Photographer Spencer Charles Talks Growing Up In Newark, Creative Process, & Miya Bailey

by on July 21, 2015

Nowadays, it isn’t hard  to find someone who owns a camera attempting to pass themselves off as the next big thing behind a lens. Just as any other craft, photography has become an over-saturated art form where it’s hard to discern true talent from the person just looking for a few notes on Tumblr. However, Atlanta-based Spencer Charles has broken the mold and established his own style that seems to be catching the eye of most everyone who gets a glimpse of it. I recently got the chance to get his thoughts on his evolving career and how he got his start. Read up on what he had to say below.

ILS: This last year your portfolio and career have both grown substantially. When was it that you first picked up a camera and decided that this was something you wanted to do?

Spencer Charles: “I first picked up my camera, semi-seriously, the beginning of 2013. I didn’t know it was something I wanted to do at first. I just knew I enjoyed shooting. I was going through a lot at the time. Taking pictures took my mind off a lot of the stress. I had a couple friends, Skye and Eric, who pushed me to shoot certain things, get better in certain areas, focus on things, and it helped me. I think after the Afropunk festival in Brooklyn that year is when I decided I was going to really get serious with it. I was shooting street style photos at the festival and they went viral online. All of a sudden I had this attention on my work and I wanted to take advantage of it.”

Did you ever imagine it getting this far and growing this much?

 “Not at all; I’m still trying to grow. Sometimes I get so wrapped up in my goals and dreams for the future that I forget to be thankful for my present. However, when I do take a step back, it’s overwhelming to see how much I’ve grown. It’s a blessing.”

What influence does your surroundings have on your art? How did your upbringing and environment mold the photographer that you are today?

 “I grew up in Newark, NJ. My mother was and is a dancer (ballet, jazz, African, etc.), and my father was and is a social worker and community leader. With both of those influences, I always had a strong understanding of my culture and my community through the arts. Newark is an interesting place to grow up. It’s beautiful. It’s filled with gang violence and crime. There’s a strong Islamic community there, as well as a strong presence from the black Christian church. House music and club music is really big there. It’s so close to New York City, yet it’s a major city by itself. Growing up in Newark felt like a Spike Lee movie to me. I was able to gain a dynamic view on such a diverse black community and black culture that most people don’t get. Now I live in the West End community in Atlanta, and it feels a lot like Newark. I guess my environment has influenced me to tell that story, from a different angle. I’m still on my ‘she’s gotta have it’.”

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 When taking photos or conducting a shoot on your own time, what’s the creative process like when it comes to getting the perfect shot?

 “It’s a lot of talking to myself. It’s a lot of me mumbling ideas in my head and the person staring at me confused because they can’t hear what I’m saying. A lot of it is made up on the spot, the concepts. I’m not the most organized person and I’m not the best at preplanning. I go into a shoot with someone and go off of the vibe, the energy. Sometimes it works out beautifully. Sometimes, it’s extremely awkward because they’re waiting for me to give them poses and tell them exactly what I’m doing. But I can’t talk to you and myself at the same time [laughs]. That’s why I shoot a lot of the same people over and over, for new ideas I have, because it cuts out awkwardness.”

Explain to me the significance of having that camera in your hand. What’s been one of the most meaningful moments in your career as a photographer?

 “Most meaningful moment for me was meeting Miya Bailey and doing my first solo exhibit at his spot, City Of Ink. Miya has been one of my inspirations for years now. Earlier this year I got a call from him, saying he was a fan of mine and he wanted to buy a couple pieces from me. My life changed at that moment. Having someone I look up to be a fan of mine has been unbelievable. I can see my photos on his wall every time I go to his shop. From there, he told me I could do an art show at his gallery. I wasn’t even planning one at the time. But I took that opportunity to work on one. It was an amazing turn out. At least 300 people came out to look at my photos on the wall (they might’ve came out for the free food and liquor too). That entire time from meeting Miya to the opening of my show has been the most meaningful moment in my career thus far.”

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 Tell me about your influences. What artists, in mediums across the board, have shaped your style?

 “I have a lot of influences, all different mediums. Mostly music. I’m just going to list them: Miles Davis, Jay Z, Gordon Parks, Spike Lee, Thelonious Monk, James Baldwin, Nina Simone, J Dilla, Max Osbourne, Coltrane Curtis, Ouigi Theodore, Janelle Monae, Street Etiquette, Jim Marshall, Alvin Ailey, Wu Tang Clan, Johnny Cash, Muddy Water, Jonathon Mansion, Naomi Campbell, Hypebeast, Kanye West, etc. I’m influenced by a lot of my peers. A lot of up and coming artist, as well as established ones: Dexter Jones, Chilly O, Miya Bailey, Kendrick Daye, Markus Prime, Paper Frank, Corey Davis, Frank Selasie, Moruf, etc.”

 What’s in store for you as you go forward? What are some projects that you have coming up?

 “Right now, I’m focusing on this coffee table book I have coming out: The Muse Book. After that, I’m not sure. I have a ton of ideas that are all over the place in my head. It will probably be another art show eventually. Some other ideas I can’t share yet just because they need more planning. So for right now, the book is what I’m focusing on.”

You can keep up with Spencer Charles on Instagram & Twitter