t really need to sell it or worry about making money. It’s for me.

MW: Does that look like individual prints, you think? Or a collection of images in the form of a magazine or something?

KR: I think I’m probably going to start with individual prints. As I go back and look through my work, I’m trying to find visual throughlines. I’d rather see a concept built from what I’ve already done and continue that, rather than define a concept and go forward. So much of agency and commercial work is: Say exactly what you’re going to do before you do it. When it comes to my own practice, I’d like to flip that on its head and figure out what it is I’m doing inherently.

MW: Are you noticing any connections as you go through the prior work you’ve made?

KR: I’ve definitely gotten a lot closer to this ideal image that I want to make. Going back to Walter Benjamin, he talks in length about the practice of viewing art. And viewing it at leisure versus as an active practice. Before prints, you would go and see a painting, and you would be the one out of however many people in that room that ever saw that painting. It would be a very visceral feeling. People would feel privileged to see art. You’re like one out of hundred people who has ever experienced this thing. Can you imagine how special it would feel if Moonlight was only ever shown to 100 people? Now people are freely able to view art, or watch a movie, whenever they please. I can go on Instagram and find really cool accounts. So when it comes to my own work, I want my images to be peaceful. I want to embody that visceral feeling of active viewing.

MW: That’s interesting. Are their artists that you see doing that? That you’ve had a personal connection to?

KR: I was talking about this last night actually. I always find myself going back to Gordon Parks. He was a street photographer, but was also making videos and doing commercial work. A real jack of all trades. He’s really special and has a good eye for those kinds of moments. I like Carlotta Guerrero, a lot. She does a lot of the visual photography and video for Solange and Paloma Wool. And then who else? There’s Rashid Johnson. He’s an artist out of Chicago. He makes a lot of sculptural work that has to do with African materials, like African wax or Shea butter, for example.

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MW: As we get ready to wrap this up, I just want to know what’s something that you’ve been passionate about that you think more people need to be paying attention to?

KR: There’s a lot with that. I really wish that people would pay attention to what Black Women and Black Trans Women are saying right now. Those are the opinions that get brushed under the rug pretty often. I think that it’s great that a lot of people are seemingly waking up to the reality that black people go through every day. I’m trying to wrap my words around this to eventually write something about it later on. But I’ve seen a lot of roles come up around diversity and inclusion for large corporate companies. And these roles are being advertised to a single person fulfilling that job. And I have a huge critique of it. It feels like there needs to be a team of people sitting above HR, instead of within, who deals with corporate diversity and inclusion. HR is a big part of the problem. But, I think now is the perfect time for people to be unlearning and reevaluating what they thought they knew. Actively trying to get the right information in their hands, weighing solutions from multiple angles, and truly changing their minds on what they were previously thinking. It’s to the benefit of us all.

MW: Definitely. As you’re noticing what’s going on in our nation, are you feeling hopeful about the direction things are going in? Or pessimistic of the current state?

KR: Neither. I look at it very realistically. This is my ancestry. As a people who are already being oppressed, we’re conditioned to know that we’re running a marathon. And I think that people that are newly coming into this discussion are waking up to the reality that there is a huge problem in our nation. And they’re not conditioned for a long distance journey.

MW: People talk about compounding interest in terms of finance, but the same can be applied to racism. It’s an issue that’s compounded for 400 years. Think of how much time it’ll take for us just to get back to base level, let alone move in a positive direction. It’s a fight that neither of us are going to see an end to, I don’t think. 

KR: But you have to fight anyway. We must look out for the people coming after us.

Spending Time with Kameron Richie

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