upclose: with MARK C INTERVIEW

I'm always curious about the creative minds behind the images we see on a daily basis. On a chilly February night I sat down with New York City photographer Mark C. to talk everything from corporate life to the very real "quarter life crisis."

Mark Clennon, better known in the social media sphere as Mark C., grew up in Florida and graduated from the University of South Florida. Now 28 years old, he works in NYC as an AOL account executive. We delved deeper into his background to the better understand how he balances life as a creator.

After hours at AOL, what are you doing to feed your passion?

After hours, during hours, before hours I'm a photographer. Sometimes I introduce myself as a photographer first. Yesterday I went to work, put a meeting on my calendar - did a photo shoot, went back to work then had lunch. It's a very involved process so yeah, I'm a photographer/content creator.

Do you see yourself as one first, over the other?

I can adapt to whichever. If I want to be the creative that speaks in vague underutilized adjectives I can do that or if I need to be in a meeting speaking about more practical things, I can do both. So I consider myself both right now and I feel like every black person has to be able to do that. It's a special power that black people have. 

Definitely. Your job seems to have a lot of flexibility does that help you do what you do better because you don't have to be in the office 9 to 5?

Yeah it's definitely a modern company so there's flexibility. I'm not anti-establishment. I feel like you can have an entrepreneur mentality with the structure, backing and platform of a larger corporation. I learn so much from my job - how to talk to people, how to write an email, how to make invoices and respond to people and just talk like a professional - so when I'm doing things for my photography I apply those same professional things that I learned in the office. That's absolutely accelerated my growth.

I'm also meeting with people who work within the advertising industry, they now have a friend who's a photographer so I'm able to skip a few levels. Before I didn't know anybody who worked at Huffington Post but fortunately I work in the same building so it was a closer path to get to publications.

What brought you to New York?

The same thing that brought everybody else to New York.  I had never really been to New York. My friend was like "Yo, I'm moving up, I need a roommate." I was working in technology back in Florida and promoting...

Okay ladies come out to the club!

Absolutely, that was me. I had money saved up because I had a full-time job and I was an entrepreneur at the same time so I never even had to cash any of my full time job's checks. So it was like "Okay, yeah I quit." I quit my job on Monday, I was in New York the same week.

That's a blessing. You said you didn't have to cash any of your job's checks, that's awesome. How long have you been here?

5 years.

How did you get into photography?

It will be a year, my first photoshoot ever was around February 25th or something. How I got into it -  Instagram. Instagram is a lot of people's introduction to photography. I was into the filters, I took some art classes in college too but I was into making my 'gram as lit as possible. You really can't tell specifically when I flipped the switch between my iPhone and my main camera because I had already been trying really hard. A lot of the tools I picked up along the way being a club promoter. I was responsible for the graphics and fliers so I was familiar with the programs you need to be a photographer and with the nuance between colors. I was able to apply all of the things I was doing as a promoter and kind of merge the two into what I do for photography. It was an accelerator for me.

You said you tried really hard and I think a lot of people act like they don't try at all, they want to seem like everything is effortless. How important is it to put work in but also let people know that you're trying?  

That was a barrier for me. People had been encouraging me to get into photography way before I started but I didn't want to be the "picture man". I got a camera for Christmas and it sat on my table for a year. I took a couple of pictures but was like I don't want to carry this camera everywhere, I look dumb. I was afraid of looking dumb or looking like I was trying too hard. That was the main thing, I wanted it to look like it was easy for me. I had to stop bullshitting and looking cool and if I'm good at it just be the guy with the camera.

And of course it was awkward for me at first like "Oh you're getting into photography, you're a photographer now," and in a sense changed to "Yo, wow! You're getting really good." Those conversations completely shifted. I think once people see you taking something serious, they'll take you serious. At first I was like "Yeah I got this little camera, this is something I do like on the side..." But I don't even consider it on the side anymore - I am that and this as well.  So there was a shift when I started taking myself serious then people started taking me serious and that's when they would refer me to things.

So, I discovered your Instagram through the Explore page just scrolling through and the picture of you with #blackboyjoy really drew me in - how important is black joy in your work? Or rather, what role does it play?

It's almost like a responsibility, black joy, because we have always been the creators or the trendsetters ever since we got here, right? We made rock n roll, it changed, somebody took it. So we made something else, it changed, somebody took it. We've always been able to have joy and create beautiful things despite whatever is being forced upon us. We've always been able to harness that black joy it's almost like a creators responsibility to document those happy moments because we tell our stories the best. It's important for us to document that.

That's why I like photography over videography or any other mediums because people will ask me - I know how to use my camera, you use the same camera  to shoot videos - "oh can you do video?' Yeah I can but you can't give someone a video, you can't touch a video, you can't hang a video on your wall, you can't find a video in your closet that you haven't seen in years, you know? There's something permanent about a singular image that I'm drawn to. Black joy is definitely the foundation for every creator I think. 

You've created content for global brands like Pepsi, The Huffington Post, and Revolt TV - how did you begin connecting with these brands?

Being nice to people, showing up to things you're invited to. That is the simplest way. It's step one. I made a conscious effort like I wrote that quote down "Show up to what I'm invited to" because people appreciate that. With the anxiety that goes into hosting anything it's a good feeling when people show up. I want to associate positive experiences with my face so just showing up and supporting. I feel like showing up to physical places not just retweeting a semi-funny joke about Beyonce and just offering ways to help and making sure that I'm being genuinely nice. If somebody's cool I tell them they're cool, if somebody's making dope shit I tell them they're making dope shit.

Mark C for Essence Magazine.

Mark C for Essence Magazine.

So that's how you land all of these super amazing opportunities, you just show up?

It's just establishing a network of people in a genuine way. It can be called networking or it can be friendship building. Even the term networking is intimidating to me. I'd rather hear about what makes you laugh, what makes you upset, what your opinions are - that is really what shapes who a person is and what experiences they've had in their lives.

Take me through the process of creating for a project for a brand versus when you are doing something on your own.

I'm fortunate enough to have my main stream of income so I can be more true to what I want to so I feel if I stick to what I'm doing people will hire to do what I'm doing for them. A perfect example is the photographer that did Beyonce's [pregnancy] shoot. Some people didn't like it, some people hated it but if you look at the photographer's work it falls right in line with what he's been doing and she chose him for that it's just like what he's been doing so in terms of meeting a client's expectations...

What's the process? If I'm coming to you as a brand: 'Mark we have to shoot xyz,' you say what?

It's usually via email and what I've learned is meet in person or have a phone call just so expectations are very very clear on what you need. For example "Hey I need you to shoot our store!" do you mean the space, do mean specific items on the rack, do you mean the front of the store? What is this for - is it for your Instagram, is it for your lookbook, is it for a presentation? Making sure everything is crystal clear about what they need because a lot of problems arise when it's not clear and sometimes the original client is hiring someone to book the photographer so there's already two lines of communication away from the direct source. 

Okay so you meet with brands, set expectations.

Yep I set expectations, I set a timeline so sometimes I give a package when if you want this in a certain amount of time it's an extra $200 plus my hourly rate. I usually add on 12 hours of buffer time so that I can over-deliver. "Hey you'll have this in a week" knowing that I may get it done in three days just in case I get a big jig that comes up sometime in between. Thank God for buffering because [otherwise] I wouldn't be able to sleep for two days.

When are you most inspired to create?

I'm most inspired to create from my friends and contemporaries because they're on it. My friend is releasing a book - Rich 20 Something by Daniel DiPiazza - it's published by Penguin. He's like "Yo we're booking press runs, we might be on Daily Show," and I'm like yo wow I got to be on my shit. And other photographers when I see their work - super inspired. When I saw that Beyonce shoot I was super inspired. That's a prime example of finding what you like and sticking with and diving into it because technically those are not the best pictures but in context of the art Beyonce chose him.

Right. Beyonce chose him.

It's a testament to not ride every wave, do what you like to do and do it 100%.

Let's talk about URBNFresh. Tell me about it, what made you want to start it?

So when I move to NYC I was  promoter. Every black college is deep out here but I didn't go to one of those colleges so I didn't have that foundation. I'm like "I'm going to make this site and just post events," because I'm researching everywhere and signing up for every newsletter. I also wanted to stretch my creative muscles I like to tinker with things on the internet - I built the website from scratch, I like to design things, I like playing with all the little apps on the computer, I'm a nerd. So I built the site then I got more content, more writers.

Now when it comes to showing up to things, I built relationships with the people who are hosting these events, it became very difficult. So I kind of shifted over to more art stuff because that's also what I was interested in. What I was doing was highlighting artists in the city, working with artists in Brooklyn, Harlem, whatever, amplify their projects. Then I would say around 2013 I was slipping into a depression - you know that quarter life crisis? Looking back...

How old were you, 25?

Yeah, I was about 25. And I stopped, I didn't do anything with it, it was just there and more or less I kept coming to work.

Then I picked up that camera and my creative juice were flowing again so I kind of kickstarted [URBNFresh] again except I was focused on Instagram mainly. And now it's become more so an extension of my digital brand. Let's say I want to host a photo walk I don't want to be the face of the photo walk because that's just not my style - Urbn Fresh is for that. I use it as tool to add an extra layer to my digital persona because everything is marketing and brand and I also use it as an opportunity to collaborate with people.

So the main goal of it now is just to highlight black joy - it sits at the intersection of black joy, pop culture, and art, which I think are very important things to have in your life. So whatever I can do to amplify black art and creatives that's what it's for.

I'm realizing everyone gets depressed around this quarter life period because last month I was going through it.

I was talking to my friend about this - you're not going to realize when you've moved past it but you will sit back and be like "hmm I feel solid," like I don't feel wishy washy. I think that's also a part of finding yourself and finding your lane. And a part of that is trying a whole bunch of shit that you realize you don't like. 

There's anxiety then there's a special flavor of anxiety that only happens when you are bettering yourself, it's like "oh shit I'm going to die, this is amazing." Everybody knows that feeling, you have to continue to find ways to continuously find that feeling because even though it can be stressful at times that is the high that people are chasing. So that's where I've been creatively in trying to capture that which is hard. If you're not chasing that feeling you need to figure out how and in what space. You gotta be scared sometimes but if you're not prepared then you're just scared! Haha.

You're only as good as your last at bat. That shit is scary! Now that professional equipment is so accessible to the masses how do you continue to hone your craft and maintain a unique voice?

Every day shoot. I shoot when I don't feel like it. Start a project when I don't feel like it. I try to pride myself on doing things when I don't feel like it. Everybody goes to the gym when they feel like going to the gym - you should congratulate yourself for going to the gym and you don't feel like going. I don't feel like editing pictures sometimes but I want to feel good about the fact that damn I did it when I didn't feel like it. That's the most important thing - do it when you don't feel like it because that's the best way to do it.

In terms of having access and how you find your own lane I feel like it comes down to volume most time like I always have the analogies with rappers; Future has a new song every day, it only takes one song to be March Madness and then everybody's going to buy your next shit. Just keep creating, I feel like some people stop too soon. One thing is going to stick and that is your lane. I'm still finding my lane - I want to try studio, I want to try outside, I want to try every type of photography. I want to figure out what I'm good at always. So it doesn't really matter about equipment, there are better photographers with cheaper equipment, there are better photographers that don't have a camera that use their iPhone, there are better photographers than me that have 500 followers on Instagram - I see it all the time. Just swinging the hammer.

Speaking of, what is your favorite camera or lens to shoot with?

I shoot with a Canon 5D Mark III with 24/70 lens. That's what I shoot with most of the time.

What advice do you have for creatives who have one foot in corporate life and one foot in their passions like you do?

Scratch the itch, you are a person your job doesn't define you like photography doesn't define me. Working at AOL doesn't define me. We are complex people, you are the most complex being on this earth so use your brain, explore and try as many things as you can while you work. There are opportunities to do that while having a job. There are no rules, everybody doesn't have to be an entrepreneur. When did it become so bad to not be an entrepreneur? You can live a very creative life and maintain a 9 to 5.

You'll never be younger than you are at this very moment and you've never been wiser than you are at this very moment so if you want to take a leap of faith, take a leap of faith but just make sure that you know that you have 24 hours in a day so if you're at a job that you dislike and you're also a creative but you have to be in this job for now think about what you can learn from being at this job. "What can I learn here and apply to what I really want to do? "And as those thoughts align the vision becomes more clear, you can scratch that creative itch and take that leap of faith. 

If you could go back to when you first began shooting and tell yourself one thing what would it be?

I wish I would have started earlier. When I got my camera I wish I would have started shooting. I would tell myself don't be afraid of looking corny. I'm not super swole now but maybe a year and a half ago I started going to the gym and everybody in there is swole - I feel dumb, I'm working out with these little weights and I'm like I'm just going to show up. I'm just going to show up to the gym - I can go swipe my card and leave - but I'm going to go. And there have been times that I did that but eventually it clicked for me that all these dudes that are swole were skinny like me and they're not really thinking about my ass.

Everybody has their own life and nobody spends as much time thinking about you as you think. So I feel like that was a life lesson, I started being more consistent and now I don't feel dumb at the gym anymore but that can be applied to photography. I feel like if I hadn't done that I would have never gotten into photography because of the fear of looking dumb. So don't be afraid of being an amateur, don't be afraid of being a beginner. Everybody wants to be an expert in a snap of their fingers. Everybody was a beginner at one time. Now I'm applying the pressure to a lot of people who underestimated me so it's even that much sweeter. 

I'm a strong believer that you should live your best life. How do you live your best life?

With intention. Have intention, do everything on purpose. Don't just let things be decided for you. Be intentional about your life, be intentional about your travel, be intentional about what you're consuming in terms of food, in terms of entertainment. Just think about what you're doing hour to hour and just make sure you're doing it with intention.

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