Micaiah Carter on Shooting Selena Gomez, the See in Black Initiative, and Working in Quarantine

The California-born, New York-based photographer has shot covers of Pharrell and Megan Thee Stallion, and recently launched the See in Black initiative.

A fourteen-part collage with photographs of celebrities by Micaiah Carter
Works by photographer Micaiah Carter. Collage by W magazine.

Welcome to Ways of Seeing, an interview series that highlights outstanding talent in photography and film—the people behind the camera whose work you should be watching. In this week’s edition, senior content editor Michael Beckert In this week’s edition, visuals editor Michael Beckert chats with Micaiah Carter, who’s shot covers of Pharrell, Megan Thee Stallion, and his latest subject, Selena Gomez.

Right before quarantine, I saw you had a show called Baby Boy. Can you tell me a bit more about that?

Baby Boy is basically a rendition of me as a kid, and taking that innocence and nostalgia and recreating that world. The main character, Baby Boy, is a Power Ranger. When I was a kid, I wanted to be a Power Ranger, to protect all of my loved ones. I wanted to create this utopia revolving around that character, while incorporating this pseudo-family that calls to my musical references—like Brandy and Aaliyah—and even the fashions I saw growing up in the church.

Photograph from Micaiah Carter’s series, Baby Boy, 2020.

What led you to photography?

I was always interested in the visual arts. I really wanted to do film before photography actually; I started with video in high school. There was something about photography, though, that I’d notice, especially when I was taking pictures with my friends. There were these slower moments that we created, which I was really drawn to. My mom used to love Elle magazine and Oprah magazine. My dad had a lot of photos from his time in the 1970s, and those were really inspiring. I guess it was a mix of all these things.

I did this photoshoot with a lady from my church, and she was a sort of fashion person—she wanted me to shoot her clothes on my friends. I loved the freedom I had, creating a sort of utopia together. It was my first internship at my local newspaper, though, that taught me the most. I saw how things actually worked. It was really fun because I got to do a ton of different things. In my city, the newspaper covered sports more often, so you’d be on location a lot of the time, or you’d go shoot on the side of the road to cover a car accident. A lot of my photography understanding came from the internet really—through Tumblr and stuff like that—but I definitely learned a lot there. It wasn’t until after I graduated college in 2016, though, that I really started shooting film, mostly because I finally had the finances for it.

What I really wanted was a job—that was my biggest concern. I had planned on applying to be a photo editor for a magazine like TIME, but they had me shoot instead. Suddenly I had a cover of TIME with The Weeknd. At that time, I didn’t imagine I could have a career as a photographer really, because you just never know. The industry wasn’t very open a few years back, but it’s changed a lot, especially in regards to diversity.

How have you managed your workflow during the quarantine?

At first, nobody really knew what to do. I was in New York at first, so I was limited to shooting in my apartment, which was tough because I had limited space. I had never thought things would ever turn to that. Once I came to Southern California, which is where I’m from, things got a bit better because we have more space here. But we’re definitely approaching things differently—everyone on set has to get tested all the time. I got tested today, and I think I’ve had four tests this month. When you’re working with celebrities and musicians especially, everyone has to be on the same page. Honestly, I like having fewer people on set though, and having a more personable approach to things. Still, there are a lot of crazy Zoom calls, where people are talking to you through a laptop while you’re shooting. It’s definitely interesting, to say the least.

Taraji P. Henson photographed by Micaiah Carter for Playboy, 2018.

When you are on set, how do you go about preserving your vision and making sure you get the shot you want? Do you think that mostly happens for you in pre-production, before you even step onto set?

It’s a mix. With pre-production, we speak with the magazine and PR, but I think on set is when it really happens. I just did a shoot with Kehlani for Bustle, and it’s a good example of that. We had a plan in mind, but then when I got to set I felt a different vibe, and we changed everything up on the fly. I’m a big fan of hers, so I think that connection is present in the photographs. Sometimes I’ll do things simply—like the shoot with Kehlani—but other times, I’ll have a larger plan. You know, I shot Megan Thee Stallion a while back, and I was really inspired by the Architröpolis, the architect. I think he designed Lenny Kravitz’s apartment, and he also did some album covers for Britney Spears. So anyway, with Megan, she’s more of a curvy woman, so I really wanted to embrace that. I wanted the set to highlight that and show her curves with other curves. It really depends, though, if I have the time or the money to go with set design like that.

Kehlani photographed by Micaiah Carter for Bustle, 2020.

Are you a strobe or continuous light kind of guy?

I started with continuous, but honestly, now, I’m using strobes more than ever. With Kehlani, that was actually all strobes. It’s tricky though, I’m still learning. With strobes, it’s so much easier and the power source is so much cleaner. Especially now with all the Briese lights, you can really manipulate the light a lot more. I try to recreate sunlight with the strobes and hit everyone’s cheekbones with a specific light. I guess the only downside is that you can’t shoot photo and video at the same time. But for what I’m doing, it’s really great.

Are you always a fan of the musicians you shoot before meeting them?

Music is a huge inspiration for me, so just being able to work with these talents and seeing how they operate, it’s so valuable for me and it’s such a true pleasure. My first year out of college, I was shooting Solange, and she was just shooting with different photographers that were in New York, but we formed a connection. I always try to have good playlists when I’m working with musicians, of course, but even with celebrities that aren’t musicians, the music is so important. I was shooting Taraji P. Henson for Playboy, and I remember it was the playlist that day that allowed us to bond. When you’re on set there’s so much going on, though, so you don’t always get the chance to hang with the talent, but I’m learning to take things slower and form those connections more often.

Pharrell photographed by Micaiah Carter for the cover of GQ.

Do you think music is your entryway back into filmmaking or video?

Yeah. I’ve started already. I’ve shot a couple of music videos, and I have one coming out soon. I think when you’re shooting photographs of these musicians, and you’re starting to collaborate with them, it makes sense to sort of go back and ask to shoot a video together. It’s really about creating trust with an artist and an actual relationship.

What is your schedule like as a freelancer? How do you stay calm through the busy points but also through the quieter moments?

Since George Floyd, there’s been such a high demand for Black photographers on the consciences of all these corporations. So really, it’s been about selecting the right stuff lately. Usually, though, there will be one week where we’re really busy, and then there will be four to five days where there’s nothing happening. So it’s sort of about taking time off for yourself when you’re overworked. But lately, there’s always something for me to be working on.

When you’re working in the editorial sphere how do you go about handling rates? I’m not sure whether younger photographers know this, but oftentimes for editorial, it’s not something photographers make a profit off of. After so many amazing covers, do you still find yourself in positions where people are trying to offer you work for “exposure” rather than payment? What do you do in those situations?

I always try to at least negotiate. If I can’t do something, then I’ll recommend the job to a photographer that would really appreciate the exposure or the opportunity. Editorial has changed so much now, though— honestly, I hate to say it, but you can’t really expect a lot if it’s not a cover. When I was in college, I would shoot anything that came my way, paid or not, if the job allowed me to shoot something really cool. Photography is a business; when I shot Playboi Carti for The Fader, I realized, if I invest in this product, and make this really great, I’ll get more out of this. So when I flew to Atlanta for that cover, I covered my hotel and my trip, and The Fader got me a studio, which was really nice of them. You have this awesome opportunity, and it’s like, what can you make from this?

Can you tell me a bit more about your project that you started during quarantine, See in Black?

I started this project with another photographer, Joshua Kissi, who is a good friend of mine. We were talking about how the photography community can give back and help in our own way. We saw the Prints of Elmhurst project, and we were like, we could do something similar because there isn’t really a print sale that is representing a younger Black perspective and helping our community. So we did our research and we found all of these different photographers from Texas, Mississippi, Chicago, and so on. We wanted to make sure we didn’t just do Los Angeles and New York. The money we’ve raised will go towards supporting what our organization has identified as the five key pillars of Black advancement: civil rights, education/arts, intersectionality, community building, and criminal justice reform. It’s also more than a print sale, it’s a collective where we can nurture and mentor one another as fellow Black creatives. Even in college, it was hard for me to find any Black photographers to look up to. A lot of Black photographers feel lost sometimes because they don’t want to be pigeonholed into only shooting Black subjects. They don’t want their skin color to dictate every single thing that they do.

I’m glad photo editors are hiring Black photographers more now, but you’re right—I’ve noticed editors only hiring Black photographers to photograph Black subjects. It’s not like you wouldn’t be interested in shooting someone who isn’t Black.

I’ve always been interested in a lot of people. I shot Tilda Swinton for the New York Times, and she’s always been one of my favorites. I do think it’s changing and editors aren’t pigeonholing photographers the same way they used to. Just because I’m good at lighting Black skin doesn’t mean I can’t do something else.

You just shot Selena Gomez for the cover of Allure. What was that like?

Selena is really cool—we are both Cancers, so we understood one another right away. We had the same sense of humor. When I think of Selena, honestly, I think of The Wizards of Waverly Place, because that’s what I grew up watching. Her demeanor on set is amazing, she’s really relaxed. We talked a lot about music and had a really good vibe. We shot it during COVID, so it was a little weirder than usual, but she’s super chill and was great to work with. The art direction for this cover is a little bit different for Allure. It still fits within their guidelines, but we were really inspired by Frida Kahlo and we wanted to push the boundaries as much as we could. We got Christopher John Rogers on the cover and there’s a Pyer Moss look as well. Allure really let us do our own thing.

I end all my interviews by asking each photographer about the thing they’re most proud of, all accolades aside?

It’s really corny, but I was able to buy my dad an iPhone for his birthday this year, and I think that’s probably the biggest joy for me. I got my mom a Gucci bag for Christmas. It’s being able to give back in that way. I’m not really flashy at all, and I don’t buy that stuff for myself, but it’s nice to be able to support my loved ones. It means a lot to me.

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