Interview: Armen Keleshian Spills The Secrets On Being A Successful Hip Hop Photographer

Posted on in Fresh Gems

Los Angeles, CA – Believe it or not, pristine photo-ops and snapshots require more than just wielding a camera.

Enter Armen Keleshian, who has snapped flicks from everyone to Kanye West to Future, all the way down to sports icons such as Kobe Bryant and Floyd Mayweather.

In an exclusive conversation with HipHopDX, Keleshian talks how his international trek enabled him to be positioned into capturing the lives some the game’s most prominent figures.

Interview: Armen Keleshian Spills The Secrets On Being A Successful Hip Hop Photographer

Photo: Provided by Armen Keleshian

HipHopDX: How long have you been out here in L.A.? In the mix, as I’ve seen you all over. Give me the rundown. When do you get to start?

Armen Keleshian: I moved to L.A. eight years ago, but I’ve been in the scene shooting for about five.

HipHopDX: When you moved were you a photographer?

Armen Keleshian: Yeah, I’ll give you a little bit the back story. I was doing this back home in Beirut, Lebanon in the Middle East. And I started small there. I started in the small comedy scene there. I had a friend mine that was doing comedy shows. I would just take my camera with me. I would get some photos. This was, at the time I was 17, 18 years old. Just take some photos, try to figure out a lighting situation, how cameras work, and all that.

After about a year doing that, that same dude that I was shooting and doing my thing with, he had a radio show. And that radio station was basically like the iHeartRadio the Middle East. So they just brought me on to shoot their concerts. Just kind like an in-house photo intern kind thing. And then that’s how I started, man. That’s how I got into the music scene out there.

And then I met Steve Lobel. And after that, pretty much everything changed. So when I moved to L.A., I hit up Steve and we had met in Lebanon when he brought out J. Cole at the time. I said, “Yo, I’m in L.A., I’d love an opportunity to come shadow you. If you ever need content, I’d love to come and shoot.”.Just getting them going around. And Steve said, “I got you.” So, he put me on here in the scene, connecting me with a lot people, took me to a lot events, a lot places. And that’s how I built relationships and slowly started to grow.

HipHopDX: That’s awesome. Shout out to Uncle Steve.

Armen Keleshian: Yeah man, shout out to Steve. He really helped put on a lot people, and I’m one them.

HipHopDX: Back in Lebanon, who would you say were the first rapper that you were able to shoot, and develop a rapport? Who’d be the first rapper that let you get close to them? Was it J. Cole?

Armen Keleshian: I’ll say it would be Wiz. He and I have a very good relationship. Funny enough, so I was shooting at the time with SKEE TV, with DJ Skee and they had a show on, I think on AXS. And he was just doing these shows. And I just linked up with Wiz on one the episodes there. And we just kind like hit it f. And then at the time, I was also working part-time at the Apple store. So he came in one day, and he was trying to get a phone, and I saw him, we connected. He’s like, “Yo, you’re my guy now, we’re homie.” So every time he needed some his Apple stuff, he would hit me anytime there was a music video shoot. 

And then I got a chance to do a few shows here in L.A. when he was doing the 420 Tour with Snoop. So Wiz became a really good friend mine, I guess. So, up until this day, anytime he sees me it’s all love. I’ve done a lot BTS stuff for him. I’ve done a lot concert shots, performance shots, in the club. So it’s just kind like we maintained that relationship over the years. He’s like one the homies at this point.

HipHopDX: That’s awesome.

Armen Keleshian: He is a great dude.

Interview: Armen Keleshian Spills The Secrets On Being A Successful Hip Hop Photographer

Photo: Provided by Armen Keleshian

Honestly, a lot people don’t know about him, but he’s very open. He helps a lot people. He helps put a lot people on. And he does it behind the scenes. He doesn’t advertise it. He doesn’t want the light to be shed on that. He wants other people to shine. So, I respect that about him.

HipHopDX: What’s your favorite event to shoot? Is it an album listening? Is it a concert? Is it behind the scenes, shadowing an artist? What drives your passion?

Armen Keleshian: I think my passion lies in shooting the places or the situations where a lot people don’t get to see the artists in. So whether it’s in the studio, whether it’s backstage getting ready to go on stage, or during a music video set, if they’re just chilling in their trailer getting ready. So it’s the situations where the everyday lifestyle that these people do, that you wouldn’t get to see unless you’re involved with them, or you work for them, or you’re a part their camp.

I mean shooting concerts and festivals is a lot fun. That’s how I started. But then I just kind built the relationships to go a little bit further than that. So I’m always looking to get that exclusive shot. Like a portrait shot or in the moment. Like maybe getting a haircut, maybe sharing a moment with their daughter, their son, with their child. Whatever. With their family, with their moms. And I feel like that’s where a lot the exclusive content is, I guess. The things that are putting me on the map are the photos that you don’t really see shot from the pit during a concert. The pit photos are used for press, this and that, which is great, but then there’s photos that are more like lifestyle that are more unique. 

I got an opportunity to do that stuff because Steve. He just kind opened the door for me, and I was always in the backstage area. Like we would go to Nipsey’s hood, hang out with Nipsey, and shoot him playing video games — that kind stuff. So I feel like just having that access has kind grown me into becoming that photographer, more than just shooting from the pit, or doing the events which I still do obviously.

HipHopDX: Now that you’re certified in the space, what do you do with all your inventory? How do you package up the next step your brand?

Armen Keleshian: So that’s actually a really good question ’cause I’m working on that at this exact moment. I feel like I did this enough, where I built the name in the event scene. The concerts, the events, the Live Nation, the Goldenvoice and all that stuff. So I just really wanted to grow a little bit more out that. Just because not only am I a photographer that could take photos, but I also fer a lot , I do a lot stuff on social media. I market myself. I grew my following, specifically just by making sure my images get to the right place at the right time. If it’s an exclusive event I got contacts at Complex, at Billboard, at XXL. I’m sending my images to them and they’re using them for articles and features.

Interview: Armen Keleshian Spills The Secrets On Being A Successful Hip Hop Photographer

Photo: Provided by Armen Keleshian

But now, I’m trying to grow beyond that. I’m trying to go work with labels or creative agencies that are working with these artists to develop a plan for their next album release, their single release. Or, if they have an activation at ComplexCon. Something that’s more a collaboration, rather than just being at their shows. Because an artist nowadays, because their social media presence and their voice, they could do a lot more than just sing and rap and produce. They’re actually their own brand, their own entities. And a prime example that would be JAY-Z.

He’s one the best to ever do it. But, he also owns Roc Nation. He’s also involved in the NFL. He’s also involved in the alcohol. So he’s tapped into multiple things. So I’m trying to do that, utilizing my relationships that I’ve built with the camera and the photo career, with the scene to just kind grow. And I’ve always had this dream being involved more creatively than just taking a photo. Sure it’s good on Instagram, it gets you a following. But I’m really trying to dive deeper, more into the creative side things. Just be part that whole journey, rather than just in that moment.

So I feel like that’s what the focus is next. To just work and develop an artist’s brand image creatively for those purposes.

You have to be able to stand out. You’ve got to diversify your content because everyone with a camera can be called a photographer. Now it’s a lot easier than before to get access to shoot events and concerts. So it’s like how do you utilize that specific exclusive access, to turn it into something bigger than what everyone else is doing.

HipHopDX: As a pressional in the space, what would you recommend someone up and coming to do to separate themselves from just being somebody with a camera?

Armen Keleshian: When you have a camera it opens a lot doors for you, depending on how you work the camera, how your photos come out, who you know. It’s when you build those relationships, build those relationships from the very beginning, knowing that you’re more than just a camera person. I mean that is if you are a creative person, you’re a human being. I don’t think anyone should look into making a career out music photography. They should use that as a stepping stone to something bigger and greater. So you could be a music photographer that gets your foot in the door that way, but let’s say you’re really good at maintaining relationship. You’re really good at A&R’ing. You’re really good at finding talent. You can utilize those relationships into working your way into a label, starting your own label, connecting with people that are doing more creative stuff.

And I feel the one thing a lot people do is they put themselves, including myself, I did this for the longest time, is you put yourself into this box. That, this is what I do, this is what I’m known for, I’m going to keep riding that wave. Well after a certain while you’re going to be, “All right, well I outgrew this, I achieved everything I wanted to do. I made her name into the music scene, I got a decent following. So, what’s next?” So you just get hit with that wall. And that’s when you realize, “All right, well I’ve got to do something else with this.”

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Film or Digital, still BAWSE!

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But just always keep that in the back your mind ahead time. And that will get you the clout on social media and everything you need. But, at the end the day, you have to look at also feeling fulfilled, doing what you’re doing and loving what you’re doing. I don’t think anyone that has a passion for photography, and anyone that gets their foot in the door that way, wants to end up just being in the pit at age let’s say 45, 50, when you have a family, you have children, this, that. I feel like you would have to expand out that, not because… Well first all, financially, you would make a lot more money doing other stuff than to just be that guy. But also being able to take your career to the next level. And that’s part the longevity your name and your career.

And I feel like there’s a really good example that we have nowadays. If you look at Lenny S., Roc Nation’s SVP, started f as JAY-Z’s photographer. Now he’s the right-hand man, involved in CÎROC, involved with Dreamville, involved with Kevin Hart. He’s involved, tapped into everything, right? Lenny is kind one the gatekeepers in the music industry. But the way he did it is, he utilized his relationships and slowly built up. And obviously, he started with JAY-Z early on. So, if you’re affiliated or anything with JAY-Z or Roc Nation, you’re good. But, he worked his ass f to get there. It’s not just like, it wasn’t a hand me out hand me down for him. It wasn’t a handout. He was working his ass f. It’s paid f. Now he’s managing Khaled. He’s doing 20 other things. He has his own brand.

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FilmSet 🎞

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So, that’s the prime example who I aspire to be. I look up to Lenny and the way he works, and everything he does, and the way he moves. And he’s very well respected in the music scene, the photo scene and business in general. So, I feel like going back to the question you asked me. I feel like having that vision ahead time, and knowing that there’s always an end goal that’s not just this, is very important.

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Happy Bardi Day 🥳

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Check out Armen on Instagram @armenkeleshian for even more exclusive photos your favorite rap star.