Atlanta’s presence in the hip-hop scene has been well established for many years with the likes of OutKast, Ludacris and Soulja Boy making the city’s artists into household names.
Even if you know hip-hop, you might not know this name: Cam Kirk.
I went to downtown Atlanta to learn more about Kirk and how hip-hop looks from behind the lens.
Across the room from me is an unassuming figure. He doesn’t smile, and doesn’t frown. His outfits are impeccable but never ostentatious. Across the street is Magic City, Atlanta’s most iconic strip club, but we sit in a simple red brick studio. Where others may see unassuming eyes, he sees the new generation of art and artistry.
That’s because Cam Kirk is Atlanta’s unofficial hip-hop documentarian, and his photos of artists have helped reshape the conversation around hip-hop’s image.
His work, he says, has a deeper purpose than glorifying drugs or money or women, or even just taking pictures.
“I know that’s a strong statement. I don’t even want to say it’s farfetched, but it’s a deep goal: to change the perception that hip-hop has as a whole.”
That goal is evident in even the shortest conversation with Kirk, real name Cameron Kirkland. The 27-year-old is not from Atlanta, but the ties to this city are strong.
“Atlanta completely changed my way of thinking, my way of life, my path. Everything about me is a direct influence of Atlanta.”
It’s also where he has quickly and quietly gained fame for taking photos that portray people who happen to be hip-hop artists, and not the other way around.
Walking through his studio hallway, we pass by some of his favorite images. All of these photos are intimate, personal and counter to many stereotypes portrayed about hip-hop today.
“So this one is Big Boi… he’s holding newborn pitbulls…This is another one of those moments where this isn’t really Big Boi. This is him, this is Antwan doing his thing. Looking at something that he’s loved outside of music. And it shows that other side of him.”
Thanks to his calm demeanor, the ‘other side of artists’ is Kirk’s specialty. It’s allowed him to capture moments that very few people get to see.
“Well I never like to disrupt a moment, I like to capture a moment and not necessarily create a moment by me telling an artist what to do… so because of that I was able to build trust with certain artist early on. Certain artists that didn’t really have trust with a lot of people.”
One example of that came in May of 2015, when Kirk turned heads by converting an old church into an interactive trap house homage to the then-jailed Gucci Mane. The mostly-candid photos show the trap god in a different light than his troubled rockstar image, and they earned Cam critical acclaim.
“I would say like 99% of the photos I had taken of Gucci prior to his arrest, he had no idea I took them. So that’s why I like to call them pictures of Radric Davis rather than Gucci Mane.”
Since then, he’s had his work appear in countless high-profile publications like Rolling Stone and Fader, been on tour with multiple artists and opened the studio.
Despite that success, Kirk has stayed true to his personality and true to the photos he takes. He has his own studio, yes but it’s not there for personal gain or stature.
John Rose is one of Kirk’s managers. He shares that Cam Kirk Studios is designed to create opportunities for more young photographers to have the same opportunities that Kirk did.
“He’s making intentional investments into his community. And a lot of it is for the fact that people paved the way for him. And he’s trying to do that now for our culture and our generation.”
One of the first beneficiaries is Keenan Litmon, Kirk’s assistant and photographer, who’s learned more than just photography being around Kirk and is eager to give back to the community.
“I’m definitely looking forward to people coming in and saying they created their project here out of the Cam Kirk Studio.”
Speaking of the studio, Kirk’s studio represents the culmination of late nights, hard work and the breaks given to him by others.
“All of that paved the way for me to be able to say I have my own place in Atlanta, Georgia. I’ve got my own spot that I can now influence and inspire other photographers and creatives that are coming up. This space is everything to me.”
He’s about to go on tour with Gucci Mane as his official photographer and lead a panel at noon today at A3C, but at the end of the day, he’s still Cam Kirk.