Right now on the corner of 10th Street and Northside Drive in Atlanta, GA, there’s a huge billboard featuring a photograph of Bankroll Fresh, the Atlanta rapper who was shot and killed outside of a recording studio earlier this year.
This billboard isn’t promoting a posthumous Bankroll Fresh album. It wasn’t paid for by a record label or a marketing company. It’s not sponsored by a brand. It’s the work of 27-year-old Cam Kirk, a photographer who wanted to pay tribute to his friend. “A lot of people don’t see it like this, but to us here in Atlanta, Bankroll Fresh is an icon,” Kirk explains. “I wanted to do something special for him. I was actually out of town when I heard the news. I was on tour with Rae Sremmurd and Lil Wayne when I heard the news of his passing. I wasn’t in the city to really pay my respects and memorialize him in the way that I wanted to, the way I feel he deserves.”
Atlanta producers Metro Boomin, Sonny Digital, and Southside chipped in to help make the Bankroll Fresh billboard happen, but Kirk’s plan doesn’t stop there. He’s set up a Kickstarter to help fund future billboards, and his long-term mission is to change the way we view hip-hop. Step one: putting stars in the Atlanta sky.
Can you trace your career as a photographer back to a specific point in time?
I grew up in Prince George’s County, in Maryland. Real close to D.C. I actually moved to Atlanta in 2007 to go to Morehouse College. I thought I was going to be a doctor, that’s the real reason I came to Atlanta. I was a bio pre-med major. At Morehouse, though, I kind of found my passion for marketing. I used to put together little events in Atlanta: little concerts, parties.
I actually booked Wiz Khalifa for his Deal or No Deal tour back in 2010. I was the promoter for that. And through that tour, it was kind of my first taste of the music industry in Atlanta. It gave me a taste of entertainment, things of that nature. I did this whole event and I was like 21, a sold-out concert. It was one of the biggest concerts to come to Atlanta that year.
I remember at the end of the night I couldn’t even take a picture with Wiz because my phone was dead, all my friends were gone. I had no camera, nothing. I was like, “Man, if I do another concert I’m gonna have to buy a little digital camera or something to get a photo with these people, to make sure that people know I put this together.” So really the idea of being a photographer kind of sparked right there in that moment. I bought my first camera with the premise of just covering my own events I’d be throwing. Long story short, I got familiar with the camera.
Just looking at your work, it seems like you got a closer connection to these artists than a lot of photographers. Why do you think that is?
I think it’s a bit because I used to work a little in that world so I was able to make a couple initial connections. Atlanta’s a really, really, really close-knit city in terms of the industry. So if you meet someone in Future’s camp, that same person might know someone in T.I.’s camp and then that transitions elsewhere. You can kind of run into a lot of people pretty fast if you get your foot in the door a little bit. I think that definitely played an early part in me just establishing a name in the city, or those initial relationships.
Another major part is just my personality. I’m a very quiet guy, I don’t stand out. I don’t come across as threatening or annoying to a lot of artists. I know to stay professional in private settings. I know if I’m at Young Thug’s crib, it’s probably not the best time to be SnapChatting and telling the world where I’m at. If I’m in the studio with Future, I’m not gonna be on the SnapChat or the Gram trying to take pictures with them. There’s certain things that some people might get tripped up on, thinking the music industry is all fun and games, and they miss out. I’ve been put around a lot of people and I’ve been able to produce work while standing out of their way.
I know if I’m at Young Thug’s crib, it’s probably not the best time to be SnapChatting and telling the world where I’m at.
That was my initial brand as a photographer, because I’d capture a lot of these candid moments. I was never the photographer to disrupt the vibe of what’s going on. All of my pictures of Gucci Mane, to be quite frank, he doesn’t know I took any of those pictures. Or he didn’t know until he saw them. It wasn’t like, “Hey, Gucci! Look this way!” I never developed that style. A lot of that comes from my personality. I kind of allow you to be who you are, do what you do, and still get quality photos without having to disrupt. It puts the artists at ease and keeps them in a more personal mode, versus showing them in a mode where they’re like, “Oh I’m on camera right now, let me turn up, let me be extra, let me do this.”
I’ve also earned a reputation for my marketing sense. I have a degree in marketing from Morehouse. That allowed me to find ways to distribute my work on a larger scale than a lot of other photographers. More artists wanted me to be around them because they knew like, “Alright, if Cam takes this picture, not just a few people are going to see it. He knows how to distribute it. He can send it to the blogs.” All of that translates to a bigger deal than a regular situation. All of those factors together allowed me to get the kind of access I have in Atlanta.
You’re really embedded in the Atlanta scene. Do you have plans to expand your territory?
I like the idea of me being rooted in Atlanta. I use my resources to kind of get that out. To be quite frank, in Atlanta, we don’t have the media outlets here. We don’t have the same opportunities for exposure. We make great music and a lot of stuff is coming out of Atlanta, don’t get it twisted, but when I was coming up in the scene? In like 2013, late 2012 when I first started shooting, there would be times where I’d go to a concert and I’d be the only photographer in the whole venue. I’d be in the press pit by myself.
It was a shock to me. And I noticed the difference when I started traveling more and I’d go to concerts in New York. It’d be ten other photographers with 5D cameras and they’re shooting for this magazine and that magazine. It was kinda like, “Wow, why don’t we have anything like that Atlanta?” Why don’t we have people down there documenting a lot of what we’re doing? A lot of what goes on in Atlanta goes undocumented. I’ve been in a studio session one time where it was Future, Meek Mill, Waka Flocka, Metro Boomin. If this moment happened in New York, it would have been a big deal. Everyone would have known about it. But moments like that happen in Atlanta every day. I’ve been in studios with megastars in the same room every day and no one knows about it.
That was one of the voids I wanted to fill. It’s still kind of necessary for me to keep doing that. I do plan on expanding, and taking my exhibits more so on the road and building a brand that lives outside of Atlanta. But I still feel like I have a lot left to do in Atlanta before I feel like I can attack a new city.
A lot of what goes on in Atlanta goes undocumented. I’ve been in a studio session one time where it was Future, Meek Mill, Waka Flocka, Metro Boomin. If this moment happened in New York, it would have been a big deal.
What work are you most proud of?
I think the best thing I’ve done so far would for sure have to be my last exhibit, the Trap God exhibit. That exhibit was actually ten times bigger than what I even initially planned. That was really my first time stepping out on my own and doing something that depended 100 percent on my personal resources, my personal brand. It didn’t have any celebrities hosting it. I mean obviously I couldn’t even use Gucci Mane because he was in jail.
I made it a point that time to not use the help of my friends. I didn’t have any of my close friends like Metro Boomin or Young Thug or Sunny Digital or any of these guys tweet it out for me. I kept it strictly off of what I could do. I took my first trip to New York for a press run, just to see what offices up north even know me or would allow me to come and talk and do an interview. That was the first time I really made a splash.
Did you ever talk to Gucci about that or get any feedback?
We talked briefly about it, he’s been sent letters talking about how dope it was. We’ve talked about doing some future stuff, like when he gets out. I haven’t been able to have a long one-on-one about it, but one of his managers came to the exhibit and she was blown away by it, super happy about it. It was definitely a good response from his camp.
Tell me about this project you’re working on now.
The next exhibit I’m doing is kind of continuing on my theme or brand, and that’s my mission to kind of change the way hip-hop is viewed. I wanted to help push it to where it could be respected as the art form that it truly is. Especially through my work as a photographer, I want to find ways to creatively display my work and do things that haven’t been done. I want to push the lines to the extreme when it comes to art. I want to make people look at hip-hop differently.
So following up the Trap God exhibit, I wanted to do another exhibit that would be just as jaw-dropping. So I came up with the idea of doing my next exhibit on billboards in Atlanta. The Atlanta skyline. I’m calling the exhibit Day Four, a play on when God created the stars in the sky. In a sense, what I’ll be doing over the next couple of months is putting artists who I really think are stars into the Atlanta skylines.
I’m trying to create the perfect image that represents their brand and what they mean to me and to a lot of their fans. Really bringing it right to the streets for the people in Atlanta. It’s continuing on a mission that a photographer Chi Modu kind of created with his Uncategorized exhibit he did in New York. He put a lot of his famous photographs on the sides of buildings, and I thought that was so innovative. Actually being able to put a photo of a rapper on a building or in the sky on a billboard is just something so amazing. Atlanta has a history in the hip-hop scene of being known for famous billboards.
The Welcome to Atlanta billboard that was up for so long, or the BMF billboards that were so famous to Atlanta’s culture. I wanted to keep that going. With the passing of my friend Bankroll Fresh, it’s kind of what sparked the idea, that it was the right time to do this idea now. I wanted to do something special for him, man. I was actually out of town when I heard the news. I was on tour with Rae Sremmurd and Lil Wayne when I heard the news of his passing. I wasn’t in the city to really pay my respects and memorialize him in the way that I wanted to, the way I feel he deserves to be.
I got together with Metro Boomin, Sonny Digital, and Southside of 808 Mafia and kind of just told them the idea. I really wanna put something up in the heart of the city that’s dedicated to him, that shows our respect and pays homage to how he’s touched all of us—the city of Atlanta and its people. And that’s how it started. They helped me pay for the first billboard. It will be up April 19. Everybody can go see it and check it out. Also, April 19 I’ll be starting a Kickstarter that will help pay for the billboard to keep going for as long as the fans determine.
I really wanted this to be a collaborative effort, with not only me and my friends but my and supporters of hip-hop and art alike. So everyone can feel like they played a role. The amount of money we raise over the next 30 days will determine how many billboards we can put up month after month after month of different artists and different people I want to put on display.
I want to push the lines to the extreme when it comes to art. I want to make people look at hip-hop differently.
And there will be other incentives, too?
Things will range from posters to keychains with some of my photographs to larger prints (24×36 inch) of some of my work. Even some of the original framed work that was in the Trap God exhibit as an incentive. The biggest one would be the framed Gucci Mane photo on the altar in the Trap God exhibit, if you’ve seen it in the pictures with me, Thug, and Metro. It’s in the middle of Young Thug and Metro’s “Again” video. It’s a big, gold, gaudy frame. If someone contributes the right amount of money, they’ll be able to have that original in their home. Some other little things, like the ability to shoot with me for a day. There’s incentives for artists who can get a discounted rate for actual shoots with me, or music videos. A lot of different things so people can contribute and receive something.
So you have the Bankroll Fresh billboard, do you know who might be covered next?
I have an idea of who I want to be next but I don’t want to say it too early. I have a concept for everybody I want on it moving forward. I’ve already spoken with them about it and told them my vision, but I don’t want to spoil it. I think it’s going to be really dope. It’ll be summertime, we’ll have a lot of opportunities to create some amazing images. These images will only be on the billboard, and I can’t wait for people to see it.