Hustle & Flo is back with another Hustle Profile. These interviews showcase hard working, passionate, entrepreneurial young people, women specifically – how they balance jobs, side projects and life! Our Hustle Profile of the month is Makena Cummings!
Makena is a professional PR assistant account manager by day and a kickass photojournalist shooting concerts by night.
Tell me about yourself.
My name is Makena Cummings and I’m from Raleigh, NC. I graduated from the University of South Carolina with a bachelor’s in journalism and mass communications. During my senior year in college I was the photo editor of the school magazine, Garnet & Black. I had always liked photography but I discovered I really loved seeing my photos published and having real photoshoots.
I moved to NYC in 2014 and got a job at PR agency as an assistant account executive. Just prior to moving to NYC, I made a friend (Kristen Abigail) who was doing concert photo journalism. And I asked her how I could be a part of that, I love music and going to concerts so it seemed like the perfect fit. This friend told me about how she got into all these shows for free by shooting them for her blog. Resound Magazine. So, I started shooting for her blog and I was getting published and it kind of became an addiction. There’s so many bands I love and I just wanted to go to all of their shows and meet all of them. Then, I met an editor at The Wild Honey Pie and shooting for them I covered Gov Ball, FKA twigs’ show and Hopscotch Music Festival and that’s who I shoot for most often now.
Do you consider yourself a photographer?
I still wouldn’t call myself a photographer. I know I still have a ton to learn so I’m hesitant to call myself that. I prefer to call myself a photo rookie instead. I’ve met so many incredible photographers who are just so amazing and I would love to have their talent and skill one day. But in the meantime I’m happy to be a rookie and keep learning and hopefully I’ll get there.
When would you say ok, I can call myself a photographer now? What would have to happen for you to give yourself that recognition?
If I went on tour with a band or got hired by a festival or a venue to shoot for them. My dream is to have someone pay for me to go on a trip to a far away music festival. To be able to document the trip and then shoot at the festival. If that happened then maybe I would consider myself a photographer.
How do you balance your photography with your full-time job?
During the day I’m working at my paying job. Occasionally I’ll work during my lunch break to get a bit of editing done. I get twitter alerts for music publications like Brooklyn Vegan. So as soon as I get an alert about a band going on tour, I put it in my calendar. I bring my computer to shows and use the time between when I leave work and go to a show to get some work done. I also try to get up earlier in the morning to get work done. I try to edit photos from the night before the next morning to get it done as soon as possible.
How can you tell when you’re stretching yourself too thin and you need to pull back to take a break?
When I’m not meeting deadlines. I try to fit everything into the time frame people give me but sometimes if they want it really quickly I just can’t meet that deadline because I also work. Yesterday, for example, I wanted to finish editing some photos for the Hopscotch because they were due. So I brought my computer to work and after work started editing in the office. There’s times I feel stressed and I think “why am I going to this show, I hardly know this band.” But I don’t mind because I know I need to keep focused, and keep practicing to get better. One thing that helps me stay focused is looking at all of the other photographers I know or follow on Instagram who are working so hard. It’s a good community, we all support each other and encourage each other to push ourselves.
How do you interact with other photographers and support each other?
When I first started, I was at this venue with other photographers and we were waiting to get into the show. We all just connected. You start to see a lot of the same people covering the same shows as you. I’ll post on Facebook asking “who’s going to this show tonight.” I’ve even invited them to birthday parties.
I saw a photographer who was shooting at the same show as me last week. So I followed her on Instagram because we’ll probably be shooting the same show again. I’m also in a Facebook group with some girl photographers so that’s a great little network.
Has your style changed since you first started shooting?
It’s definitely evolved, when I first started I was just trying to get a clear image. Now that I’ve gotten that down and bought a better camera, it’s helped to hone in my style. Back in March I took a photo of Jeremy and The Harlequins, I just looked at it and was like woah, this is exactly what I’m going for, this is my style.
I don’t like to over edit my photos, I think that comes with photojournalism. I’m creative but I’m a realist so I want to take something that exists and capture it and let it be what it is. I love smoke machines, that smokiness in photos. I also like a lot of color. I like close-ups of faces and expressions – catching them in a good, intense moment. And I love action. I want to have something happening in a photo. When I’m editing, I look for action or a beautiful profile.
On your website you have portraits and travel how does that come into the mix?
Portraits are a great way to make some extra money. It’s not too difficult and it’s fun to work one on one with people. I started taking portraits in college. My friends knew I liked photography and they asked me to take their senior pictures. More and more people started asking so I started charging for them. This past April I flew back to my college and did senior portraits. It paid for my airfare and a little extra. Plus it’s always good practice. I’m trying to do more portraits of bands. It lets me meet these bands that I really love and take pictures of them. I want to do more travel and landscape photography but I don’t have the equipment for it. I try to just do different things because that helps with concept photography too. Just always trying new things to get better.
Do you have a favorite photo or show you’ve shot?
Mac DeMarco at Webster Hall. I love Mac DeMarco, I think he’s the cutest, funniest guy ever. And it was just an amazing show. I left bruised, it was insanity. It was a great experience and one of the most challenging shows I’ve ever shot. I had to put my camera up in the air above the crowd for the majority of the show because I couldn’t get close. I got some shots I really love.
What would you consider your best piece, is it different from your favorite?
I feel most accomplished from the Mac DeMarco shoot but if I’m showing people what I can do, my best piece is probably Milky Chance at Central Park Summerstage. Those are some photos I’m most proud of because they had smoke machines so it looked cool and also it was at sunset, it was just great.
Does your opinion or feelings about a band affect your photography or your feelings about a show?
If the band is a big favorite, that doesn’t necessarily guarantee good photos. There’s a lot of factors that go into a great photo. You need good lights and you need band members that are actually doing something on stage. If they’re just standing there that may make for a boring show. Delta Spirit put on a great show because they had these cool lanterns around the stage. That’s a band I’m not in love with but the photos from that show were great. Milky Chance I hadn’t really heard of but that ended up being a great show and resulted in some of my best photos.
A band I love that let me down photo-wise is Toro y Moi. They are amazing musically, a fantastic band. They have great music but the lighting was terrible and I was really let down by that. I was glad I got to go to the show but I didn’t really have any photos I was proud of.
A photo might meet an editor’s standards but may not meet your standards artistically. Sometimes there’s only so much you can do when shooting a show because there are so many factors outside of your control.
Do you have a specific band or festival you’d love to shoot?
My dream band would be Dr. Dog or Jack White. For festivals, I’d love to shoot Fuji Rock Fest in Japan or Pitchfork Paris because I want to travel and see what it’s like to go to music festivals in other places.
How does your experience differ between attending a show and shooting a show?
Sometimes when I just attend a show I get frustrated and wish I was shooting it. But, I tell myself it’s ok to just sit back and enjoy it. I go to Bonnaroo every year and don’t shoot. I just go and relax and enjoy the music. I try to make a conscious effort to go without my camera to those shows. I see the photos in my head like “man that would be a good shot,” but it’s fine because I’m enjoying the music.
How long do you typically spend editing after a show?
It can take a while but I try to be pretty quick. I think concert photo journalists have to be fast. I usually have a 48 hour turnaround after a show, some have even less. It probably takes an hour to go through and take out the ones that are good. Another hour narrowing that down to 10-15 images depending on how many shots I got that I really love. Then editing is pretty quick, another hour. So 3-4 hours total.
What do you find most difficult about balancing work and photography?
One of the things that’s most frustrating is I claim shows so far in advance to get a pass and friends might ask if I want to hang out tonight and I’m like well I can’t, I have a show. Or I get a plus one and another friend wants to come but I can’t bring them. It’s a sacrifice socially. When I have time off I’m catching up on sleep and editing, not necessarily going out. And just getting enough sleep. I try to make it a priority but I don’t know if I get enough.
Right now you’re working full time and shooting at night. What’s next (a year from now, 5 years from now, etc)?
I really like doing both PR and photography. I think it works for me to have these 2 things going on at once. I don’t think I can focus on one thing. I love my full time job and having that time where I’m not thinking about concerts and editing. If I made photography full time I’d be afraid that it would become a job and not a hobby, that I may not like it as much.
In the future, I would love to shoot more festivals and get paid to go to a festival. Or maybe get published in a bigger publication. I’d love to make enough money to buy more equipment.
Where can people reach you if they have questions or would like to buy your photos?
I don’t have a shop right now, but all of my images can be sold. If someone sees something they like they can email me or check out my website. I’m also available for portraits.