At 28, RJ Shaughnessy, a professional photographer, lives in Los Feliz with one roommate. In late 2002, Shaughnessy, then a photography student at Arts Center College of Design in Pasadena, lived in a house called Death Camp. “Now, when I talk about it, Death Camp is an art collective – they did T-shirts, but that was a means to an end,” says Shaughnessy, who lived with artists, writers and musicians – Shaughnessy was the only photographer –, adding, “it was a bunch of artistic kids living there. But we never called ourselves a collective.”
Life at Death Camp was filled with the misadventures of coming-of-age experiences that were captured by Shaughnessy’s point and shoot Contax camera. The photographs in Death Camp are raw, but Shaughnessy, who shot realistic meth PSAs, is a raw photographer who makes the ordinary, extraordinary. “The realities of situations are boring, but there has to be something broken within the frame,” says Shaughnessy.
Recently, Shaughnessy shot his first fashion feature at Fader Magazine. (“I went to Oakland with the Fader style editor, Mobolaji, and we shot beautiful photos of kids from around town,” he says, adding that Mobolaji’s fearless approach to random people, helped Shaughnessy – a shy man who, sometimes, brings friends who are “more socially skilled” to break the ice with his subjects – produce his favorite work to date.)
“After, I gave him a hug and said, ‘I’m really sorry, but I just pissed on your bed.’ And he’s like, what?”
RJ: So how long have you been doing your online stuff?
Format: Ugh, that started in October 2006 between Dan, from Toronto, a few other people and I.
RJ: Yeah, it looks like you guys are pretty busy. You have a lot of great content and people.
Format: We have a lot of great people, we’ve been really fortunate. Last time, we talked to Mike Mills.
RJ: I saw that interview. It was lengthily, I didn’t get a chance to read it. He is really good at ping-pong. So that’s awesome.
Format: He’s very smart.
RJ: Very smart. We used to have a ping-pong table set-up at the house that I lived at. I played him one game, one day, and crushed him. He came back a day later and beat me so bad that I was traumatized, and didn’t play ping-pong for months after. It’s like he went home, studied the Zen of ping-pong and fucking worked me.
Format: Where did you study photography?
RJ: I went to Arts Center College of Design in Pasadena, California. I graduated in 2004 with a bachelor’s in fine arts.
Format: What did you use to shoot your recent book, Death Camp?
RJ: I used a small point and shoot Contax camera. There are two digital photos in it. Everything else is film.
Format: Is the house named Death Camp, or the people?
RJ: Basically, all my roommates had a clothing company called Death Camp and they screen printed T-shirts. They stopped doing it, but the name stuck as the name of the house. Now, when I talk about it, Death Camp is an art collective – they did T-shirts, but that was a means to an end. There were writers, painters, musicians and I was the only photographer. It was a bunch of artistic kids living there. But we never called ourselves a collective.
Format: What reactions did your photography spark in people that lived at Death Camp?
RJ: There was one roommate who is not in the book, because I took one photo of him and he, basically, wanted to beat the shit out of me, because I took this photo. He felt really violated. He was the only one vocal about it. I stopped taking photos of him. There was another roommate – in a lesser situation – that wondered why I broke the intimacy of the moment. There was never a conflict. It is just what I did. We were all living on top of each other, anyway.
Format: The advent of Flickr and other blogs has made anyone with a camera a photographer, many times, self-proclaimed professional photographers. What has the accessibility of the Internet done to your industry?
RJ: I kind of love it and I kind of hate it. I love that people are taking photos and communicating, quickly and easily. There is no filtering system, though, so there is a lot good stuff and a lot of bad stuff. If you don’t find the good stuff, it all seems bad. I try not to use Flickr, but I have a couple friends with Flickr accounts. It has not changed my industry. I don’t think people are getting hired from Flickr accounts. It’s more of a communication device.
Format: How did you start shooting for Fader?
RJ: I have a friend, Todd Cole, who introduced me to Phil at Fader. I showed Phil my stuff and he started giving me one-pagers, here and there. Last month, I shot my first fashion story. I went to Oakland with the Fader style editor, Mobolaji, and we shot beautiful photos of kids from around town. We rolled up on dudes and said, ‘Hey, do you mind being in this magazine?’ Most of them never heard of Fader, so we showed them a copy. Mobolaji was fearless and just walk up to anybody saying, ‘This is what we want to do, let’s do it!’ Those are by far my favorite photos that I’ve taken in a long time.
Format: How do you make people feel at ease when you photograph them?
RJ: I try to be as invisible as possible. I don’t really talk to my subjects too much. I have a new shtick: I try to bring someone with me who is more socially skilled than I am to chat them up. I don’t like breaking the wall of people looking into the camera. On Fader assignments I try to bring other people with me to take their attention away from me. I am attracted to images that are observation, opposed to an awkward photograph with the subject looking in the camera.
Format: In a previous interview, you mention that your friend said they looked in your book and asked why you didn’t take photos of anything cool. Your photographs make normality seem significant. How do you find common situations attractive, making them interesting for others?
RJ: Part of me wants to say editing. The realities of situations are boring, but there has to be something broken within the frame. There are always images that stand out, to me, as far as having realness to them. Those are the images I am attracted by. I don’t take too many photos of one thing. Maybe, three frames.
Format: In Death Camp, Jimmy looks like a real character. Please tell me about Jimmy.
RJ: Jimmy is probably my best friend. He is in a rap group called Brother Reade. He is really brilliant. I want everyone to meet Jimmy at some point in their lives. He’s really quick witted, charming and funny.
Format: Recently, you had a Miranda July cover shot for Pig Magazine. How was this experience?
RJ: She’s brilliant, talented, hard working and beautiful. Actually, they cropped that photo. They used, probably, 50 per cent of the image. I just saw it a couple days ago and thought, wow, they really went for it! The inside photos were really good. It was exactly the kind of photo shoot that is ideal: no hair, no makeup, no styling – she doesn’t need styling, she has the best clothes in the world. It was me, her and her friend at her friend’s apartment. Miranda is easy to shoot. She does her thing and I let her do it. She doesn’t need direction. Have you saw her movies?
Format: No, but I read her short fiction in The New Yorker before I knew who she was. I’m really late on things.
RJ: You do live in Canada! You have to see her feature, it’s great. She’s an actress, too! She’s just a powerhouse. It’s very inspiring.
Format: Your photographs are raw. The meth PSA advertisements you shot were raw, son. Please explain how this opportunity materialized.
RJ: Crazy, right?! This ad agency in San Francisco, contacted me about doing these shots for them. I was so into how gutsy and raw it was. If you look at their website, montanameth.org, their campaigns are unbelievable. They had Darren Aronofsky do a couple video spots that are all one-shots, they’re so amazing. Every campaign they do is raw and real. I can’t get over how they get away with being that intense. I shot those in December. Everyone was intelligent and smart, so my job was easy to do. Have you seen those ads?
Format: I’m in Canada, give it five years.
RJ: They only brand in Montana, because there is a huge meth epidemic in Montana. A million that lives there funds all these advertisements. I find that a noble thing to do. I wish more people would do that.
Format: How was your experience with Lil Wayne – to be honest, you don’t look like a Lil Wayne photographer.
RJ: Well, Lil Wayne is my favorite – I guess I should say musician, I don’t want to call him a rapper. He’s brilliant, I love his mixtapes. That situation was on my birthday, last year. He was doing a video shoot for Currency, one of his protégés on Cash Money Records. Lil Wayne was doing a cameo for the video shoot and I showed up. It was one of the most awkward photo shoots that I did, because I was never introduced to him. He never spoke a word to me. I never got a hand shake or anything. They were doing something I was there kind of sneaking it. I didn’t have time to do my usual shtick. I only shot three rolls of film.
Format: In your post-Death Camp life, do you feel you’ve matured more?
RJ: Absolutely. The time that I lived there, I was, for the majority of time, in school. I was there at nights and maybe on a Sunday. That time was great, because I was around my best friends all the time. There was always something going on. Now, it’s rare that I see my friends. I’m trying to be a professional photographer: invoicing, estimates, photo labs, scanning, retouching and shooting. I’m more work-centric, before I was more friend-centric. I live in house in Los Feliz with a roommate and sit at a computer all day working. It’s interesting, because I’m at the point where I’ve made a book and now I have to figure out what to do next.
Format: You’re self-published. What type of challenges did you face in publishing a book?
RJ: I had no idea it was going to be that hard. I’m amazed it’s done. I would go to Todd Cole and ask him what he thought. The editing process was painstaking: do I include this, do I exclude this, what is this really about? I learned that, once I moved out, I had a body of work that needed punctuation on it. Trying to get images printed and retouched took so much time. Wrangling with the printer was hard, too. Luckily, I found a printer in Los Angeles and had a dialogue with them. Laying out the book took forever, too. It was so gnarly.
Format: In Death Camp, there is a random woman flashing gigantic breasts. How did that happen?
RJ: That was taken at The Roost, this local dive bar near our house. They have popcorn, darts and drinks. This one night, in particular, this woman was having a great time and she liked the idea of young kids paying attention to her and she whipped those puppies out, posing with my friend. I sent a copy of my book to my dad and he’s like, ‘She’s been showing those things for years!’
Format: How did you choose the cover photo for Death Camp?
RJ: That was a last minute change. During the creation process, that wasn’t the cover. The cover was going to be a black and white vertical shot of two people holding hands and kissing. Then, I showed some people and they said it was good, but then Todd Cole stepped in and was like, ‘You have to use this.’ He’s kind of a Jedi. He says things like ‘I’m not telling you what to do, but you have to do this.’ I like the cover image, because it is one of the only images where the subject is looking into the camera.
Format: There is a photo in Death Camp with piss on a bed. What happened?
RJ: There was a roommate and this girl that I was kind of dating, but not really dating. They thought it would be really funny if she gave him a hickey on his neck, like to terrorize me. So she gave him a hickey on his neck and I lost it. I grabbed my camera, went down to his bed – ironically, I gave him the bed – and pissed on his bed. After, I gave him a hug and said, ‘I’m really sorry, but I just pissed on your bed.’ And he’s like, what? And everyone was really freaked out by that for a while. But we’re still really great friends.
More Info: http://www.rjshaughnessy.com/