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Eminent American celebrity portrait photographer Randall Slavin started out as a struggling actor who started taking headshots of his pals. Soon, it snowballed into a full blown career. The 49 year old prolific photojournalist tells Haider Rifaat his riveting story

What is Randall Slavin’s story?

I was a struggling actor in my younger days, hanging around in Los Angeles with all my other out of work actor friends. I was always obsessed with photos. I started shooting my friends’ headshots to make some extra money because I wasn’t making a living through acting. It rather snowballed until it was something that I couldn’t ignore or keep on the backburner anymore.

It was around 2000 when I decided to be a celebrity portrait photographer. It is interesting because I have been at it at a time when the business was going through some seismic changes. The internet really turned things on its head, as did the digital camera revolution. I don’t think people saw that the advent of digital photography would explode and the number of photographers would be so out there competing for jobs. Photography used to be an expensive hobby and a skill that had to be learned. The digital media made it cost-free as well as skill free.

What is your routine like?

I wake up, put on a pot of tea, listen to some Ryan Adams, pick up The New York Times and see where the world is heading.

“Photography used to be an expensive hobby and a skill that had to be learned. The digital media made it cost-free as well as skill free”

You have photographed Hollywood legends Charlize Theron, Mark Wahlberg, Alicia Keys, Emma Roberts, Zoe Saldana, Eva Longoria, Marie J. Blige and Kiefer Sutherland among many others. What key factors do you consider when photographing celebrities? Is there a specific theme you follow?

My biggest factor when shooting someone is the willingness to let me lead them somewhere, help them create a scenario and play along with me. It is about being honest. I don’t want the subject to smile if it is not honest. The minute many people get in front of the camera, they immediately put on their “I am-having-my-picture-taken” face. There is nothing spontaneous or authentic about it. I try to get them out of their comfort zone or, at the very least not think about having their picture taken.

During the photography session with your clients, do you guide them on any specifics that you want translated in the results?

During the session, I usually have a quiet chat on set and tell the talent what I like. I think all photographers are different and the clients like to know what the photographer wants. They will frequently say, “Just tell me what you want me to do.” I talk to my subjects a lot when we are shooting. I ask questions about their life and try to get them out of their heads.

Is photojournalism your ideal profession?

Well, I would love to be a rock star but I don’t think that is on the cards.

Do your photos tell a story?

When they are good, yes.

Who have you worked with lately?

I just had a great session the other day with NFL footballer Odell Beckham Jr. It was a memorable one to say the least. I also had a portrait session with someone involved in the U.S.government but I am contractually not at liberty to say anything.

“EVERYONE wants to be photoshopped, EVERYONE! They just don’t want you to notice it”

Are you picky when it comes to clients?

I don’t think so. I can find something interesting about most people.

As an established and esteemed photographer, what are your thoughts on photoshopping models? 

I am all for it (laughs). EVERYONE wants to be photoshopped, EVERYONE! They just don’t want you to notice it. When you are doing a fashion shoot, it is neither reality nor photojournalism. It is a fantasy. So, hell yes! I would say, make them taller, skinnier, get rid of their pimples and wrinkles on their dresses, get rid of those under eye bags, make her eyes bluer, make water and the sky bluer! It is a fantasy; it is not a portrait.

What projects are in the pipeline for you?

I am at a place in my life and career where I want to branch out, do different things, and put branches on a photographic tree that I have spent a few decades building. I am in the process of making a documentary; however, the thing that is most exciting to me is that I have my first book coming out next year titled We All Want Something Beautiful.

It is a collection of my portrait work combined with plenty of unseen snapshots from my time in Los Angeles before I became a professional photographer. There are many images of future Hollywood legends. It is a book in the making for nearly 25 years and I am very proud of it.

What are your interests other than photography?

I really love U.S. politics. I like the election night in America. I would love to follow around a candidate during a presidential campaign.

You struggled with acting. Have you overcome that phase? Can your fans expect any screen projects from you in the coming months or years?

No, no! Nobody is clamoring for me to get back in front of the camera. That chapter is long closed.

“The minute many people get in front of the camera, they immediately put on their ‘I am-having-my-picture-taken’ face. There is nothing spontaneous or authentic about it”

How well do you handle criticism?

I don’t know. I would like to think I handle it well. It matters who is doling it out. I have been criticized by someone I had zero respect for and I didn’t take that well.

Who and what encourages you to persevere?

Perseverance is the hardest thing. Sometimes it is so difficult to keep going when you feel that things aren’t working out for you and you can’t catch a break. It is really the eternal struggle of an artist. What keeps me going? I do personal projects that keep my creatively inspired and it helps.

I think if you only shoot when you are paid, you will be embittered and lose sight of why you picked up a camera to begin with. I have a great woman in my life, my fiancée Valerie who keeps me focused on the blessings of my life. Finally, what encourages me to persevere? I mean, what else can I do? I have been doing this for as long as I can remember.

How was it like working with Charlize Theron? Describe her in one word.

Difficult

Would you rather lose all of your money and valuables or all of the pictures you have ever taken?

That is a no brainer. My pictures are my memories, my diaries.

Black or white? Your favourite color?

Right now, I am into both, black and white.

Are there any place(s) in the world you would like to travel but haven’t yet?

There are tons of places I haven’t visited yet. I have never been to Greece or Spain. These countries top my list. I have never been anywhere in Asia too.

Your preferred fashion designer or label?

I like Tom Ford but he is too expensive. If anyone reading can hook me up with him!

If you were to act opposite anyone in a feature film, who would your dream cast be and why?

Oh, I would love to work opposite Tom Hanks in a movie. He is nice. I think he would take pity on me and when we are done, we would hang out and he would write me little letters on an old vintage typewriter and I would cherish those letters. Maybe Tom Ford would direct the movie so I could kill two birds with one stone (laughs).

What one important thing have you learned from your past struggles? Does it help you to this day?

The most important thing I have learned from my past struggles is a saying by George Harrison, “All things must pass.” The world has a way of working out. Everything always seems to work out.

Photography by Randall Slavin

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