Meet the super talented LA based photographer slash new media director Erik Voake. All the images you see here are by him. He’s been at for a minute and has earned a few notable notches traveling the globe producing, directing and filming action sports documentaries at some of the most exotic locations this planet has to offer. Folks paid attention while he was at it too: X Dance Film Festival gave him “Best Stunt Film” for his series “Slednecks” and it didn’t take long for Hollywood to come calling. He was nabbed by Zalman King Company and produced, directed, filmed and edited Ice T’s “Body Count” documentary titled Murder for Hire. From there he started directing music videos (“Unleash Me” and “Chamber of Fear”) for the RZA of the Wu Tang Clan. After the rap and hip-hop videos he found himself as the co producer and director of photography on the Lionsgate film, A Day in the Life. He also served as director of photography for Larry Clark’s (Kids, Bully and Wassup Rockers fame) short documentary Impaled, which was an examination into the effects of pornography on youths’ sex lives. BTW, Voake continues to collaborate with Clark on projects.
“As a kid growing up I always thought the 3 best jobs would be to be a pro surfer, a rock star or a photographer and now I am a photographer who photographs music and actions sports.” -Erik Voake
Hey Eric, thanks for making some time. Lets kick things off with a little introduction.
Hello Magnetic readers, my name is Erik Voake. I’m a Virgo who resides in the City of Angels. I spend most of my time documenting music and celebrities. I always wanted to be a war photographer and did get an opportunity to shoot in Iraq in 2006, but since I love life so much I decided it probably wasn’t for me. I spend most of my time with my lovely fiancé and my 3 feral cats, one possum and one squirrel that reside in our backyard. I like to talk about politics, sex and religion when I first meet someone as I find those subjects the most difficult for people to discuss. If you can discuss those topics with no problem you know you can be friends as friends should be able to discuss anything. I was and continue to be influenced by Larry Clark, James Nacthwey, Herb Ritts and Jim Marshall. As a kid growing up I always thought the 3 best jobs would be to be a pro surfer, a rock star or a photographer and now I am a photographer who photographs music and actions sports, it’s a win win situation. I love what I do so I do take it very seriously and every day I am thankful for what it is that I do for a living.
Your first camera: I cant really remember my very first camera really, you would probably need to ask my mom as she gave it to me but my first professional camera was a motion picture camera, a 16mm Arriflex S that I used to shoot action sports documentaries with, my first still camera that opened the world of photography to me was a Canon AE 1.
Favorite camera: Anything Leica or my Canon AE1 with a fresh roll of black and white film.
Most disappointing camera: Haven’t had one yet.
Camera you’d recommend to beginners: Anything really, it’s not the camera, it’s the eye behind it; even cell phone cameras can get something amazing. I’ve been having a lot of fun with my iPhone lately! I’m not a big gear head; I don’t think having the latest gear really makes a difference. I always tell beginners to just get something that works for them. Not every painter uses the same paintbrush, they use what works for their vision. I think the same holds true for photographers.
An “eccentric” camera you’ve been pleased with. What are its distinct attributes?
My new iPhone or what I call my iLaroid. These cell phone cameras are incredible in what they can do, they can produce amazing shots and like a Polaroid they are instantly shareable. I love Instagram and being able to take these photos and post them immediately. I’m actually completely and totally blown away with my iPhone.
How and why did you get your start? Any interesting anecdotes there? Is there anyone you owe “big time?” Why?
I started when I was 19, shooting action sports documentaries on 16mm film. I was a filmmaker first and became a photographer. Most photographers become filmmakers but I went the other way. I would say I really owe my parents big time for their constant support—they are my rock. They are amazing people who instilled a lot of values in me and it’s those values that have made me successful. There are also a number of people who helped out along the way and I think every successful person has someone that gave them a “break” but in the end it’s still you and your talent and your belief in yourself that makes you or breaks you. I am a believer in helping out people, I think we as human beings should always be helping other people out, sometimes it can bite you in the ass as you do come across people who end up not being so grateful but regardless I think we should always be on the lookout to help each other out in all aspects of life. I’ve always been the kind of person to answer anyone’s questions about anything regarding my work. Some people say it may be giving away my “trade secrets” but I think more success lies in ones personality than their technical use on how to use a camera or some software.
Can you talk about the first instance when someone paid to publish one of your photos.
I had quite a bit of success in the filmmaking world and was getting paid by various outlets from the age of 19 on but in photography it came much later in life. I had taken a photo of this all chick band called the Chelsea Girls. I shot it at the Roxy Theatre whom I owe a lot to for giving me great access to all the bands that play there—I was the house photographer there for many years. Being the house photographer at such an incredible venue allowed me to build my portfolio very quickly. Anyways I posted the image of Chelsea Girls on Flickr and a couple days later a photo editor at SPIN called me wanting it for a two-page spread. That more or less started my career as a music photographer. I would say I also owe a lot to SPIN, I have worked with them for over two years, they are an amazing group of people to work with, they are also highly respected in the music industry so when your shooting for them it’s fairly common to get extra access as musicians want the exposure they offer. I am always conscious of the artists’ private space as well. I learned early on how to recognize when it’s cool to go shoot backstage and when it’s not.
What does still photography have over video/film? Contrariwise?
These days the two mediums are converging and I don’t think it will ever split again. Having talent as a filmmaker, and photographer, will be critical to anyone’s success from now on. I can say, I really don’t like the editing process in film making and I’m sure plenty of filmmakers will find fault in me saying that, but hey I’m a bigger believer in knowing your own strengths and weaknesses in your own work. Filmmaking is more of a team effort so I know I need a good editor in my team—it actually makes me a more successful filmmaker by adding that person. I do love photography, there is something about capturing that one moment in time, the gratification also comes a lot faster with photography than it does with filmmaking, the process of making a film is obviously a lot longer.
Digital photography, friend or foe? Gilded facilitator of the imagination or soul-erasing process-killer?
Friend, again I could care less what kind of equipment anyone uses. I’m not a big believer in equipment. A better camera will not make you a better photographer but the different camera may create different opportunities to capture different images. Yes deep down I’m a film snob, always will be but I’m never going to lose sleep or jobs over it.
Are there any pieces of music out there which have moved you to create/capture certain images? Are there any musicians out there whose stuff is particularly visual to you?
Sure. The musician, band, whomever, definitely affects my photos. If I happen to really dig the musician or genre of music, or if I just like the vibe of the artist, yes I would say I do tend to get better images. If I know the band or the music I can anticipate more. And being able to anticipate what is going to happen even a few seconds before will definitely help in delivering better photos. Of course if I have seen someone perform before, or just have a little more of the vibe, it helps. I would say that in general the electronic acts seem to have better visuals overall. The big stadium acts are always nice but to be honest my favorite venues are the smaller ones where you can get closer to your subject.
Favorite directors are Larry Clark and Gaspar Noe I would say. Larry has been a close friend for some time. We now work together on various projects and if you have not seen Irreversible by Gaspar Noe, you are truly missing out. I am also a fan of Michael Moore, people may say he fabricates elements of his documentaries or that he is one sided. That may be true but I say at least he is a filmmaker who knows the value of his position and uses it to bring important issues to peoples’ attention. At the very least he creates discussion, he motivated people to educate themselves and that is enough for me to be a fan! I really do wish that more filmmakers, artists, musicians, anyone who is in the public eye would see the value of that and use their position to educate the public more, or motivate the public to educate themselves. I’m a big believer in education, your education is something that you can truly control and more than anything it is the key to true freedom.
What happens in a photographer’s mind—yours specifically—when you read?
I like the 48 Laws of Power, The Art of War. People ask me why I would read those kinds of books, it’s simple, I’m not interested in using those tactics on someone else, I’m more interested in being able to recognize when someone is using those tactics on me.
48 Laws of Power
1. Never outshine the master.
2. Never put too much trust in friends; learn how to use enemies.
3. Conceal your intentions.
4. Always say less than necessary.
5. So much depends on reputation. Guard it with your life.
6. Court attention at all costs.
7. Get others to do the work for you, but always take the credit.
8. Make other people come to you; use bait if necessary.
9. Win through your actions, never through argument.
10. Infection: avoid the unhappy and unlucky.
11. Learn to keep people dependent on you.
12. Use selective honesty and generosity to disarm your victim.
13. When asking for help, appeal to people’s self-interests, never to their mercy or gratitude.
14. Pose as a friend, work as a spy.
15. Crush your enemy totally.
16. Use absence to increase respect and honor.
17. Keep others in suspended terror: cultivate an air of unpredictability.
18. Do not build fortresses to protect yourself. Isolation is dangerous.
19. Know who you’re dealing with; do not offend the wrong person.
20. Do not commit to anyone.
21. Play a sucker to catch a sucker: play dumber than your mark.
22. Use the surrender tactic: transform weakness into power.
23. Concentrate your forces.
24. Play the perfect courtier.
25. Re-create yourself.
26. Keep your hands clean.
27. Play on people’s need to believe to create a cult like following.
28. Enter action with boldness.
29. Plan all the way to the end.
30. Make your accomplishments seem effortless.
31. Control the options: get others to play with the cards you deal.
32. Play to people’s fantasies.
33. Discover each man’s thumbscrew.
34. Be royal in your fashion: act like a king to be treated like one.
35. Master the art of timing.
36. Disdain things you cannot have: Ignoring them is the best revenge.
37. Create compelling spectacles
38. Think as you like but behave like others.
39. Stir up waters to catch fish.
40. Despise the free lunch.
41. Avoid stepping into a great man’s shoes.
42. Strike the shepherd and the sheep will scatter.
43. Work on the hearts and minds of others.
44. Disarm and infuriate with the mirror effect.
45. Preach the need for change, but never reform too much at once.
46. Never appear perfect.
47. Do not go past the mark you aimed for; in victory, learn when to stop.
48. Assume formlessness.
If you had four hours and unlimited money in a city of your choice where would it be and what would you get up to?
Amsterdam and do I really need to say why? Las Vegas is for beginners…
You knew you wanted to be a photographer when…
As a kid growing up I always thought the three best jobs in the world were to be a rock star, a professional surfer or a professional photographer. By choosing to be a photographer I knew I could be all three and then some.
I really decided that I would devote substantial time to photography when I went to Iraq in 2006 to video various missions with the troops for an assignment from Sony. I brought my Canon AE1 with me, and a bunch of film. I had to leave the video with the producer but I was able to take my photos home with me. After developing the photos I was just really moved by the images. I then realized the power and influence of photography. I knew right then I had to pursue photography. Not long before the trip I also saw the documentary War Photographer, it’s about James Nachtwey who is considered the most prolific conflict photographer ever. I was really moved by his work and why he did it. He was not out there to document the bloodshed; he was trying to give a voice to the voiceless in the world. I thought that was incredibly admirable.
The opposite sex seems to like photographers. How does the “you’re pretty” pick-up line work with you…or does it?
Yes, it does seem to be true—women do flock to photographers. I’m not really a “line” type of guy. I think just simply introducing yourself, make some good jokes, be yourself will get you laid. Works great for me at least! Don’t tell my fiancé that! Haha. Wait…She obviously knows now because she is going to read this but because that’s how I scored her! Haha.
Did you love the film Pecker?
I preferred the movie Teeth; you know the one, the indie film about the vagina with teeth.
What percentage of your skills were you born with? How did you go about acquiring additional skills? Learning from others? Teaching the self?
Well I think everyone is born with a clean slate when it comes to your personality. I think it’s important to be a nice, likeable person and not an asshole. Personality is so important, I think more so than skills. There are a ton of skilled visual artists out there, some are assholes, some aren’t. I find the likeable folks have a longer more rewarding career. We live in a different environment these days, it’s far more competitive, if someone could give a gig to someone they like or a jerk who do you think they are really going to pick. Of course you do need to have talent. I do think some of that you may be born with, who really knows however. I’m sure enough talent can be learned to get you by, I mean look a Michael Bay for example. Wildly successful even though his films suck. I learned a lot by watching other people, asking questions, looking at other work, reading—trial and error. More importantly I never stop learning, I think that is also critical to ones success. There is so much to see and experience, the more you take in the more you have to draw on when the time comes.
Favor us with a moment in life that changed the course of, or defined, your aesthetic philosophy/position.
There have been a few but probably my trip to Iraq in 2006 was one of my most influential. Photographing and meeting Obama, Noam Chomsky, those were also big. Having a film in Sundance that I shot was big for me. I directed a music video for the RZA that was on MTV that was a highlight. Also selling a reality show to FUSE that I created was nice. In the end though I would trade it all for just that one trip to Iraq.
Speak about the hierarchy of skill (craftsmanship), style (your unique aesthetic) and emotive content in your work—and/or in the work of those you admire.
To me it’s all about capturing a moment. That moment can be authentic or it can be fabricated but those moments is what photography is all about. There is certainly skill required in photography. I do think it’s a skill that can be learned or built on. Yes I do believe you are born with a certain amount of the skill. Some folks are inherently faster at seeing a photographic moment and capturing it. I think everyone does learn though or build on the skill they were born with. You have to take photos and look at them, analyze them and ask yourself if it could be better and how could it be better. I always ask myself when looking at my images if it tells the story. Telling a story and combining it with an emotive feeling is what we photographers all aspire to achieve. I think the true master of combining story telling and emotion is James Nachtwey—I always tell people to check out his work. Now he is a war photographer and people tell me it’s not the same. I tell them you have obviously never been in the photo pit at a Slayer concert! As far as my style I’ve been told people can usually spot my images fairly quickly as they say I convey emotion and feeling like few other music photographers do. I guess that is true as I am always telling myself in my head as I’m shooting to just “wait, wait, wait, be patient, the moment is coming!”
Inform us as to your typical creative arc. Take us from alpha to omega with a project. What, if any specific environments, conditions, materials, etc. are required?
Well I tend to do well with unique personalities, touchy subject matter and/or remote locations. I have found that as much as I try to plan for a shoot it just never really works out that way. I do plan but I plan for the unknown just as much. It’s usually the unknown that provides for those once in a lifetime photos. I also travel pretty light on shoots. One or two lights, one assistant, that’s about it for a portrait shoot. Of course there can be hair, makeup, wardrobe and stylists involved but that can vary depending on whom you’re shooting.
What’s the secret to your success?
My secret isn’t a big secret as it’s been around since the dawn of mankind. It’s pretty simple actually and sadly this is going to sound corny as shit, but it’s simple: have a positive mental attitude. Now please don’t run out and buy some self-help book, that’s not going to do anything for you in my opinion. Just be cool, be nice, friendly, get along with people. You don’t need a book for that; you just need to make a decision to act that way. Simple.
What was your favorite toy as a child and when/why did you stop playing with it?
My dick and I still play with it daily or my chick does. Just kidding, sort of, haha. Probably my favorite toy or toys were my ATVs, BMX bikes, Mountain bikes, Snowboards, Snowmobiles—I liked things with engines and wheels. I also really liked my BB Gun!
Describe a moment of what may or may not have been “paranoia” in your life. In the end, what was “true?”
I’ve never really been paranoid that I can think of, I don’t think losing it over anything really gets anyone anywhere. Of course there are situations where people should lose it, loss of a loved one is certainly enough reason to lose it but in day-to-day life I’m pretty stable. I think a lot of people got paranoid over Y2K but I didn’t. I still remember where I was at when the World Trade Center got hit. I’m kinda looking forward to 2012 to be honest!
Have you ever had a brush with the paranormal or supernatural?
Many. I was a volunteer EMT in college, worked on an ambulance service—I definitely saw some weird shit.
What’s the most disturbing event you’ve bore witness to?
Really way to many to list and it probably also depends on someone’s own definition of disturbing. I have found that I’m a bit more tolerant to disturbing things than most people. I saw a guy burn to death once. That was gnarly. I was kayaking in West Virginia and was underneath the New River Gorge Bridge when a kid jumped off to commit suicide. He landed in the river about 50 feet away from me; they found his body down river two days later. I saw a little Cessna plane crash once, the firefighters had to peel the bodies off the plane, I carried out the body bags and it was like carrying a sack of potatoes. I witnessed the largest avalanche in the history of Alaska—almost took me out—it killed 6 other people. I helped dig out 5 bodies that day. Found the last body months later.
Do you think there are any commonly held societal beliefs that are false?
The belief that a college education will do anything for you, other than making you broke, is ridiculous! I think you are far better served to learn from traveling the world, seeing and experiencing different cultures and pulling from that. After my first trip out of the country I learned pretty quick that the world I had been living is was pretty small and there was a lot more out there. I also believe in aliens. Given the size of the universe, I think it’s more than probable that there are other life forms somewhere out there. I do think one day we will be able to travel to those other places in our universe. I’m not a believer in religious institutions. If you’re a good person you should be allowed into heaven and too many people die in the name of God these days. Sex is also good. No it’s great… so it should not be used as a tool to control or manipulate people.
How will you feel six months after your heart stops beating?
Rotten to the core
What’s the hardest lesson you’ve ever learned?
That life isn’t fair. It took me 34 years to accept it. I hated accepting it. I still hate that I do have to accept it. I wish the world were fair to everyone, not just me. I don’t see the need for poverty and starvation in this world.
Does character invent style or does your style invent character? Or is there a mysterious X factor only you are privy to?
Both, character and style works hand in hand.
Do you have a pet?
I have 3 feral cats currently living in my backyard and one possum and a squirrel. It’s a regular zoo here in the heart of LA. The 3 cats recently caught and ate a different squirrel for eating their food I put out for them. It was crazy!
Travel probably takes more of your time than it does the average person. Do you have any tales of extreme excitement or extreme boredom that the average person might enjoy reading?
Well I have been all around the world to some rather weird places that’s for sure. I think the Canadian, New Zealand and Australian borders and airports are some of the toughest to navigate. I had an easier time getting in and out of Iraq during the war. Our airports are total bullshit as well—the TSA people are idiots. Sorry but my dad just flew to visit me and got on the plane with a pocket knife and they took my fingernail clippers on a recent flight, where is the logic there? I almost got the rubber glove coming from New Zealand to Australia once. I think it was because I was going to document the Hells Angels there and they knew it but still it kinda sucked.