Interview: Rory Kramer, Music Photographer/Videographer

Interview & Photos by Yising Kao

Rory is featured in our Music Industry issue and upcoming Photography issue! :

Originally from Indiana, Rory is a photographer and videographer who has worked with artists such as Justin Bieber, The Chainsmokers, Martin Garrix, and Tori Kelly, shooting tours and directing music videos. He also produces travel videos of his adventures and lives by his inspirational motto, “Run it!” In 2017, he created his own MTV show called Dare to Live, where he adventures with his artist friends and helps them face their fears.

What inspired you to start doing photography?

My mom was always taking photos of our family and recording on this old VHS video camera. It wasn’t until I was in high school when I got into watching MTV and music videos, shows like jackass, blink 182 tour doc called The Urethra Chronicles. All that stuff was similar to what my friends and I were doing. So, I took my mom’s camera and started filming stuff like stunts, skits, and just everyday life. My senior year of high school, I taught myself how to edit and I knew if I could package all my clips into one thing, then maybe I could show it to people and they’d watch it. I started selling them at school and made $500 a week, which was a lot for a 17-year-old. My parents always taught me, if you want money, you gotta work for it. It taught me that I could make money in an easy, fun way where it doesn’t feel like work and in return, it’s my money and no one can tell me what I choose to spend it on. I could go blow it, but then I learned that lesson of blowing your money. I also learned I could take that $500 and buy another video camera. So now, I had two cameras and different angles to work on and I just kept investing in myself.

You’ve opened up about your depression and how you try to turn your weaknesses into strengths, such as by using them for motivation. Talking about your struggles is important and your journey has inspired a lot of people, especially since social media can deceivingly make it seem like everyone’s lives are perfect and they’re always happy. How do you view social media now?

I’ve recently changed how I view social media. It’s so hard not to get caught up in a following and likes, especially when that dictates a lot of your business. I remember when I used it before I had a following, I’d post whatever and it was fun and organic, and it was based around my friends and family. As I started to get followed because of an artist or the work I made, you start to watch your growth. Because you want it to grow and want more opportunities and chances to create, since it’s why you got into self-expression through visual arts. Now, sometimes it’s my best way of communication with a friend or a family member. Sometimes I follow a lot of meme accounts because I think laughing’s the best medicine, so I’ll forward memes to my friends. But also, I’ll scroll through my dms and read questions and engage with people, like if you asked me for photography advice. I can also see dms of people asking like, “When is the new Chainsmokers’ song coming out?” I don’t know because I don’t have any part in making the music. I can choose what to engage in; I try to get on there and post to showcase something I believe in, something that hopefully inspires people and inspires me. I don’t like being on it cause it’s a toxic thing and you can go down rabbit holes and all of a sudden, you’re like “It was just two o’ clock, now it’s 4 o’ clock. How long have I been on this?” You start to wonder how much you live vicariously through other people rather than living your own life. Everyone’s guilty of going on and thinking, “I wish I could go there” or “I wish I could meet that person.” You can’t, but the time you put into wishing your life away, you can be proactive and actually make those things happen.

How do you try to motivate yourself?

I used to get stuck a lot on actually sitting down and getting into the timeline to edit so I’ve restructured on my organizational skills. I treat my hard drives similar to how I treat my brain. I can recall memories off the top of my head very quickly, like if you ask me about a certain Chainsmokers show, I could tell you a 10-minute story. That flow is so quick and effortless that I need my creative process to be similar. If I plug in a hard drive, I have to know what’s on there and if I don’t, then I have to plug in another and I have like 50 drives. When I’m working on a project, sometimes I can have a callback to the story I’m talking about, because I have like, the clip of Alex and Drew doing this. I know it’s in my head, but I need to find the physical content. Social media made bad habits for me of how incident it was. When I first started touring with 3LAU, he was like “You made this from the concert last night? Can you make this every day? I’ll pay you double your rate.” I’ve never seen that kind of money in a day. The quickest way was to take the content from the card straight onto the timeline. I wasn’t properly organizing it and categorizing it like, “3LAU, Bloomington, Indiana, Dunkirk.” I can retain that info quickly and I have a visual memory, but to get into those clips, I didn’t respect the process so going back, now that part of getting hung up doesn’t exist anymore; I put in the time and effort to have a solid foundation for my creative flow. Now if I’m not inspired, I can pick up a book and intake positive info that I’m learning. I can stay off of social media because you’re kind of wishing your life away because you want what other people have, or your friends hang out and you're like, “Why didn’t they invite me?” Your mind plays tricks on you. Or I take a walk, go out and get coffee, paint, and just seize other forms of self-expression that can get the brain properly working and inspired, so when you go back to do work, you have the inspiration that feels effortless. It’s all about the flow.

From your touring experiences, what’s the most important thing you’ve learned about working with artists?

You have to respect the artist because you work for them at the end of the day, regardless of your friendship. You have to read people’s energy. I got really good at it because I got to work with Justin Bieber quickly into my career in the spotlight. Justin’s one of the most unique, coolest forms of energy I’ve ever experienced because so many people love him that it makes his energy very powerful. He can walk into a room and make everyone stop what they're doing and look at him. If he’s backstage, about to play a show in front of 20,000 people, I know that I gotta read his energy. Is he excited and feeling good? If he’s feeling good, then I can add to that to maybe help him get out there ‘cause he knows we’re friends and we can bounce off of each other. But if he’s having a bad day, I gotta be weary of the energy I'm bringing to him. Am I going to lift him up or is it going to make his day worse? If I can’t help, I go out into the crowd and just wait to shoot, because if I can’t be part of the solution, then I eliminate myself. Or I can just say, “Hey man, good luck tonight.” It’s just the little things. You have to read the person’s energy and I think that’s what makes a good filmmaker and photographer. Sometimes you have to be the fly on the wall and sometimes you have to be the best friend. Reading energy is a very good skill to have.

What are some ways creatives can help people understand artists are human too?

As you learn to create, I think you understand the creative process and what it entails. To be good at something, once you have success, then you have something where it didn’t turn out the way you hoped, you realize how much being an artist is very unpredictable. Its not a secure job. Your job depends on your creativity. Whether you're coming up with new ideas, whether you're a leader or a follower. Sometimes you're at the top and other times, you fall and you're uninspired. You have to respect the process at that point because life is ups and downs. When you're up and you start to fall, you wonder if it’s ever going to be that good again. It is if you choose for it to be. If you’re like “Life sucks,” then your down is going to keep going down and its going to be harder to get out of. So, it’s all about when you're on top, be aware of it but don’t let it control who you are and letting it change you.

It’s awesome how you show your friends who are artists as who they really are as a person.

I felt like a misunderstood kid. I came from a small town so to have that perspective already of feeling misunderstood kid, its easy to relate to another artist and to put yourself in their shoes.

In the entertainment industry, it can be easy to go down the wrong path. You keep a tight group of friends and it’s awesome how your clients are also your friends. How do you guys keep each other grounded in this industry?

It can be as much as cracking jokes. You always have to check them and to earn respect, you have to show respect. One way we do it is by cutting the bullshit and you just gotta be like, “Are you good?” I think the eyes don’t lie and if you're willing to build your friendship on trust and being a good person, it’s easy to ground somebody. Alex Pall is probably the best at keeping me grounded because he knows how to shit on me, but not in a way where it’s going to kill my spirits, just a little jab.

One of my favorite music videos is Justin Bieber’s I’ll Show You music video which you produced, when Justin surprised you with a trip to your dream place to visit, Iceland. I love how you captured how Justin naturally is and the message of the song; he’s human too. It’s such a beautiful video.

Thanks! I think that video was a success because it was just two friends on vacation. The footage I took ended up becoming the music video.

And Chris Burkard was also with you guys.

Yeah, he ended up doing Justin’s album artwork. But the way I treated it was like, even if Justin Bieber wasn’t sitting there and you were sitting there, or no one was, it was my first time seeing a waterfall like that. So, getting to shoot it, and now you have this subject sitting there who’s actually admiring it and you're not telling them to admire it, they’re admiring it because its their first time seeing it. I remember I got to have a conversation with Ellen DeGeneres and she talked to him about it and said it was one of her favorite videos. It meant so much to me because I'm a big fan of her. During that week when Justin was on her show, she was walking past me and I collected my thoughts and told myself I was going to have a conversation with her. I was like, “Hey Ellen, I want to introduce myself. I’m Rory, Justin’s videographer. I just want to say thank you for the nice things you said about the I’ll Show You video we shot in Iceland.” She was like, “You shot that?” And this sparked a 2-3 minute conversation, and Ellen doesn’t have time for a conversation with a stranger because her life is so planned because of who she is and her success. She made time for this and said, “I’ve worked with Justin since the beginning of his career. I’ve never seen this side of him.” The way she was talking about it was just amazing. I was unaware that I was capturing him like that, I was just doing what I normally do and here, it resonates with Ellen DeGeneres. No one really knows what they’re doing. It was just so cool to experience something like that.

What advice do you want to give to aspiring tour photographers and videographers?

Know who you are. Why you're doing it, why you're taking the photo. Because if it’s anything other than to satisfy yourself, then it’s for the wrong reasons. If you’re like, “I’m at this Chainsmokers show and I get to take this epic shot,” and you post the photo and say, “I shot the Chainsmokers last night.” I’ll look at that and be like “No, you didn’t because I was actually hired by them to shoot.” They're gloating instead of being like “last night, I happened to be in the photo pit and I saw Rory and they called me over and gave me this one shot and it was life changing. Can you tell me about the process and what goes into it?” Then people can realize there’s this guy who’s waiting his time and he got the chance. I’ve been in the pit trying to take photos and you do your time. When your time comes, you better be ready to capture it because you might get one pyro shot or big production shot, and it might be a DJ who can’t even afford production. So how are you going to make that time count?

Photo: Justin Bieber by Rory Kramer

Photo: Drew Taggart of The Chainsmokers by Rory Kramer