Collin Hughes is a New York based photographer and adventurer at heart. He has a penchant for traveling, capturing people in their environment, and documenting life as it happens. He has worked for clients including Wantful, Red Bull, Cavalier Essentials, Target, Health Partners, Kartel, Complex, Atlantic Records, Epitaph Records, Space 150, Squarespace, Pierrepont Hicks, EC English, Ugmonk, and Rhymesayers. His personal project, Any Meal, is a visual collection of people who he has had the privilege of sharing a meal and conversation with.
August marks the one year anniversary of TGD and we’re celebrating all month long! We couldn’t think of a better guy to kick things off with than Collin Hughes. The energy, sincerity, and youthfulness embodied in Collin’s images are a true reflection of who he is as a person—he is just as spirited, genuine, and fun as his photographs would lead you to believe. We heard firsthand from Collin about his journey to becoming a full-time photographer, which started in a small town in Minnesota and led him all the way to the buzzing streets of New York City. Read on to learn about how this one-time introvert came out of his shell, why he went to college for architecture, but ended up doing photography instead, what sparked his move to NYC, how his love for travel feeds his work, and what keeps him creatively satisfied.
Interview date: July 31, 2012
We were lucky enough to catch Collin for an in person interview on one of the two days he was recently in the city. He suggested we meet at Weather Up, a hidden bar in Prospect Heights that serves up some serious cocktails. We used our finest detective skills to find the bar despite its lack of signage, and once the three of us were settled with drinks in hand, we got down to the business—and fun—of interviewing.
Describe your path to becoming a photographer.
I grew up in a really, really small town of about 6,000 people on a lake in central Minnesota. I was a little unsure of where I wanted to go in life, but I remember wanting to be a photographer when I was in middle school. I attended a one day workshop at school where professionals from the area came in and talked about their jobs; I signed up to learn about calligraphy, photography, and computer mechanics. I was enthralled with hearing about the photographer’s process, but it didn’t really click for me until much later.
In high school, I was introverted and reserved. I didn’t have a lot of friends and didn’t get along with many of the people there. My mom pushed me to do a foreign exchange program and when I was a junior in high school, I went to Germany for four months. I had already been studying German, but that experience really gave me confidence. I got involved in the school a lot and although I went there to learn German, the school asked me to start teaching some English classes. Being up in front of kids I didn’t know and doing that—that was a huge part of developing as a person, becoming more confident in myself, knowing what I was about, and not being scared to take some risks and get out of my comfort zone. That had a lasting effect on who I am.
While I was in Germany, I took a lot of photos with a point and shoot just to tell my story of being there because it was so new to me. I continued to take pictures and I started shooting more using my mom’s film camera when I returned from Germany. We had a darkroom at school and I spent a lot of time in there developing film until I got in trouble a couple times for using all the school’s materials (laughing).
By the time I went to college, I was taking photos incessantly. Minneapolis has a really great music scene and I went to a lot of shows and took pictures. A pretty popular band asked me to take photos of them for promo stuff; I did it and it blew up and pushed me out into this network of musicians. I shot bands for a while after that, which gave me exposure to labels because some of the bands went on to bigger and better things. In addition to photography, I was studying architecture in college and I worked at Apple to pay the bills. I didn’t sleep much during those years.
In 2009, during my third year of college, I had a low point as an artist. I stopped shooting bands altogether; I had no money; I didn’t know what to do. Then I met a friend who was shooting a lot of weddings. He introduced me to that and he also offered for me to stay with him over the summer because he had this huge house. I shot a lot of personal stuff over that period of time—people, friends, artists—and I also started shooting weddings with my friend. Doing that exposed me to how much I still had to learn and it was humbling. That fall I photographed 10 weddings and the next summer, I shot 35. That funded my college life through my fourth year.
Photographing weddings was a great transition for me. I had to learn how to direct people in front of the camera, which is challenging, but also one of the most fun things about shooting. I also loved the personal connection with the clients. My style is very go with the flow, natural, and candid, which works well in that setting. This year I’ve had tighter control of clients and have only taken on the work I really want to do, but that season was a fantastic backbone for my business because it gave me the ability to take on other projects that I wanted to.
One of the biggest points of my career so far was shooting for my friend Taylor’s school project, Cavalier Essentials. Taylor told me he wanted to do this project, so I flew to Savannah and co-directed and shot for it. We put it online and boom! It got way more attention than we thought it would. I started getting a lot of interest from other companies after that because of the style—it was believable and it didn’t feel like an ad campaign. I was stoked about how it turned out and it was a milestone for me to realize that I did have vision and I could execute that vision. From there, I started getting a bit more interest from people in other parts of the country, especially the East Coast.
My exposure to advertising and commercial work continued to pick up. I’ve shot the Ugmonk Lookbook the past few years and that has brought me work that I never would have thought would come my way. I did the lookbook for Jeff because I love being a part of smaller brands and seeing their vision and products come to life. Ugmonk was a cool opportunity for me to do that.
The work I did for Ugmonk last summer brought me a client called EC English, which is a school that brings in students from all over the world to study English. They wanted the same energy and feel of the Ugmonk Lookbooks to showcase their student experience and asked me to direct and shoot a campaign for each of their 15 schools. That’s what I’ve been busy with since January. There’s a lot of work involved, but the best is taking the students into the city to explore and showcase what each city has to offer. Half of my travel this year has been for them; I’ve been to Malta, the UK, South Africa, Vancouver, Montreal, and five locations in the US. I’m headed out for the last shoot tomorrow.
It’s been a really good year so far.
[Tina] You’ve been out of college for a year. Did you move to New York City right after school?
Yeah, I moved here right after school. It was serendipitous how it worked out. I graduated from college last May, but before I graduated, Taylor and I shot for the Cavalier Essentials project in January. Around the same time, John Poisson had started a company called Wantful, and loved Taylor’s Cavalier products; John wanted to bring Taylor in as a vendor. Their partnership eventually led to Taylor becoming lead designer and as Wantful grew and progressed through spring, John saw a place for editorial content on the site and asked me to be a part of it. He offered me a part-time position and I took it because I wanted to help move the Wantful brand forward and it still allowed me to do freelance work.
As far as moving to New York, Taylor and I had been talking about it for a while, so it seemed fitting that we would start the Wantful NY office. We flew to NY for a couple days, found a place, and Wantful helped us move. Currently, I’m freelancing full-time, but am on a retainer with Wantful, which means I shoot for them about one or two weeks every month.
Would you describe shooting for the Cavalier project as an “aha” moment for you?
Definitely. Taylor basically produced it; he hired the people and scouted locations, but gave me power to direct and shoot it. Once we started, I was allowed to do whatever I wanted—that was really big. Wantful has also been instrumental in introducing me to big players in the industry and allowing me to get a lot of exposure.
Was creativity a part of your childhood?
My mom always said I was a creative kid. I played with Legos for hours and loved to draw. I remember when we got a computer with Windows 95 at home and 3D Home Architect came out—I was on that all the time. I’m a spacial thinker and I actually ended up going to college for architecture because of my love for drawing.
Do you have plans to do anything with architecture in the future?
I did my undergrad in architecture and German and graduated a year ago. Obviously, we know how the job market is. Architecture jobs are limited because people don’t want to pay for it and firms are lowballing each other to get projects. I didn’t have any plans for grad school and I didn’t have an end goal in mind, but photography had taken off for me during the last two years of school, so it made sense to pursue it. I would like to get more involved with architecture. It would be cool to start my own firm of five or six guys and do small public works projects.
Have you had any mentors along the way, either personally or professionally?
Not specifically—not people I’ve asked to mentor me. I have had the privilege of meeting people who inspire me, like my friend, Spencer, who introduced me to photographing weddings. He really showed me what it was to love photography and people and not be afraid to show that. He’s a very positive, inspiring guy and his passion for life really made me love what I was doing all over again.
My parents were both a big influence on me. They always pushed me to take the initiative to pursue what I was interested in and to do what I want to do. My dad was a big inspiration when I was younger and he still is. He started his own consulting business after he got laid off in 2000. He’s such a great dad first and foremost, and he’s incredibly smart and curious. He does day trading, consulting, and financial analysis for insurance agencies—I always wonder how he does it all.
Do you call him up for business advice?
Oh yeah. Definitely. He’s a great mentor for that. He’ll ask how my taxes are coming along (laughing).
Was there a point in your life when you decided you had to take a big risk to move forward?
There were multiple risks, but one of the biggest ones was quitting my job at Apple. I was there for over three years and had built great friendships. The discounts were nice and I had gone to Apple’s corporate office in California for a few months to work out there. It was a rewarding job, but it was holding me back. Making the decision to quit that job and go full-time as a freelance photographer was tough, but it was the right one.
Are your family and friends supportive of what you do? Who has encouraged you the most along your creative path?
My family has always been supportive. They’ve never asked, “What are you doing?” They’ve simply supported me and they’re always curious about what I’m going to do next. I have my parents to thank for making me as independent as I am.
My ex-girlfriend was one of the most supportive people along the way. Even though she’s not a photographer, she had such an eye. She was very critical of my work and would tell me if something wasn’t my best work. She was so encouraging, incredibly inspirational, and pushed me to never settle.
Do you feel a responsibility to contribute to something bigger than yourself?
Yes, but I don’t know if it feels like a responsibility. I’ve been incredibly fortunate to have the opportunities I’ve had so far in my career. I hope that through the opportunities I have, I can somehow contribute to others.
The second half of that question is what do you hope to contribute through your work?
I want to share some sort of positivity with people. Photography can convey many emotions and the experience of getting photographed is different for everyone. Life changes constantly, but photos are timeless; they will stay that way forever. Photography is a tool to share life together and sharing life like that is such a unique and irreplaceable thing. I’m so stoked about the people I get to meet on a daily basis that I wanted to share my experiences, which is why I started the Any Meal blog.
I think you’re doing yourself a disservice if you don’t share what you’re good at with others. Sharing your talents, your excitement for life, your drive to do good—I love that.
“Don’t be scared. When you’re scared, you don’t allow yourself the freedom to explore and test your limits…Find something you can believe in and follow it down the rabbit hole.”
Are you satisfied creatively?
Absolutely. I love to meet people; I love to shoot; and I love to explore. As long as I am doing those things, I’m content.
Any plans for the next few years?
I’ve had a lot of inspirational talks with friends lately and I have been thinking about the future…
I’m interested to see where Wantful goes. I’ve been asked by people if I think it’s going to succeed, but who knows? It’s a startup, so anything could happen. I’m just keen to fulfill my role to help it succeed.
I’d also like to do something on a bigger scale as a creative director. I’m interested in directing and making sure things stay on brand or on concept; I like helping companies deliver results that are “them”. I also love film and seeing my photos in movement and would like to be the director of photography for a film.
Overall, I want to keep traveling, meeting new people, and sharing what I’m doing. I try to take at least one or two personal trips a year to discover new places and the rewards of those experiences are invaluable.
And who knows? Maybe I’ll even have an opportunity to do something with architecture sooner than I think.
If you could give one piece of advice to another photographer starting out, what would you say?
Don’t be scared. When you’re scared, you don’t allow yourself the freedom to explore and test your limits; you don’t allow yourself the chance to do what you want. Don’t be too timid to get out of your comfort zone, to try new things, to explore, and to be excited. Find something you can believe in and follow it down the rabbit hole. I wish I had learned these lessons earlier, but c’est la vie.
You travel a lot. How does your environment affect your creativity?
Immensely. I love to travel because I’m fascinated with new things. Being in an unfamiliar place all the time is exciting because it stimulates all of your senses. With the job I’m doing for EC English, I get to meet students from all over the world and each one of them has a story. That’s so fascinating to me.
As far as living and working in New York, I’m here because I’m really young and I have a lot to learn. I’m not the best and there are so many talented people here to learn from. I wanted to be put up against the best of the best and to be challenged in my work and as a person.
Is it important to you to be part of a creative community of people?
Yeah, it is important to me to be a part of something. I want to know I have a place somewhere. That’s the one thing with traveling—I’ve done a lot of it on my own because I can, but I don’t like being alone. I’d rather share it with someone. Earlier this year, I dealt a lot with feeling alone. I was gone so much last year that I didn’t have much time to develop new relationships with people. I was gone a lot again this spring and when I would come home for a week or two, I didn’t have too many people to hang out with. It made me look inward to try to figure out why that was.
What does a typical day look like for you?
If I’m not on a plane or getting in a rental car…(laughing). I’ll run through the past 36 hours for an example. Yesterday I flew from San Francisco to LA to shoot. I flew into LA early in the morning, shot in the afternoon until about 5pm, then got dinner with a friend and played some darts. I then took the red-eye flight back to NYC and dropped my stuff off at my friend’s house. I went in to meet the client who I was doing a shoot for this afternoon, did the two hour shoot, had lunch, and then came here to meet with you.
Did you sleep at all?
Luckily, I was able to sleep on the plane for a couple hours. When I fly, I either sleep or respond to emails. It’s the only time I have available for it lately.
It’s hard to describe a typical day because there isn’t one.
What music are you currently listening to?
Ooh! The Boxer Rebellion, Alt-J, Summer Heart, and White Rabbits. I also listen to a lot of metal: Comeback Kid and Converge as of late. And from my high school days—The Starting Line.
Do you have any favorite movies or TV shows?
The Shawshank Redemption is a great movie. Tree of Life made me want to be a director of photography for a movie and I also like Warrior. I’m sure there are a lot I’m forgetting about.
As far as shows, I like Breaking Bad, Dexter, and Parks and Recreation. I don’t normally watch a lot of TV, but when I have time to sit and edit, that’s when I’ll watch it.
Favorite book or books?
I read a lot on planes because it’s more productive to do it that way. I like the Flashman Series, Death by Black Hole, and I just read Linchpin again.
What’s your favorite food?
I’m always craving something tangy or spicy, especially Mexican or Thai food.
What kind of legacy do you hope to leave?
Oh, wow! You know, we all need to pay our bills, but money isn’t my goal in anything; I just want to be able to shoot. When I was in school, I had a dream of being able to travel and photograph a lot of people. My dad always taught me that you become what you think about, and I think I’ve lived that out pretty well.
I hope that if anyone hears my name or recognizes it even 20 years from now, they will connect my work with something that’s timeless and genuine. And I’d like to be remembered as a guy who didn’t live vicariously through anyone, but who tried to experience life as much as one person can.
“I’d like to be remembered as a guy who didn’t live vicariously through anyone, but who tried to experience life as much as one person can.”