It’s rare to see a photographer mentoring and creating opportunities for their contemporaries and even more rare for them to do it on a large scale. Atlanta-based photographer, entrepreneur, and community builder Cam Kirk could be highly successful just doing his own thing, shooting for brands such as Coca-Cola, Nike, Airbnb, American Express, NBA, and Puma, and taking portraits of hip hop artists (from Megan Thee Stallion to “young icon” Luh Tyler). But Kirk is doing it differently. Authentically. Successfully. And at scale.
Kirk is doing so much that it made my head spin just researching all his projects for this article. Along with his own commercial, editorial, and advertising work, he also runs a record label-style agency for photographers called The Collective Gallery, Cam Kirk Studios, a busy photography studio in Atlanta equipped with the Creative Lab (in collaboration with Pharrell Williams’ Billionaire Boys Club), and a new content streaming network called CKS.
In just the last two weeks, he hosted a community neighborhood clean-up event called “Spin the Block,” a live motivational conference in honor of Dr. Martin Luther King called “Yesterday’s Tomorrow,” as well as meeting with Vice President Kamala Harris, who invited him to her home to see her photography collection. She mentioned Carrie Mae Weems and Roy DeCarava, in case you’re interested.
Thinking about Kirk, I was reminded of what photographer Justin French told us a few years ago:
“Self-promotion and self-interest are always counterproductive. I think to rectify that, individuals and communities should really try to step outside of themselves and their personal interests, and genuinely look at how they can aid in improving the lives of others —Black lives especially.”
You’re currently mentoring photographers. Who are they, and what does this mentorship look like on a day-to-day basis?
“Through my studio and my label, I mentor and work with a large number of photographers daily. Sharing wisdom and knowledge on a transparent level has always been important to me and is something I feel is a responsibility that comes with success. Over the years, I have personally and physically mentored or provided workshops to hundreds of photographers and content creators. Some of the photographers I have mentored are currently working for brands as big as the NFL, The White House, Nike, Sprite, Lil Yachty, Drake, 21 Savage, and more.
“At Cam Kirk Studios, we offer a free workshop series entitled Night School, where we teach two workshops monthly where creators can learn a range of topics from photography, business, production, fashion, music, and more. We also document the classes and have them available online here.”
You had a lot of interest once word got out about the mentorship, and you’ve amassed a database of 1,000 photographers you tap into to do shoots around the country. Can you break down how this works?
“When I first announced and launched Collective Gallery, the response was pretty overwhelming. We literally hand hundreds of photographers submitting their portfolios for an opportunity to be an artist on our label. I realized at that point not only was what we were setting out do provide and do for the photography community needed, but it was wanted as well.
“I wanted to find a way to still stay connected and work with as many photographers as possible, even though my personal team didn’t have the extreme bandwidth to take on more than a few photographers on our roster at a time. So, we decided to develop the agency arm of Collective Gallery that serves as a resource to brands and companies looking for different creators across the world and in different markets. Our clients like Puma and Atlantic Records, utilize our agency arm to connect with talented content creators in different markets where their productions exist.
“We take the time to provide portfolio reviews and vet our database regularly to ensure the content creators are perfect for the particular project. As a result, brands get the opportunity to work with fresh talent without the concern of trusting if they can execute properly, our database gets to work on projects with us where not only do they get paid and connected to some of the biggest brands in the world, but they also get to learn from us in the moment to help them grow, and for us we are able to show up for brands globally, even in markets where none of our photographers reside. To date, we have provided opportunities for over 500 creators.”
Most photographers are having trouble keeping up and managing their careers. Not many out there mentor others to this degree. What was your thought process behind getting this going?
“For me, it’s always been about legacy and sustaining the photography, especially amongst black photographers. When I started my career in Atlanta, I did not have many mentors or successful living examples of what a career in photography could look like. As a result, in many ways, I had to trail-blaze my own path and blueprint, which many photography purists might consider an unorthodox approach to the industry. As a result I have inspired so many other young photographers to believe photography can be much more than a hobby but a career as well. I feel it’s my responsibility to ensure the next generation can find success in this industry much easier than the way that I had to find it.”
You strike me as someone who has many ideas and also someone who executes them quickly. What’s your process after you have an idea for a project you want to take further?
“I’m somebody that my team will say has too many ideas lol. I truly believe I would have been a very successful architect in a past life. My dreams and ideas usually are always rooted in logical reality and often build off the foundation of what I have already created seamlessly. My ideas are like building blocks but I often transparently struggle with knowing when enough is enough. I have jokingly told my staff not to let me add any more extensions to Cam Kirk Studios because I will just keep creating more and more, which can slow down our path to scaling and expansion.
“My execution process is pretty simple. I develop an idea then I typically check the ecosystem to see if I can find anybody already doing it or if it exists already. Once I feel comfortable about proceeding, I usually run it by a few trusted individuals on my team to stress test the idea.
“I usually look for ideas that are the easiest to execute and focus on those ideas first. My career was rooted in the music industry, so I take a ton of inspiration from that marketing and business model. I often feel I have to execute at least one major project or idea a year, similar to an artist releasing a new album or single. That has been my cadence over the last ten years. I make sure each year I have at least one splash moment or project that keeps myaudience and client base excited and inspired to want to work with me.”
You have a 7,000 ft. photography studio in Atlanta that sees 400-500 shoots a month. You’ve also recently partnered with Billionaire Boys Club to launch The Creator’s Lab (which is free to use). Tell me more about this, who it’s for, and what it brings to the Atlanta community.
“I have literally watched my studio grow from our first ever scheduled appointment to six years and 30,000+ appointments where we are today. Through the studio, we have built a true community, which allows us to know the needs and wants of our community on a pretty consistent and daily basis. It keeps us in tune with what creatives need, which allows usto add extensions to our studio to cater to those needs.
“Our new Creators Lab, in partnership with Billionaire Boys Club, allows us to show up and be even more of a resource for the creators in our community. The Creators Lab provided state-of-the-art computers with all the creator-suite applications our community needs to create, edit, and build out their projects. The lab provided a free workspace also for those who simply want to just work in a creative and inspiring environment. Our mission is to continue to remove barriers that get in the way of Creators to be able to simply create.”
I loved the video series “Ink Therapy” which I found through your IG. How did this collaboration come about?
“So glad to hear you enjoyed this series. A few months back, I announced my newest venture, CKS, my own content streaming network. CKS will feature original and exclusive content and is available for subscribers on my own network powered by tech company You42. With my network, I am able to operate as a producer and bring to life and develop web series and content like Ink Therapy. This particular show combines a podcast experience with the art style and creativity behind Tattoo art led by renowned tattoo artist Ink by Kali. This is one of many original shows we will be releasing exclusively through my new CKS network.”