Magic Behind the Lens

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High School Daze

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NICO-YOUNG
MALIK-YOUNG

High School Daze

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NICO-YOUNG
malik-adan

High School, a transient time for many, yet equally formative. Budding image maker, Nico Young found himself within the walls of Santa Monica High not too long ago. An interest in photography brought him to his High School photo class, where his talents truly began to shine. But what happened next, no one could predict.

When his photography instructor submitted his portfolio to the New York Times, everything changed. Picked to capture the essence of High School, Nico’s work earned him a photo essay feature on the Times, featuring his honest, intimate lens on the secret lives of teens on their way to adulthood.

We got to catch up with him to talk about his photography, the Times essay’s impact on his life, and more.”I started skating right after that first summer we worked together, and I know he had a lot to do with that. He would come down to Santa Monica and skate at the Cove with me. He thought that smoking weed and drinking was lame, and so I thought it was lame too. When I got into 8th grade and was offered that stuff for the first time, I said no. He set me down the right path. I still don’t drink or smoke.

High School, a transient time for many, yet equally formative. Budding image maker, Nico Young found himself within the walls of Santa Monica High not too long ago. An interest in photography brought him to his High School photo class, where his talents truly began to shine. But what happened next, no one could predict.

When his photography instructor submitted his portfolio to the New York Times, everything changed. Picked to capture the essence of High School, Nico’s work earned him a photo essay feature on the Times, featuring his honest, intimate lens on the secret lives of teens on their way to adulthood.

We got to catch up with him to talk about his photography, the Times essay’s impact on his life, and more.

I shot football practice over the summer,  for the NYT Mag. It was the only time during the assignment where I had to go out of my way to shoot, so I didn't really know what I was getting myself into. It ended up being one of my favorite parts of the assignment. Those guys work so hard!
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I shot football practice over the summer,  for the NYT Mag. It was the only time during the assignment where I had to go out of my way to shoot, so I didn't really know what I was getting myself into. It ended up being one of my favorite parts of the assignment. Those guys work so hard!
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What, or who, got you into photography?

I worked at this summer camp in middle school, where I was an assistant to the photography instructor, B-Wade. I was 13 and he was 20. For two summers in a row, we worked side by side, teaching kids the basics of photography. I had never even taken photos before, so B-Wade was also teaching me everything. He taught me about a lot more than just photography. He was the first black role model I had outside of my family, and that was really important for me at a time when I was insecure about my racial identity.

I started skating right after that first summer we worked together, and I know he had a lot to do with that. He would come down to Santa Monica and skate at the Cove with me. He thought that smoking weed and drinking was lame, and so I thought it was lame too. When I got into 8th grade and was offered that stuff for the first time, I said no. He set me down the right path. I still don’t drink or smoke.

What, or who, got you into photography?

I worked at this summer camp in middle school, where I was an assistant to the photography instructor, B-Wade. I was 13 and he was 20. For two summers in a row, we worked side by side, teaching kids the basics of photography. I had never even taken photos before, so B-Wade was also teaching me everything. He taught me about a lot more than just photography. He was the first black role model I had outside of my family, and that was really important for me at a time when I was insecure about my racial identity.

I started skating right after that first summer we worked together, and I know he had a lot to do with that. He would come down to Santa Monica and skate at the Cove with me. He thought that smoking weed and drinking was lame, and so I thought it was lame too. When I got into 8th grade and was offered that stuff for the first time, I said no. He set me down the right path. I still don’t drink or smoke.

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Your photos have been praised for capturing the secret life of youth at the moment where innocence is slipping away. Is there some part of you that feels like this is also your way of preserving some of these moments? Why? Why not?

Oh, my photos are definitely a way of preserving moments with my friends. Each photo brings me back. I like to have documentation like that. I keep a lot of scrapbooks and souvenirs, and I write about my day every night before I go to sleep. I rely more on those forms of documentation just as much as photography. Photography either makes me feel more present in the moment, because I’m really observing everything going on, or it removes me, because I’m focusing on documentation; I’m focusing on how I’m going to remember the present moment in the future. When everyone else is just living in the moment and I’m focusing so hard on documenting it, I feel like I’m alienating myself. You can’t really be in the present if you’re constantly thinking about the future. I’m always trying to find a balance between trying to document and really just being in the moment.

Your photos have been praised for capturing the secret life of youth at the moment where innocence is slipping away. Is there some part of you that feels like this is also your way of preserving some of these moments? Why? Why not?

Oh, my photos are definitely a way of preserving moments with my friends. Each photo brings me back. I like to have documentation like that. I keep a lot of scrapbooks and souvenirs, and I write about my day every night before I go to sleep. I rely more on those forms of documentation just as much as photography. Photography either makes me feel more present in the moment, because I’m really observing everything going on, or it removes me, because I’m focusing on documentation; I’m focusing on how I’m going to remember the present moment in the future. When everyone else is just living in the moment and I’m focusing so hard on documenting it, I feel like I’m alienating myself. You can’t really be in the present if you’re constantly thinking about the future. I’m always trying to find a balance between trying to document and really just being in the moment.

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How do you feel about being featured in The New York Times at such a young age?

I think it’s way cooler now that I’m an avid reader of the Times than I did when I first got the offer. I didn’t read the New York Times then. I didn’t even know that it came with a magazine on Sundays. When I was connected with Kathy Ryan, the magazine’s director of photography, through email, she suggested that we do a ‘book swap.’ I mailed her a copy of my photo book and she mailed me a copy of the New York Times Magazine Photographs book, this huge collection of work from photo assignments commissioned by the magazine.

It was the best photo book I had ever seen. It got me really excited about the magazine. When I started shooting for the assignment, we had a very loose narrative, so I was just shooting everything all the time. I had no idea that it would end up being a standalone photo essay, 12 pages long in print, with the cover of the magazine. It was hard for me to not think that I had peaked too early when it first came out. I don’t know if I’ll ever achieve something that flashy again, but I don’t think of it as a peak anymore. I’ve made much better work since then.

How do you feel about being featured in The New York Times at such a young age?

I think it’s way cooler now that I’m an avid reader of the Times than I did when I first got the offer. I didn’t read the New York Times then. I didn’t even know that it came with a magazine on Sundays. When I was connected with Kathy Ryan, the magazine’s director of photography, through email, she suggested that we do a ‘book swap.’ I mailed her a copy of my photo book and she mailed me a copy of the New York Times Magazine Photographs book, this huge collection of work from photo assignments commissioned by the magazine.

It was the best photo book I had ever seen. It got me really excited about the magazine. When I started shooting for the assignment, we had a very loose narrative, so I was just shooting everything all the time. I had no idea that it would end up being a standalone photo essay, 12 pages long in print, with the cover of the magazine. It was hard for me to not think that I had peaked too early when it first came out. I don’t know if I’ll ever achieve something that flashy again, but I don’t think of it as a peak anymore. I’ve made much better work since then.

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How do your friends feel about their portraits receiving so much exposure?

Surprisingly, they never really talked to me much about their experience or thoughts on being in it. I know my friends who were on the cover were getting recognized in public for a while. But even my friends who were shown smoking or with alcohol weren’t that fazed by all the exposure.

What was that process like, of building the idea and coming to new conclusions about your friendships, in Fraternal Twins?

I learned a lot about the ethics of making a photo project. There’s a lot that I would do differently now, but I didn’t know anything at the time. It was my first project. In some ways I’m more inhibited now, because I’m more conscious as a photographer. I have more principles set for myself, I feel more responsibility in the way I represent people, especially my friends. So there are a lot of photos in there that I would feel apprehensive to take nowadays.

Was there any social fallout for you when you released it?

No, my friends weren’t very fazed by it, if they saw it at all. I probably deserved some fallout though.

Why do you feel like you deserved some fallout?

When I look at the book now, I cringe when I imagine being the subject of something like that, and having it not represent major parts of my life. Like I barely mentioned the fact that Max is an artist, which misses a huge part of who he is.

How do your friends feel about their portraits receiving so much exposure?

Surprisingly, they never really talked to me much about their experience or thoughts on being in it. I know my friends who were on the cover were getting recognized in public for a while. But even my friends who were shown smoking or with alcohol weren’t that fazed by all the exposure.

What was that process like, of building the idea and coming to new conclusions about your friendships, in Fraternal Twins?

I learned a lot about the ethics of making a photo project. There’s a lot that I would do differently now, but I didn’t know anything at the time. It was my first project. In some ways I’m more inhibited now, because I’m more conscious as a photographer. I have more principles set for myself, I feel more responsibility in the way I represent people, especially my friends. So there are a lot of photos in there that I would feel apprehensive to take nowadays.

Was there any social fallout for you when you released it?

No, my friends weren’t very fazed by it, if they saw it at all. I probably deserved some fallout though.

Why do you feel like you deserved some fallout?

When I look at the book now, I cringe when I imagine being the subject of something like that, and having it not represent major parts of my life. Like I barely mentioned the fact that Max is an artist, which misses a huge part of who he is.

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Election Night captures the quiet despair and intensity of this past year’s voting night. Was it an act of escape or dissociation to be able to focus on subjects versus the moment itself that night?

My parents invited a bunch of family friends over to watch the CNN coverage on election night. We all gathered around the TV, and I was sitting across from this couch filled with women; my mom was sitting in the center, and on both sides of her were some of my closest family friends. I remember thinking that it would be cool to take a series of pictures that showed the reactions of a multi-generational, multi-ethnic group of women gathered around the TV as Hillary Clinton was elected our first female president. Like a series that showed the suspense and then celebration on that night. I had not even considered the possibility of Donald Trump winning.

It was also a really personal series because the women on the couch were such important figures in my life, and not ones that I’d usually photograph. The first photos show them clinging onto the hope of Hillary pulling through and the last photos show them processing the fact that Trump had won. The photos look mostly the same, but you can see the time pass between each frame in the lowering levels of snacks and drinks on the table and in the way they shift in their seats.

I was in horror that night, and taking the photos definitely became a way to dissociate from what was actually happening. I remember feeling a selfish kind of excitement about having a photo series come out of all of it. I think the photos show them dissociating as the night went on. It’s not so clearly a timeline that shows their smiles turn to frowns. At the end we were all numb. It seemed so ridiculous and unreal. It’s still so ridiculous and unreal and numbing. Worse than I ever imagined and getting worse each day.

Election Night captures the quiet despair and intensity of this past year’s voting night. Was it an act of escape or dissociation to be able to focus on subjects versus the moment itself that night?

My parents invited a bunch of family friends over to watch the CNN coverage on election night. We all gathered around the TV, and I was sitting across from this couch filled with women; my mom was sitting in the center, and on both sides of her were some of my closest family friends. I remember thinking that it would be cool to take a series of pictures that showed the reactions of a multi-generational, multi-ethnic group of women gathered around the TV as Hillary Clinton was elected our first female president. Like a series that showed the suspense and then celebration on that night. I had not even considered the possibility of Donald Trump winning.

It was also a really personal series because the women on the couch were such important figures in my life, and not ones that I’d usually photograph. The first photos show them clinging onto the hope of Hillary pulling through and the last photos show them processing the fact that Trump had won. The photos look mostly the same, but you can see the time pass between each frame in the lowering levels of snacks and drinks on the table and in the way they shift in their seats.

I was in horror that night, and taking the photos definitely became a way to dissociate from what was actually happening. I remember feeling a selfish kind of excitement about having a photo series come out of all of it. I think the photos show them dissociating as the night went on. It’s not so clearly a timeline that shows their smiles turn to frowns. At the end we were all numb. It seemed so ridiculous and unreal. It’s still so ridiculous and unreal and numbing. Worse than I ever imagined and getting worse each day.

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Santa Monica is such a unique place in and of itself, but have you experienced and / or photographed other parts of Los Angeles?

Earlier this year I was commissioned to photograph the neighborhood of Arlington Heights, which surrounds the Underground Museum, for a magazine they recently published titled FEB Mag. It was different from the kind of photography I normally do of friends and people and places I know well, but it was an amazing experience. I got to research the history of the community and talk to some people who’d lived there for decades. I walked around the neighborhood by myself for a few weekends and took photos, and I went to the big Martin Luther King Day parade nearby and took photos. The perspective is more detached than that of my other work, but it’s still the same observational style of shooting.

Whose work do you love? Why?

“American Color” by Constantine Manos, “Living Solo” by Adrienne Salinger, “Imperial Courts” by Dana Lixenberg, “Triptychs” by Milton Rogovin, “Lucha Libre: The Family Portraits” by Lourdes Grobet, “The Innocents” by Taryn Simon, “My Rules” by Glen E. Friedman, “Heads” by Alex Kayser. Some other people whose work I love: Michael Heizer, Chris Burden, Kerry James Marshall, Ryan Trecartin, Patrick O’Dell and Kent Twitchell.

What excites you about college?

Really being invested in what I’m learning, making new friends, and how much fun living in the dorms is. I don’t miss high school.

Okay, last question: What do you prefer to shoot on?

iPhone, panorama setting.

Santa Monica is such a unique place in and of itself, but have you experienced and / or photographed other parts of Los Angeles?

Earlier this year I was commissioned to photograph the neighborhood of Arlington Heights, which surrounds the Underground Museum, for a magazine they recently published titled FEB Mag. It was different from the kind of photography I normally do of friends and people and places I know well, but it was an amazing experience. I got to research the history of the community and talk to some people who’d lived there for decades. I walked around the neighborhood by myself for a few weekends and took photos, and I went to the big Martin Luther King Day parade nearby and took photos. The perspective is more detached than that of my other work, but it’s still the same observational style of shooting.

Whose work do you love? Why?

“American Color” by Constantine Manos, “Living Solo” by Adrienne Salinger, “Imperial Courts” by Dana Lixenberg, “Triptychs” by Milton Rogovin, “Lucha Libre: The Family Portraits” by Lourdes Grobet, “The Innocents” by Taryn Simon, “My Rules” by Glen E. Friedman, “Heads” by Alex Kayser. Some other people whose work I love: Michael Heizer, Chris Burden, Kerry James Marshall, Ryan Trecartin, Patrick O’Dell and Kent Twitchell.

What excites you about college?

Really being invested in what I’m learning, making new friends, and how much fun living in the dorms is. I don’t miss high school.

Okay, last question: What do you prefer to shoot on?

iPhone, panorama setting.

Interview By Malik Adán

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Interview By Malik Adán

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  View more work from Nico Young at his personal website and instagram.