Nabil Elderkin is your favorite rapper’s favorite photographer.
After cutting his teeth shooting his surfer friends in Australia, he relocated to Chicago where he started photographing bands and DJs, and rose to prominence after getting a shot – no pun intended – to meet with Kanye West. Interested in West’s music almost from the rapper’s genesis, Elderkin – who is better known just as Nabil – sat on the kanyewest.com domain until agreeing to give up the URL in exchange for a photograph.
Within 10 minutes of meeting, Nabil photographed West, creating what ultimately became his press shot for The College Dropout and one of the first iconic images of the rapper: dressed in a red sweater, hunched over, pulling at the straps of a Louis Vuitton backpack. The Louis Vuitton Don was born, but so was the career of one of the most compelling visual artists working in music of this generation.
In the 12 years since, Nabil has documented much of West’s life, including his Glow in the Dark Tour, and has made music videos for Frank Ocean, Nicki Minaj and ANOHNI, including her short film Antony and the Johnsons: Cut the World starring Marina Abramović. He’s crafted visually stirring videos for James Blake, Bon Iver and Damian Marley & Nas, and has shot The Weeknd for Apple Music and Carolina Panthers quarterback Cam Newton for Beats by Dre. His most recent work is ANOHNI’s ‘Drone Bomb Me’, a somber clip featuring a tear-soaked Naomi Campbell.
As music visuals continues to become more ambitious with long-form projects like Beyoncé’s Lemonade and YouTube’s 360 performance platform, FACT caught up with Nabil to discuss the evolution of the music video, his upcoming first narrative film and why it’s silly to keep photographs of musicians as artwork.
“People are losing touch with their own creative outlook and looking for other people to validate them.”
Did you know you were a visual person at a young age?
Not really, not at all. It took a while. I was probably 16 when I started filming surfers and stuff. I guess 16 is getting pretty old. But I just wanted to surf when I was a kid. Even when I was filming, I thought of it more as a job – I was standing on the beach taking pictures of people surfing. And then I started shooting underwater stuff and I got a little more abstract. I started to enjoy weird angles and seeing things in a different [way]. But I didn’t think it was going to be my career.
When you said you were working, was it your after-school job?
Yeah, I was shooting pictures of surfers who were friends of mine and going on to be pro and selling them to their sponsors. I was making jackshit, but as a kid, it was enough to buy a new video camera or lens. I managed to fail photography for my HSC, which is like the SATs. My teacher failed me, she was the worst. Not that my photos were that good, they probably weren’t. They were interesting, they were different, and I think because they were so different from what she was trying to teach, she was just so standard and I wanted to do weird, different things. She wasn’t feeling it and she didn’t like me. She literally failed me. It’s the biggest dick move you can do to a young kid in an art class.
That’s so fucked up. You shouldn’t ever fail a kid in art unless they don’t make anything.
And I did it! I didn’t really care, actually. My parents cared. There was another teacher who was really nice and he let me borrow a camera. I wasn’t even in his class, but I’d do rolls of black and white and slide film. I really, really liked it and I think that was the moment when I [knew]. Then my parents were like, “You have to go to America to live with your mom.” So I went and lived with my mom in Chicago. There wasn’t surfing, so I started shooting bands and DJs.
Where did you interest in music come from?
Being a human being. I love music. I’ve always loved music. It was nice to be able to shoot people who were inspiring. If you think about it, it’s really funny that people love to see photos of musicians. If you close your eyes and you think about it, you’re just looking at another person’s face, which is fine, I love people’s faces and I love shooting people. Yes, they have a powerful gift that is probably one of the most powerful gifts in the world. It has the potential to reach people without any boundaries. But you’re staring at a photo of someone – what’s the significance? Sure, they might have an interesting face which is a beautiful thing, but shooting musicians is just kind of funny. Why aren’t people just listening to music instead of looking at photos of musicians?
I wonder if it’s a comfort in a way. There are so many different contexts where you can see those photos. I’m sitting in my apartment right now, I have two photos, one of Tom Waits, one of Mary J. Blige, and I was given them as gifts because people know they make art that’s really important to me.
A-ha! I see what you’re saying, but wouldn’t you rather have an actual piece of art that one of these people have created? Wouldn’t you rather just play their music in the background? I’ve noticed throughout my life, I’ve never hung a poster of anybody except for a portrait of someone that was interesting. Why don’t we just put up art?
I mean, I have other stuff, too…
[Cackles] Not even you, per se. I have a picture of Nelson Mandela and I should just be reading his work. Why am I putting a picture of him up in my house?
Do you think we use imagery that we feel is an extension of ourselves? That’s why people have Pinterest boards and why people use Tumblr to reblog gifs and images and photos. They use that in a way to visually express themselves.
I don’t get Tumblr. I actually think Tumblr is sad, in a way. If it’s their own art, I get it. Sharing your art in a space [is one thing], but reblogging other people’s stuff? I mean, I get it to an extent, but start drawing! Have your own expression. I feel like a dick saying that, but I see kids all day reblogging things and looking up things on Tumblr. Shouldn’t they be out there smelling the trees or drawing on a wall? Draw on the back of your old school book! People are losing touch with their own creative outlook and looking for other people to validate them. And it’s not even their own art! Most people it isn’t. Some people put their poetry or drawings on Tumblr, which is cool. But a lot of people are taking pictures from the internet, putting a faded filter on it so it feels nostalgic and reblogging it. Maybe that’s art in its own way.
“I’m trying to get so paid that I can just make my own art.”
How did you come about making music videos? Did you fall in love with them when you were growing up?
I fell in love with a lot of music videos. Anything Chris Cunningham did or Chris Milk did early in the days. He’s in his VR world now, but he used to make really cool music videos. I had the fortunate ability to be on some sets with Kanye and John Legend and the Black Eyed Peas, so I saw guys like Francis Lawrence, Chris Milk. Seeing what they created from the juxtaposition of being on set to what the final product was, I was like, “This is magic.” [You’re] creating emotion.
I’ve been able to travel the world and experience so many different cultures and things with my photo documentary work, but seeing that they were able to create these emotions with the music, I was like, “Shit, I would love to be able to take my experiences and make something with this amazing music when I close my eyes and come up with images.” That’s how I come up with music videos. I drive around, put the song on repeat and do whatever comes to my mind. And it might come from one lyric and it might comes from the bassline in the song or a preconceived idea I had about the musician and try to transform it in a larger format.
I try to keep it as minimal as possible. It’s too easy to go in a million different directions. It’s always in my head. I write a treatment with a list of the shots I need. If there are a lot of special effects or post[-production] effects, which I don’t usually do too much, then I storyboard for post people. I like to be free-flowing and have a general point, but I like to see what works best where we are.
You mentioned that Chris Milk does a lot of work with VR. I was wondering what you thought about that. Do you see virtual reality as the future of how we consume music videos?
I have a VR company and I’m working on some concepts right now with Travis Scott and some other musicians. The company is called United Realities and we have a music platform that we’re doing, which is just music-related projects in the VR space. If you know how to shoot it and use the full virtual reality space, not just put a camera in a place and call it VR because you can look around in every direction, but if you actually shoot something with a concept that gives the viewer the 360 control, that can be something amazing. At the same time, it’s going to be a little while until it reaches the level that people believe it’s at. It will. But I’m not gonna watch a movie in VR. I want to make short-form concepts in VR space and make more artistic, abstract expressions – less narrative, more of a journey, [like] a live show with heightened moments or taking people on a virtual tour of an artist’s space. [I want to] create Art Basel in the VR space so you don’t even have to be there and let the artist create the parameters.
Do you think people will allow for VR to get to the place it needs to be before it gets utilized, or do you think people with money are going to fuck it up?
With everything, you’ll have people making art and people making commerce. I’m going for art and commerce. I’m trying to get paid in the shade. I’m trying to get so paid that I can just make my own art. I’m not trying to sound wack, but if I can just live the same lifestyle I live now and be able to travel and live in my house and eat good food, I’m happy. The money gives me the ability to make the art that I want and not have to worry about pitching and selling my soul just to make a $3 million film, which is art. I’m just trying to make things that inspire people and think.
“[Nicki] had been going through that glossy, Barbie, bubblegum vibe and I was like, ‘Nope.'”
Are you trying to do more feature-length stuff?
That’s all I want to do. I have three movies in the work right now. I want to do music videos in the interim, but I really want to make movies. My first movie Gully is in casting right now. That’s what I’m primarily working on.
What kind of stories are you interested in telling? You already have a documentary under your bet, so how will that influence your narrative work?
Anything with a humanistic, worldly touch I’m into. Movies like City of God, A Prophet. My movie Gully is like if A Clockwork Orange and Kids made a baby in South Central LA. This author Marcus Gilroy wrote it and I worked with him on the latest draft. It’s something that he wrote that connected with me more than anything I’ve ever read. It’s very parallel to what I make and what I want to make – it’s violent and aggressive, but with purpose. It takes you on a thrilling ride along the way.
Regarding other long-form things are being explored, I’d love to know what you thought about Lemonade, or just making an entire visual project around an album, in general.
I give [Beyoncé] props. I think so many artists want to make this long-form thing for their project. Everyone talks about it, but very few people do it. Kanye did it a couple times. Michael Jackson and Prince have done it. I applaud the fact that she did a full hour-long film that was an extension of her album. I skimmed through it. There were beautiful elements, but it’s not for me. I watched parts of it and in what I saw, it was beautiful. But I’m not gonna spend an hour. I don’t watch movies too much, no disrespect but I’m not gonna lay in bed for an hour and watch an extended music video. She got some heavy-hitters in there doing some things, but it’s a different aesthetic than what resonates with me.
Do you think this could also be a way of the future? People don’t really have that much money, I guess.
You don’t need that much money! It doesn’t have to be shot all around America with the best [directors of photography] and the biggest cameras. You can shoot something that’s simple but so poignant, too. Music is powerful enough. If you can shoot something simply that can complement the music, then you’ve succeeded, if the music is good and you have a vision. I would watch Kendrick Lamar with a video camera filming where he’s from and what he knows, I would watch that for 60 minutes to go along with the album if he was filming it. It could be every artist, but some just have to think within the box they have and make the best they can within that box. But you can make something on an iPhone and it can be amazing. My Instagram is all shot with my iPhone and people like them, but they’re shot while I’m driving most of the time.
My favorite video that you’ve made is Nicki Minaj’s ‘Lookin’ Ass’. I wouldn’t say it’s simple, but it has a very streamlined aesthetic, yet is very massive in its own way.
That’s so funny, you and ANOHNI, she loves that video, too. You guys are tripping. I appreciate it and I’ll roll with it, but it’s far from amazing. I just wanted to make it about [Nicki] and focus on what the fuck she was saying, let her look like a bad bitch. She had been going through that glossy, Barbie, bubblegum vibe and I was like, “Nope.”