Jan 5, 2016

Behind The Lens: Ilja Meefout

Ilja Meefout, Photographer, Amsterdam, The Netherlands.

Hi Ilja, how are you feeling?
It’s been a hectic year. I’m just wrapping up the last things for this year.

How does it feel to be the Hiphop photographer from Holland?
It’s an honor that there are people who call me that. To be fair, I’m not sure if something like a Hiphop photographer even exists. And only recently, I’m even comfortable being called photographer.

Why do you think people gave you that particular name?
As a kid, I grew up on Hiphop. Later I went to Art School to become a graphic designer. I didn’t finish art-school, but it got me in touch with photography. So I brought my camera to concerts and just started documenting friends (most of them DJs, rappers or producers) and people I already knew in the hiphop scene. I feel like I’m a hiphop-head who started taking pictures, instead of a photographer that chose Hiphop as a subject matter.

I feel like I’m a hiphop-head who started taking pictures, instead of a photographer that chose Hiphop as a subject matter.

So it’s really a blessing for me to contribute to, work in and get respect from the Hiphop scene that I love so much.

Ilja Meefout behind the lens

You’ve made some pretty iconic photographs, for instance the one with Snoop Dogg wearing an Ajax t-shirt while smoking a joint. Do you have a favorite photograph?
It’s very difficult to single out one photo. But I’m very pleased that so many people resonate with the picture of Snoop Dogg in the Ajax-shirt. That picture represents most things that I love: Snoop Dogg represents Hiphop culture, Ajax represents football and Amsterdam (the joint represents that as well). Further, the picture of Snoop Dogg also represents the improvised way I like to shoot. This wasn’t a set-up shot. I wasn’t even there to take a solo portrait of Snoop Dogg. But I saw an opportunity and made it work.
The pictures were taken in the dressing room of the Heineken Music Hall. I only got two frames (about 5 seconds total) and I made it look like a studio shoot.

Ilja Meefout behind the lens

So… you don’t really prepare yourself for a shoot, right?
How does someone who doesn’t prepare himself manage to capture such amazing pictures?
I think it has to do with multiple things. I think it’s a reflection of my personality. If I did know exactly what I was going to shoot, it would be boring to me. Also, I try to connect with my subjects. To do that, I have to allow the subjects to bring something to the image. If they would pose in a way I would have in my head then it wouldn’t be ‘them’ but my idea of them instead of how they are. A lot of times when I’ve worked with celebrities, it’s the first time I meet them. When I come in blank, it allows for something to happen which hopefully feels more natural.

Also, I do prepare in a way. Listening to music (that they make), sometimes being a fan for years. But I don’t write down my idea about somebody in a concept and then convert that concept into a photo. I try to translate my feeling directly into a photo. Something always gets lost in translation, so I try minimize the translation steps.
Not a feeling to a concept, to a photo, but a feeling to a photo (one step less translation).
And when I don’t know someone (’s work) before a shoot, it’s been my experience that most people appreciate me being honest about that and we still have a real connection.

And life gives you presents as long as you are open to receive those blessings.

But I feel when you have a concept stuck in your head, you’re only focused on that concept and don’t see opportunities that unfold right in front of you

Ilja Meefout behind the lens

So, you’re a huge Hiphop head. Is it ever hard to work with someone you really look up to? Does it bring extra pressure?
Actually it feels very natural for me to be in the same space as my heroes because Hiphop is a culture and even though I’m from Amsterdam and not, for instance, NYC, we share a lot of the same values. Also most people I work with are creative, successful people and that connects as well.

Only when I just started, I was a little star struck by KRS-ONE (one of my very first portraits I ever took as an assignment) and with Ice Cube (but I gave him a nice cigar and he was very friendly and cooperative). Besides those two times, I’ve never been nervous to work with someone. And of course because I know the little codes that are normal in Hiphop, it makes working with Hiphop artists much easier and natural to me.

Ilja Meefout behind the lens

Speaking of artists, you’ve worked with a lot of global artists. Is there a reason why you choose to stay in Holland?
It’s just my path. I’m from Amsterdam and it’s a blessing and a curse. To work in NYC you have to be there, a magazine wouldn’t fly me in for instance. But if I was born in NYC, I would be one of a million photographers. Here I’m one of the few that is known for working with Hiphop artists. So when an international Hiphop artist comes to Amsterdam, I actually have a much better chance of working with them. But for more exposure, I should be working more internationally… who knows what’s in the future. I already have had billboards in places like LA, Dubai and the Philippines and some international magazines have published my pictures. My biggest assignments were abroad and I’m positive I will do more of them in the future.

Ilja Meefout behind the lens

I’ve noticed that you’re friends with a lot of Dutch artists. Does that make working with them easier or perhaps even harder?
That’s a good question.
Sometimes it’s easier to work with somebody who doesn’t know me (like most international artists), because there is no expectation and I only have a few minutes at a place that was already chosen; like a hotel room, or backstage at a venue)

Working with Dutch artists is different in the way that most of them know some of my work and give me much more time and everything is possible. It might sound like a contradiction, but that makes it, in some cases, more difficult for me.
International artist won’t be ‘gezellig,’ it’s just a brief moment that’s very focused most of the time. When I have more time and everything is possible, it or they tend(s) to get less focused, which makes it harder for me.

When I have more time and everything is possible, it or they tend(s) to get less focused, which makes it harder for me.

Ilja Meefout behind the lens

You’ve managed to hold an exposition a couple of months ago and I think we can all agree that it was a success. Are you planning to do more of these in the future?
I haven’t anything planned as we speak. But I’d love to do something like the last exhibition on a bigger scale. The exhibition featured photos of Dutch and international Hiphop artists that I’ve taken in the past ten years. Maybe when I have book with an overview of my journey of Hiphop related photos so far.

Is there any artist or individual who you’d love to work with in the future?
Too many to name. And I’m hesitant to name some specific names, as I don’t want to jinx anything. But it would be great to do some more work that gets great exposure (like album covers, magazine covers, advertisements).

Ilja Meefout behind the lens

It seems like you aim to make the impossible happen. Do you have any tips for photographers who would love to do what you are doing right now?
It feels strange to give advice, because I feel like I’m just doing what I like to do. I never started with an idea to become a photographer.
I just started taking pictures of my friends and when I quit my day job I figured I had to make money somehow. Why not with something I loved to do?

If I would’ve applied logic, it wouldn’t have made sense to even try at making a living taking pictures. And meeting and working with so many creative and successful people and hearing their stories is a confirmation that anything actually IS possible.

Ilja Meefout behind the lens

Is there anyone who inspired you to create what you’re creating right now?
I’m inspired by lots of people and artists. I’ve been to galleries and artists from early on in my life (my granddad was a sculptor). Music gives me energy and inspires me, which is why it feels natural for me to work with artists I listen to. Paintings inspire me. Nowadays, I’m also more familiar with other photographers and of course the greats inspire me. Colors inspire me. And I see abstract stuff where ever I look. To name just a few names right now wouldn’t do justice to all the rest I wouldn’t name right now.

Hiphop actually inspires me a lot aswell, especially the 80’s and 90’s stuff.
I think most of my pictures have bold colors (or strong contrast in black and white), static compositions and aren’t that subtle overall. I think that that has parallels with graffiti and rap from that era. I also love to work with younger artists because of the fresh energy.

Author: Fares Masharawi


Want to see more of the person behind this lens?
Visit his website: iljameefout.com