Tour Tales | Calligrafist recalls intense encounter with security who thought he was sneaking pics of Beyonce
Ismail “Calligrafist” Sayeed is a visual storyteller who has sacrificed and finessed in order to photograph the likes of JAY-Z, J. Cole, Drake and more.
Musicians are barely getting a slice of music industry revenue, largely eating off of live performances instead. For ‘Tour Tales,’ we dig into the rider requests, delayed shows, diligent preparation, and future of touring by talking with the multitude of people that move behind the scenes. Record executives, photographers, tour managers, artists, and more all break down what goes into touring and why it’s still so vital to the livelihood of your favorite artists. What happens on tour stays on ‘Tour Tales.’
“We waited for days [at Camp Flog Gnaw] and we didn’t know who the special guest was. I heard the rumors it was Drake, so I had to post up at a certain spot to get photos. That meant I had to miss all the artists on the other stage,” he told REVOLT.
In this installment of “Tour Tales,” the veteran photographer explains breaking the rules to photograph Drizzy’s first S.O.B.’s show and more. Read below.
Some of the earliest photographs I saw from you were from Drake’s 2009 S.O.B.’s show. How difficult was that to shoot?
The energy was different. That was when the buzz was real and the mixtapes were buzzing. He announced a show at one of the places in New York that everyone has to go through. I was by the stairs because there was no photo pit at S.O.B.’s. He passed by me to get to the stage. It was packed and dark. At that time, I wasn’t the best photographer. So, I learned lighting and angled myself properly to see how to get the best shots. They were saying, “No photos.” But, someone at the venue told me, “If you can sneak some shots, we won’t stop you.” That meant I had to shoot from a downward angle so security doesn’t see my camera. My angling had to be from my chest up so no one can see. If you look at the Drake photo, it’s from me angling my camera up.
Did you get in trouble for shooting?
Yes. For the first few songs, you don’t take any photos. You fake enjoy the show and be sour you can’t take photos. Then, you rationalize, “Cool, if I take photos now, I can risk being thrown out now because I got to see a good portion of the show.” You have to base the flash on when the lights move, but you also risk being caught. They won’t throw you out until the second or third flash. At first, they’ll be like, “We told you, ‘No photos.’” Security was on the opposite side of me, as well.
What artist from the last decade is the best person to shoot live?
J. Cole. I’ve shot J. Cole the most. Drake has been the most elusive to me. Kendrick is very fun to shoot, but he’s a ghost. As elusive as J. Cole is, his team understands marketing and he still pops out when he pops out. He tours regularly and does his festival. Cole does this thing where he grips the mic, tilts his head, looks up in the sky, and jumps up. I knew Cole’s set even though there were different songs. Cole’s stage show has evolved so much. He doesn’t just do one thing,
That attention to detail is how you were able to get unique action shots of Miguel looking like he’s walking on hands at his Terminal 5 show in March 2018.
For that show, I was hired to shoot by Tidal. Miguel kept faking like he wasn’t going to jump in the crowd. So, I positioned myself against the barrier. I’m looking at the crowd and he’s faking it, faking it, faking it. Then, he gets in the crowd. I see people were positioned where they’re going to start lifting him. He kept singing and then be began to raise. I was looking at it like, “Wow.” He knew he was not going to be dropped by the audience. It was amazing.
What is your style of shooting?
Storytelling. I am definitely a storyteller. I do research on artists. Early on, I would only shoot who I liked. If I didn’t know of you, I would skip you. I’ve got better over time and now know you have to shoot everything. It can’t just be about who I shot. It has to be about why I waited this long to shoot. For example, Drake at Camp Flog Gnaw. We waited for days and we didn’t know who the special guest was. I heard the rumors it was Drake, so I had to post up at a certain spot to get photos. That meant I had to miss all the artists on the other stage. You have to focus on the story. People hire me and know they’re going to leave with a story. They’re going to be able to look at those photos and feel as if you were part of the show.
Who’s an artist you shot because you needed to have live show photos in your collection?
Jay Electronica. We were in Philly in 2018. I know his manager, Law. I hit his manager like, “I want to shoot.” I needed Jay Electronica in my catalog. There was no pit, but Law told me I was good to come. My best friend and I drove to Philly. I was shooting from the crowd. Law and I locked eyes, and he was basically telling me, “Come on stage.” Then, I motion to him to say, “Nah, the photos I’m getting from the crowd are good.” At some point, Jay jumps into the crowd and he has such a relationship with the audience, he knew he wasn’t going to be roughed up or anything. They surround him and what caught me was the one kid who had his phone up with his arm around Jay. Jay doesn’t push his arm off. He just acts like those are his people. Even after the show, Jay gave daps to the crowd and spoke with them. I got that photo of Jay after I finally got on stage.
You really get to be a part of sentimental moments like a Ruff Ryders reunion show in 2017 where you shot DMX.
That was dope. He did his song “Blood Red,” which was interesting because you wanted to see the classics. The crowd was chanting back as he was going and he just lifted his mic up for them to finish. That was when I knew that was the photo. I thought it spoke to a calm DMX but his face said everything.
Another classic show you did was Damien Marley’s first performance with JAY-Z at Meadows Music and Arts Festival in 2017. What is your mentality shooting Hov?
Shooting JAY is always interesting because you’re always not allowed even though you have all-access (laughs)… Shooting JAY is always fun. He’s not the greatest performer, but his poise is unmatched. In this particular show, he was moving around with the Jeff Koons balloon. You never knew who was going to pop out. It was the flag, Damien, Young Guru in the back, and then JAY. But, it looked like he was in awe looking at Bob Marley’s son. I wanted to capture all of that in one photo.
If it’s that difficult shooting JAY-Z, I can only imagine how it is shooting Beyonce.
I was at the Tidal X show at Barclays. I had all-access because I was shooting for Cipha Sounds. I remember being the only person in the pit. Beyonce didn’t allow a photo pit, but I was Ciph’s DJ right before she went up. I remember shooting Ciph from the crowd, and then walking on the stage to shoot him from the back and see the crowd. As I’m on stage, I see security rushing to the stage and I’m thinking, “I’m good. They’re not coming for me.” They were coming for me (laughs). I was backing up to get a wider shot of Ciph. I kept backing up and unknowingly getting closer to Beyonce because she was standing there waiting to do her set. Security rushes on stage like, “Get off the stage.” I was like, “I have all-access. I’m on the stage for Ciph until he’s off the stage. Security was on the side of the stage telling me to come down while one was coming up the stage. I turn around and see Beyonce.
What do you have coming in 2021?
It’s going to be primarily festivals with tours near the end of the year. To be honest, I’m not sure. In the pandemic, you had to pivot and really position yourself in different ways. I stopped shooting for a while and started doing more brand work. I’m already locked in for three festivals. Between 2019 – 2021, a bunch of big players has emerged. Festival Benny the Butcher, what does that look like? There are so many artists I haven’t shot in certain settings that are big now. There will be a reinvention of Calligrafist in the sense of my focus as a photographer and purpose of shooting. I’ve been shooting for close to 15 years and now I’m a recognizable brand in terms of name, and I want to marry that with the artists and people I shoot.
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