Chicago-based photographer Anam Merchant is a name you have probably heard over the past few years in the music photography world. Capturing vibrant images of bands like The Maine, Real Friends, Circa Survive, Brand New, Daughter, and more that has landed her work in a number of publications including Substream Magazine and Alternative Press, her unique eye and ability to transform images of the musicians we all listen to is helping to make Anam one of the most popular artists in this new generation of photographers. Opening up to us about the lessons she has learned over the years, Anam gave her personal story on how she began photographing in the music scene and shared some of her favorite images from over the years.
When did you start showing an interest in photography?
I’ve had an interest in photography since I was a kid. I would always hog my dad’s point and shoot daily, especially on vacations. I used disposables for a while, and then ended up getting a DSLR when I was 14. I started shooting shows in 2011/2012 and really only got serious about it in late 2013 when I started my freshman year of college. I was always taking photos at shows with my crappy little point and shoot and just getting so excited if I got a shot that was remotely interesting other than just a documentation of the moment. I remember looking at Adam Elmakias’ work on MySpace when I was in 8th grade (I was a big All Time Low fan at the time and their promos led me there), being in total awe of his photographs and going, “That’s what I want to be able to do.” I’m obviously still nowhere near that, but that’s what got me working towards getting more involved in music photography.
What was the first show you ever photographed and if you could go back, is there anything you would have wanted to change?
The first show I photographed with a photo pass was The Summer Set and Plain White T’s. I had a lot of trouble shooting that show because I really had no idea what I was doing throwing myself into a situation like that when I’d only shot a few smaller shows before that. Regardless, it was a learning experience and I don’t think there’s anything in particular I’d change. If anything, I think that’s one of my fonder experiences shooting a show since Fearless Records picked up one of the first frames I took at that show of Brian from The Summer Set to run in a print ad with 15 other photos for Warped Tour in Alternative Press. I thought that was really cool and it motivated me to want to get better photos every time.
All Time Low
Was there a particular stand out moment during your career that helped you realize you wanted to continue music photography long term?
I don’t think there was one specific moment, but rather a collection of moments where I’d get a bunch of kind of terrible, nearly unusable photographs at a show, but then find maybe one or two that I adored. The thrill of that and just being able to be in a venue surrounded by live music felt so cathartic to me at times when life just really sucked and pushed me to want to do music photography more. At some points, I was shooting 5 or 6 shows a week while going to school and working, and as stressful as it was at the time, I wouldn’t have traded it for anything. There’s nothing like being able to capture the energy and passion of a live show. One specific moment that I will definitely never forget though is when I got my first two photos published in Alternative Press in the same issue. AP was a magazine I grew up reading and taking posters from to stick all over my walls. It was pretty surreal to be published in it.
How would you describe your shooting style?
I don’t know if I really have a style of shooting, but I really like having a variety of different kinds of shots every show I go to. Lately, I’ve been sticking to using my 85mm the entire time while shooting, which has definitely been a challenge in terms of composition, but it’s been fun trying it out. I also just really like messing with color and lately, the mood of photos.
The Word Alive
What gear do you typically shoot with?
Nikon D750 and a Sigma 24mm Art or a Nikkor 85mm.
A lot of young photographers have a mindset that you need the most high-end equipment to achieve the best photos. What is your take on this idea?
It really depends on what you want your photos to look like, but in the end, it’s really what you end up doing with your photos that makes them stand out, and for this instance “the best,” I think. Most people start out with very beginner equipment just trying to learn the in’s and out’s of their camera and what limits they can take it to, and I think that’s way better than throwing yourself into debt by buying expensive gear that you don’t really know how to use. I owned a little Nikon D40 for almost 8 years before taking the plunge earlier this year and spending a ton of money on a full-frame, and I’m glad I waited because the settings on this camera are so much more intuitive to me that way and it’s way more comfortable. I own a lot more gear than I did before, but even now I feel like some of my older shots with less gear are better in some ways.
Out of your portfolio, what photograph are you most proud of and why?
This is a hard question not because I have a ton of things I’m proud of, but because there are very few photos that mean a whole lot to me that I’ve attached any sort of sentiment to. I was thinking about this and figured I’d say a photo of Brand New or The Wonder Years since they’re my favorite bands. I’d have to say the one photo I’m most proud of is this photo of Kyle Culver from The Millenium at The Studio at Webster Hall in NYC. I went on tour with The Millenium in June for two weeks without knowing them or them knowing me, but it ended up being one of the most fun experiences of my life. I remember being kind of bummed out on the days leading up to this because I had missed focusing on a few shots that could’ve been cool. Throughout the night, I was running around the venue to get a bunch of different shots, and at this moment, I was side stage. Kyle stared right at my camera to recreate the shots from the nights before, but did something slightly different this time: he ended up jumping right after, and that’s the shot that I loved out of that whole series. I looked at my screen and immediately was super excited to show him, and he ended up being just as excited about it as I was. I think it was the first photo from the tour that I was genuinely very very excited about. It’s not the most interesting or technically perfect photo, but the experience and memories attached to it make it very special to me.
Your work has been featured in publications such as Alternative Press and Substream Magazine and recognized by artists such as Neck Deep, CHVRCHES, and Melanie Martinez to name a few. Through your years of working with different publications and photographing a number of artists, is there a particular moment that stands out in your mind as something you are especially proud of?
The one moment I can think of is getting the issue of Alternative Press in 2014 that my photos of Crown The Empire and Real Friends were published in and sitting there in complete awe. I think my suitemates were in my room when this happened and I remember telling them how insane it was to me that I have photos in a magazine I’ve been reading since I was a kid. It felt kind of like a full-circle moment to me, although that was just the beginning. Also, right after that Daughter show, I sent the photos over and their management told me the band loved my photos and wanted to use them at a couple of different places. That’s always a really cool feeling.
Is there are a particular genre or music scene you prefer to photograph over other genres and why?
I tend to gravitate towards the Warped Tour scene kind of bands since that’s mostly what I listen to, but I’ve started to branch out a bit more and shoot other genres of music because the production and general atmosphere tends to be really different, which makes for some leeway in how I can edit my shots. I guess I can be more experimental shooting different genre shows rather than just sticking to one genre and doing the same thing over and over. For instance, I photographed Daughter in March and ended up freelensing maybe half of a song, which is something I couldn’t do if I were shooting a pop-punk band given the faster pace.
The Story So Far
Over the past few years, the amount of photographers in the music industry has been on the incline. Do you ever try and separate yourself from the group to stand out or is it something you don’t think about?
I definitely think it’s super important to stand out in a such a saturated industry, but at the same time, it’s really just about what you want to do. For me, photography has always been art which is to say that I want make expressive things and I want to grow, improve and make things better, but never settle or get comfortable with what I’m doing. I think a lot of people end up settling for what is ‘good enough’ or whatever everyone else is doing, which is honestly a little weird. The main goal of art to me is not really to impress the rest of the world, but to impress myself by doing something I was either afraid to do or didn’t think I could accomplish. However, the worst thing about wanting to stand out is that you end up comparing yourself to everyone a lot of the time, and for someone like me, it really brings me down. So I guess there’s a happy medium in finding what you like to do and what you think is cool: create something that makes you excited to be doing what you’re doing.
As a photographer who is very active on social media, what importance do you feel social media websites such as Twitter, Facebook and Instagram hold in your career and the career of photographers around the world?
Facebook is kind of a dead platform because of all the weird algorithm changes and forcing you to create sponsored ads, but I guess money makes the world go round, right? Twitter is cool to me because I can follow other photographers and industry professionals and see all the cool things they’re doing and see all the cool things their friends are doing. Instagram is also great for the same reason. I do think they’re helpful at times for people to take a quick look at your work without combing through your portfolio, but in a way, they’re ultimately more helpful as networking tools because of the fact that you can connect with people around the world who are doing what you’re doing or doing something similar that you may interact with at some point.
What is the best advice you would give to young aspiring photographers who are just getting started in the business or are building their portfolios to soon reach out and begin shooting for websites and publications?
Just shoot shoot shoot shoot shoot and keep shooting. Be nice to people. Don’t compare yourself to everyone. Do what makes you happy, not what everyone else is doing. Don’t get too bummed out or down on yourself when things don’t go your way; sometimes things don’t work out the way you want them to, but keep working at it. Branch out and do different things. Make mistakes and learn from them (something very important I learned this year, but something everyone’s got to go through themselves). You don’t have to be the most talented, most unique, most whatever person – just be a decent person, have passion for what you’re doing, and don’t take advantage of anyone who gives you a chance.
Twenty One Pilots
Interview by Rachael Dowd
Portrait of Anam by Penelope Martinez