Photographer Jamil GS has been in the game for a long time. He is often asked the same two questions: “Did you know Jay-Z would be a billionaire when you shot his first press photos?” and “Which of your many historically-significant pictures of hip-hop artists is your favorite?”
Throughout his decades-long career, he’s remained low-key, but the artistic concepts and vital moments he has created have spoken for themselves – as evidenced by his numerous exhibitions displayed over the past 20 years.
Highsnobiety spoke with Jamil GS about his legacy, his days as a young graffiti artist in Copenhagen, his recent work with Drake, and his opinions on the upcoming generation. Read the highlights from our conversation below.
Why did you choose to document hip-hop at the start?
I was in love with the music. I felt that the music – the production level and the poetry – was at such a high level, artistically, but visually it was […] cheap; there was bad production, and no one had the technical skill to really bring out the culture. At the time, there were a bunch of photographers documenting hip-hop, but no one was really out creating “hip-hop imagery.” Instead, most of them were used to covering rock or pop – they weren’t really “of the culture.” They might have liked what they saw, but they weren’t in it, so there was a disconnect.
I came from a fashion background, and I wanted to take the technical skills I knew and bring them to the street. At the time, hip-hop photography was gritty, but I wanted to show people dignified, the way I saw them. No one was really doing that. That’s what resonated with a lot of the artists.
You recently shot a series for Drake. You started off shooting people before they were about to blow up, and now you’re shooting major stars. Has the way you work changed from the ’90s to now?
I turned down shooting big artists in the late 2000s because I kind of lost interest, honestly. I felt that hip-hop, R&B, and the whole culture had reached a standstill.
Artists were really wealthy and about consumerism. I got to the point where I was like, “I’ve been a starving artist for so long, now I just want to make that money.” But working that way got competitive and mechanical, so I decided to stop and instead focus on artists that inspired me the way that hip-hop in the ’90s inspired me.
I haven’t changed, but I have all this experience now. I guess everything becomes a bit more refined. That’s what I realized during the shoot with Drake; this really amazing shit came out of it [while I was] under a lot of pressure.
Do you still prefer film, or have you made the switch to digital?
I’ve actually been shooting digital for the past 15 years. Since the demand of client work, everyone wanted digital, everyone wanted quick turnarounds. Then the past two years I’ve been doing fun exhibitions with all my analog work, because now it’s become of historical value. It’s been a great journey, and I’ve missed shooting film, because to me, nothing looks as good as real film.
Drake really wanted to work with me: he’s like, “Yo, I want you to shoot film. Can you do that?” and I’m all like, “Fuck yeah!” I mean, that’s how everyone did it, so I was shooting film forever, right? That’s what I know best. Now I know both [digital and film] equally, but I prefer film. Any chance I get, I’ll do it.
Hip-hop has become ubiquitous, and young people are getting into streetwear and rap music more and more by the day. What do you think these kids need to know about each of these cultures?
Hip-hop culture, to an extent, started in a basement; a social party room in the Bronx with maybe 40 people. Try to envision that it started in the ghetto, in areas that were seen as undesirable, and people that are from those neighborhoods are stigmatized – a lot of opportunities are taken away from a lot of them. In the face of adversity, amazing things can come up. That’s kind of what happened to me. I didn’t get an apprenticeship, so I [went] to New York and had to start on something else, and that led to way bigger things than if I had stayed where I was.
So I think that if young kids try to engage more with communities – not just online, but actually physically try to join programs, start programs that integrate more cross-cultural activity – I think that the world would progress way quicker in a more productive way. That’s hip-hop.
That’s the thing – if you want to celebrate it and you want to wear it, you should also understand the pain that it comes with. The blood, sweat, and tears and all that shit. That’s an opportunity to help.