Janelle Monae for Essence Magazine: 2 Shoots, 1 mission


Janelle Monae on the Horizon.



Over the years, I’ve been fortunate to work with various musical talent including Lauryn Hill, Santana, Kanye West, and Willie Nelson, all who brought an open collaborative energy to each shoot, baring their soul to the camera to create a definitive image.  Trust builds between subjects and photographers over time (after well-executed and successful photo shoots), which can foster a trusting collaborative creative relationship–a treasured dynamic in this fast-moving industry.  Experience does matter.


Whether a magazine cover, music packaging, or advertising campaign–I’ve done it.  When a new star emerges with a dynamic flare and vibrant spirit, I feel the need to push myself creatively; to rise above what I’ve done in the past and produce something new and fresh that will stand the test of time.  Janelle Monae is one of those bright artists.   The first Monae shoot (under creative direction of Deborah Boardley) for Essence focused on her as a musician, using her iconic and retro style to motivate and frame the imagery.  However, for this second shoot, we were inspired to create a fashion glamour story molded from sci-fi dreams and colorful space travel.  To set the mood, I chose to shoot in an unfinished futuristic Frank Lloyd Wright structure overlooking the hills of Malibu with the ocean in the distance: Janelle Monae lands on Mars.

Aware of how incredible a talent Janelle Monae is, I chose to allocate some of my personal funds to shoot motion.  A big shift in the photography industry is the use of motion and video–most of my clients now are asking to shoot both motion and stills on shoots, and both require different skill sets.   For a shoot of this caliber, I made time to go location scout and documented the light and possible spots for stills and motion setups with my favorite point and shoot, the iPad, to plan my shoot day.


My DP, Leo Jaramillo, has worked with me on past projects and helped operate and direct a 4K Red Epic-X camera for optimum quality in lieu of our usual DSLR video rig.  While I’ve used the Epic before for personal work, it was an exciting opportunity using it to document a talent like Janelle. Leo’s team of Nick Kramer, 1st AC, and Earl Fulcher, Digital Imaging Tech, had 4 hours total to shoot (sharing time with the stills)– and although this is “sunny California”, the weather can change at any moment.

Shoot Day:

I have had the pleasure of working with Essence’s Editor-at-Large Emil Wilbekin many times over the years, and was excited to collaborate with him again on this creative shoot.  With Photo Editor Rebecca Karamehmedovic keeping in touch from NYC, we were ready for business. We planned the shoot schedule immediately upon arrival: discussing the direction of the light throughout the day, and matching wardrobe with stylist Nonja Mackenzie for each setup.  Each shot of Janelle had to be a cover option, which meant we had to keep the energy up on set and most importantly–push each shot visually.  

Now it was time to review setups with my stills and motion teams and share storyboards I mocked up the night before.  But ultimately, I wanted to capture my original vision: Janelle Monae lands on Mars.  She flies over Malibu via balloon transport (I didn’t have the funds for a 10 foot UFO), floating in a haze of pastel colors, and lands on an old surreal structure with wonder in her eyes–don’t ask. Dreamy perfume commercials were playing in my head days prior to the shoot.


When working with the motion team, my main objective was to direct Janelle in the moment instead of looking through the camera.  Trust is important on these shoots, since I was confident that my DP, Leo Jaramillo, understood my concept and sensed he was intent on complementing my still shots, I was able to fully immerse myself into the directing role and connect with Janelle, watching via monitor.  

Transitioning from a photographer to director can be difficult because of the way photographer’s are accustomed to seeing–it’s hard to let go of the black box you typically see images in, and it’s even more difficult to create images without composing them yourself.  When directing, you must focus on the subject and concentrate on evoking emotion from them.


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