How Dana Scruggs Went From Test Shoots To Milestone Covers

Dana Scruggs by Erik Carter

As the world turns, so does the abundance of photographers that set to carve their way out of what some might feel is an oversaturated market. Is it that there are too many visual voices screaming into the void or that the creative industry has finally started listening to the stories beyond a homogenous few? One who has many opinions on the matter is budding photographer Dana Scruggs. The Brooklyn implant has taken the tenacity she’s picked up from growing up in Chicago to push her towards marking major milestones off her client list. On the heels of our new editorial with Scruggs, we delved deeper with the promising artist about how she got her start in the industry, how she first gained access to photo editors and reflecting on being the first black woman to contribute to two major magazines in a single year.

Interview by Irene Ojo-Felix

Why did you first get into photography and when did it evolve from something that might have been a hobby to something you started doing full-time?

Dana Scruggs – Well, I started being a photographer about seven years ago. I was going through a period of severe depression. I was too depressed to work and basically too depressed to leave my house. I was living in Chicago at the time and I had an apartment full of vintage furniture and clothing. I was working in real estate. I thought to myself, “I can’t leave my house to show places and apartments, so let me just try to sell all the stuff that I have on Etsy so that I can pay my rent.”

I started taking photos of clothes on hangers with a terrible little point and shoot. I asked my mom if she would let me buy a DSLR on her Best Buy card on Black Friday. That changed everything because my mom believed in me enough to say, “Okay, I’ll trust you to do this and follow through,” and pay off something that wasn’t a non-significant amount of money. I bought a DSLR and then I found models on Model Mayhem – which I don’t go there anymore (laughs), and said, “I’m a photographer and I’ll trade you photos if you model for my website.” I just started shooting models or girls for my Etsy shop, it was called BeautifulShyt. Then, I would just add more photos to my Model Mayhem profile to find more models. I had no intention of being a photographer, but agencies [in Chicago] started reaching out to me and asking me to test with their models. That was the first time I actually thought that maybe this could be something. That maybe I could actually be a photographer or I could try my hand at photography, at least. The first agency that reached out to me was Ignite. I think they’re in Minnesota. I shot two or three of their girls. Then, within a year of starting to do that, I moved to New York to pursue photography as a serious endeavor.

How was that first year or two in New York City? Obviously moving to a city like New York, the pool got bigger, as far as creative talent. How did you first carve your niche in what was already present and existed here?

Dana – Well, from the beginning, I’m self-taught. I didn’t have any industry connections when I moved here. I didn’t know anything about the industry at all. All I knew was, okay let me reach out to some agencies and see if I can test. I was surprised that agencies actually said yes because from my perspective I was from a podunk town with kind of a crappy book. People were like, okay, yeah sure. The first week I was here I shot two girls. That was fine because that was mainly what I shot when I was in Chicago, but I had always wanted to shoot male models. The third model that I shot ended up being a male model and it was a revelation honestly.

When I shot him, there was something so physical and incredibly masculine about my images. That was the strongest work I’d ever done. From then on, I was like okay, I’m not interested in shooting women. I’m only interested in shooting men. So for the first three or four years – actually up until last year – I was only known for shooting men. I wasn’t really known for shooting women at all. Then, within maybe two years of being in NY, I switched over to mainly focusing on the black male form and developing that and portraying black men in a way that wasn’t objectifying. My thought process is: I’m a woman and this is my perspective of them as a black man, but it’s also not coming from a place of fetishization or exploitation or hopping on a train of “this is trendy” – because I was shooting black men before the industry started really acknowledging them.

Going back to your point of being self-taught. How was your experience teaching yourself as far as the education of light? Where do you even start as far as materials to expand your understanding of the industry? Is it just half book and half experience on the go?

Dana – I guess it was a blend of all of those things. It was a very slow learning process business-wise. I just started recently having more of an understanding, because honestly a lot of other photographers weren’t interested in giving me any information. Especially when I finally started meeting people that were peers and even a bit ahead of me. I would ask them, “How do you go about this? How do you get clients?” They just wouldn’t tell me or give me vague answers. Some people aren’t willing to help you because they’re afraid you’re going to take their jobs or their clients. My view is: If that gig is meant for me – I’m going to get it. I’m not going to keep a peer or a friend ignorant because I have a fear of scarcity. So, for the longest time – I stumbled. It’s so hard to make it when you don’t have the basic tools to understand: “Who should I be reaching out to? Who should I reach out to at a particular company? Who’s in decision making positions AND can actually hire me? How often should I be reaching out to them? How do I even find these people’s emails in the first place?”

One thing that I’m making sure that I’m doing, now that I have a platform, is letting everyone know: this is how I went about it and this is what changed everything for me. If I had known then what I know now, I would be much farther along in my career. Also, it’s really important to shoot as much as you can when you’re first starting out. I think that’s why my work and my aesthetic developed very quickly, because I was doing three shoots a week. I was just living photography every day and being poor. I wasn’t getting paid and I was doing a lot of free tests. That’s also a problem in the industry – agencies not wanting to pay photographers. You have to shoot 10 models for them to start considering you for paid testing and often they don’t. Often they just rely on people who are happy to shoot models for free. There are so many photographers who are constantly shooting amazing work for agencies and they rarely get paid. You’re developing somebody’s book and that model’s booking jobs and making money off of the work that you’re doing, but the agency can’t pay you $250.00 or $300.00 for a test? It’s not a lot of money when you really put it in relation to how much you’re actually helping a model’s career.

Do you feel like black creatives have a responsibility of contributing their own personal narratives into the current cultural space? Do you think that there are still more hurdles to get over and is even talking from a black perspective necessary or do you find that sometimes it can be limiting?

Dana – I don’t think it’s limiting to want to focus your work on black people. Just because I am interested in black narratives and creating black narratives around my work, that doesn’t mean that I don’t get opportunities to shoot other people. I’m not solely interested in only shooting black people. I’ll just say this, it’s very frustrating for me when I see black photographers in the industry that don’t photograph other black people. I’m not saying you have to solely shoot black people, but you’re perpetuating a status quo of not being inclusive of black people and people of color. It’s like white-washing your work. I understand it because when I first moved to New York, I mainly shot white guys. I didn’t really want to shoot black people because I felt like I wouldn’t be taken seriously. You have huge black male models now – Alton Mason, Adonis [Bosso], there’s a bunch. But back then, the black male models that were out there were very commercial and there were only maybe one or two black male models on a board. It was just a different time and I thought if I had black men in my book then maybe I won’t get work. I thought maybe they’d think that just because I’m a black photographer, that I only want to shoot black people. Or that I don’t know how to shoot white people. My main focus at that time was trying to eat, so I focused my work on white models because I thought that was how I could start to get paid.

It’s that fear of being pigeonholed. The fear of this is something that I love to do, but I don’t want people to think that I can only do that.

Dana – Exactly.

Going back to the year you’ve had, you’ve been a constant contributor with Chromat, you worked with Rolling Stone and ESPN’s annual Body Issue last year. Talk about that experience being the first black photographer to shoot a cover for that magazine. How did you even first start working with that level of clientele and what advice would you give to someone starting out and wanting to work at that level?

Dana – Last year, I had tea with a friend of mine, Gioncarlo Valentine, a photographer. He was like, “There’s no reason why you shouldn’t be shooting for big brands and big publications.” At the time I was thinking about moving to Amsterdam because I just couldn’t get jobs here. It was very frustrating and he was like, this is what you need to do. He started me out with a little list of photo editors because I didn’t even know really about photo editors, to be honest. I knew that they made decisions and I had a few of them that followed me on Instagram, but I figured that if they wanted to hire me, they would they would ask me. But these people want to know that you want to work with them. Finding photo editors/creative directors on LinkedIn and figuring out their email addresses – and cold emailing them – was a big part of my career growth. I started sending them my work once a month, every three to four weeks, and following up – even if I didn’t hear back from them. I would personalize the email every time with their name and a little anecdote about the weather or something random that lets them know that this isn’t just a mass email that was sent out – because I don’t think anyone really wants to receive one of those.

That’s what changed everything. I would ask people, “Can we meet for tea? Can I come in for a portfolio review?” I was having meetings at some pretty big publications, but nobody hired me because I didn’t have any editorial work in my portfolio. My entire book was self-assigned. I ended up making my own print magazine because I was so frustrated with trying to get editorial work. I wanted to shoot my ideas. At the time, I couldn’t get any publications to even give me a fashion editorial for online – so I decided to create my own platform, which became SCRUGGS Magazine. And in doing the magazine (which only had one issue) I had tangible work to bring to my meetings with photo editors

Long story short, I ended up getting an email out of the blue from Karen Frank (Photo Director at ESPN) asking me if I was interested in shooting The Body Issue That was a game changer for me because it had always been a massive goal of mine to shoot for Body. I also ended up being the first Black woman to photograph an athlete for the issue. Once it came out, all the publications that I had had meetings with took notice and then they started hiring me. It just takes one person or one industry leader to give you a shot. Shooting Body changed my life.

You also recently shot Rolling Stone and became one of the few black photographers to get a major cover in that respect and it was with Travis Scott. Take me behind your whole experience behind it.

Dana – With Rolling Stone, it was another example of when one person gives you a chance, the industry takes notice. Catriona [Ni Aolain], who’s the new Director of Creative Content, saw that I shot The Body Issue when it came out. She used to work at ESPN. She’d moved on to Rolling Stone and when Travis Scott came up – she felt like I was the perfect person to shoot him. When she offered it to me, I thought I was just going to meet her for a portfolio review. But she was like, “I actually have something for you and it’s for the cover.” When she said that, it was very hard for me to process because, once again, I don’t have a long history of people offering me jobs. To get such a rare opportunity was very surreal, but still in that moment – I immediately knew that I was the first black person to shoot the cover.

I didn’t say anything until after it had been shot. Then I asked them to check their archive because I thought I might be the first Black person to photograph the cover. They checked and verified that I was. I think it’s important to talk about it when these milestones occur within society – and also within black culture – because it’s something to celebrate. But it’s also something to reflect on. I think non-black photo editors and creative directors should reflect when these firsts are happening. Some of them may feel sensitive or defensive because they’re thinking: “maybe I’m also contributing to this culture of not hiring black people or people of color to shoot our bigger pieces or our cover pieces.” Because the status quo has forever been, “I know this person or I’ve shot with these photographers for years, so I’m just going to continue using these same people who happen to be white and look like me and run in the same social circles as me.” I’m not saying you have to hire black people just because they’re black. I’m saying make an effort to look at the talent pool beyond what’s right in front of you – and if there’s a job that’s right for a person that’s super talented – give them that opportunity.

Fighting erasure but then critics saying you don’t deserve it or only got the job because they’re trying to fill a “quota”.

Dana – From first-hand experience, I know that there’s a backlash from non-black creatives when black people make historical strides within the industry. These people think: “Why do they have to say that they’re the first black person to shoot this cover? They really only got this opportunity because they’re black – not because they have talent – and these magazines are just trying to get PR out of it.” Those were multiple accusations that were lodged at me, when my Rolling Stone cover came out, from white and white-passing people in this industry. Fact is, Black people don’t get opportunities because we’re Black – we get them despite the fact that we’re Black.

Because of the privilege of not having their race be a factor in whether someone hires them or them potentially losing their life over the color of their skin – these people feel like: “No one cares that I’m white or not black and achieving things, so why is there this acknowledgment of black people when they’re achieving things?” They don’t understand the culture of exclusion within America, within the fashion industry, and within photography when it comes to black people. That’s why they get angry when black people are finally breaking through these professional barriers. They feel excluded – and lash out. It’s definitely very hurtful and disconcerting when those things happen. Sometimes the level of rage that’s lodged at black people for actually accomplishing things and the level of rage, harassment, and bullying that was lodged at me because I got this cover from several white, white-passing, and non-black people is very frightening. One of these people even tried to get my home address from a mutual friend – even after I’d asked them a dozen times to leave me alone. That was incredibly scary. These reactions are ultimately deeply rooted in racism whether these people believe that they’re racist or not. And these experiences showed me, once again, that racism is alive and well in this industry. I do need to note that these people were in the minority and that the majority of people were happy for me, understanding, and supportive. And for that, I’m grateful.

What’s the biggest challenge presented to you as a photographer?

Dana – Access. When you don’t have access to people who make decisions, then it’s really hard to make money. I was broke for most of the six and a half years I’ve been in New York. It was a struggle. I was hand to mouth. I had to do jobs I didn’t want to do. I had to work at places I was overqualified for, but I had to pay my rent and survive. Leaving New York was never an option. Now that I have access, things have gotten a lot easier. One thing that I’m doing now is trying to give access to other black women photographers that want to assist – because I never had that opportunity. Believe me, I tried. And I know it’s still very hard for black women photographers to get experience on sets that are for a high-end magazine or a global brand. White men dominate the industry at almost every level – especially at the assisting level, which is where you make integral connections early in your career and have the opportunity to learn so much about this craft. If there are women assisting (or photographing magazine covers), they’re mostly white women. My goal is to make space for Black women in these spaces where we’re either ignored or not thought of.

Where do you normally look to for inspiration?

Dana – Massively very 2019, but Instagram. It’s a visual platform. I’m a visual person and I get inspired by that. I get inspired by films and music and music videos. It makes me want to create more. It makes me yearn to be better. Just seeing other people and their creative process, what they can achieve – that moves me and makes me want to do more.

What’s something that you wish you would have known before you started in the business?

Dana – I really wish I’d known that not everybody knows what the fuck they’re talking about. This is something that I now believe in wholeheartedly. If you have a vision, don’t let other people tell you that you should change your aesthetic or shoot more commercially or change your subject matter. Some people in this industry have no vision beyond being basic and making every creative conform to their basic mentality. Don’t be basic for other people’s ego-based gratification. Photographers can get hung up on other people’s opinions about their work. This is something that I also struggled with, and to a certain extent, still do. Not everybody’s going to understand or like what you do. And you have to be strong when that happens. The right people will hire you for what YOU DO. Not because you made your work look like what someone with no vision told you what it should look like. Then the clients that you’ll attract will be more like collaborators. Your visions will still be aligned – even if you have to make compromises.

What advice would you give to someone who’s looking to get into photography despite their race or their gender. If someone was just trying to start out and wanted to say, “How do I get my start?” What advice would you give?

Dana – The best advice that I can give photographers just starting out is to shoot as much as you can. That sounds super simple, but you have to hone your craft. You can’t shoot every now and then, or shoot every other month or every couple months or even every couple weeks when you’re starting out and expect to be able to learn and grow at a rate that will allow you to move forward. That’s one way you’ll end up getting stuck. You can find time every week to shoot one of your friends – or if you live in a market that has agencies, you can reach out and somebody will let you test with their models – and for instance, book 3 every Saturday and shoot them back to back. If you don’t let people know who you are and if you’re not creating work consistently, then how can anyone hire you? It’s as simple as that.

You hit a lot of milestones last year, but what’s an ultimate goal for yourself in the coming months or years to follow?

Dana – The thing they don’t tell you about success is that it can be very paralyzing and overwhelming. It’s very surreal to go from nobody knowing who you are and/or not giving you a job – to all of a sudden getting three emails in one day offering you dream jobs and shit. It’s almost a daily occurrence that I’m getting offered stuff that I never imagined would come so easily. One of my main goals for this year is to not feel overwhelmed all the time and being able to manage my time in a more productive manner. That’s not necessarily grandiose like “I wanna shoot this person or a campaign for that brand”, because I know that my career is going places. As it moves forward, I just want to be able to manage it and enjoy it.

Does that process include getting an agent and getting a production team or do you want to stay independent? Are you okay with the lane that you’re in and just expanding your workload?

Dana – I’m actually interested in getting an agent. Agencies have been reaching out and I’ve had a couple of meetings – but I’m not interested in signing just for the sake of signing. I want somebody that’s going to see my potential, understand where I want my career to go, and focus on helping me exceed my goals beyond my wildest imagination. Ultimately, I just want to create a legacy. I want to be a visible mainstay in galleries and museums. When I’m dead, have had a 100-year retrospective and shit like that. Even before I’m dead, I want to have museum retrospectives when I’m 50. I’m expanding more of my fine artwork. Moving forward, I want to do a narrative film. This year I would love to do a short film. I don’t know exactly how everything’s going to happen, but I know that my work will expand beyond just photography. Believing in myself got me this far – at this point, sky’s the fucking limit.

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