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Kareem Black: My Photographic Journey After Leaving SVA

Text by Kareem Black, Copyright 2024

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Photography by Tony Ward, Copyright 2024

BTS Video: Al B For, Copyright 2024

Creative Director: KVaughn

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My Photographic Journey After Leaving SVA

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For college I went to the School of Visual Arts in NYC. It seemed a logical progression for me after graduating from the High School of Creative and Performing Arts in Philly 1999. SVA gave me a scholarship which was important because I hardly come from money. For most of my time at SVA ALL I wanted to do was be a fashion and art photographer. The fashion and art guys were always the most revered and famous of them all. The fashion photographers are the ones that shoot the billboards in Times Square!!! To have a billboard in Times Square was to have a piece in the biggest most famous gallery in the world.!!! All the art guys have famous books and shows at all the swanky galleries! To live that life would be to live the dream. “Clearly this is the peak of what all photographers strive for.. right?”.. These were the thoughts of my college kid brain.

Before I graduated SVA in 1999 I was photographing ads sporadically for a skate shop that I was sponsored for (as a skater). The model in those ads was the girlfriend of the owner of the skate shop wearing the merch from the shop. These ads ran in PAPER and a few other magazines. This was my very first published work. I was on my way to becoming a fashion and art photographer! All was going according to plan! The skate shops owner’s girlfriend (the model from the ads) knew the photo editor at WARP, a Japanese magazine. WARP Japan would occasionally call me to shoot parties and DJs in NYC.  Occasionally I would get a Japanese check for a few hundred dollars in the mail. This was my first paid work! People at WARP knew a few people at TRACE (a music magazine).  TRACE had a sister mag out of the UK called TRUE  (a music and fashion magazine). People at TRACE , TRUE and WARP knew people at Cornerstone records and Cornerstone was making a magazine called the FADER.  My name was in circulation at all these places… through pure word of mouth. I ended up shooting about 75% of the First issue of the FADER and that is the true beginning of my journey. 

I was shooting lots of music and some celebrities. I didn’t even notice that I was hardly shooting fashion or testing models like I had dreamed of in college. I remember thinking about that and finally realizing that I knew NOTHING about fashion and had no passion for it. I had little interest in the pettey pretentiousness of the fashion and art scene. I loved music and seeing my work in print. I loved shooting with and meeting and working with interesting people. I loved the energy of being a commercial photographer and always waking up to a new challenge.  The passion for my niche found me.. not the other way around.

Before I knew it I was shooting for magazines like the SOURCE, SPIN, VIBE and SOMA . It was now the year 2000 / 2001. It was the Dot Com boom and appropriately I was shooting for lots of upstart dot coms who had lots of money and little regard for how they hired. I was very lucky. After the dot com crash most of the people I knew ended up in the magazine and ad world and naturally they hired me when they found new jobs. 

New York is such a uniquely interesting place. NOTHING compares to its energy and the opportunities that present themselves simply by being in NYC in the proximity of other creatives. Half of being successful is showing up right?

For the next few years I made a living in the magazine and music world Shooting CD covers for all the record labels. In this time, I also began shooting big advertising assignments  through agencies like BBDO and McCann. My first big ad campaigns were for companies VERIZON and AT&T. I also shot ads for streetwear / skateboard companies like L-R-G . L-R-G  who was the FIRST company to run a photo of mine in Times Square. I was 25. Today I’ve had over 2 dozen billboards in Times Square and every time feels like the first time. 

By 2007/2008 I had signed with Bernstien and Andruilli, a big New York agent. I was very happy with myself and partied a lot. Life seemed amazing and I was making the most money I ever had. I spent my time doing all the stuff 30 year old single photographers in NYC do all the time with camera in tow. I documented that lifestyle of ragers and hangovers and drinks and drugs.  When I showed Bernstien and Andruilli the work that I made on my nights out with my downtown crew they encouraged me to actually show it to clients. This body of work became named FEELSGOODLETSGO . To my shock many clients responded to the energy and imperfection of the metty flash on camera style of the work. I began shooting liquor campaigns for clients like Smirnoff and campaigns for big hotel / casinos like MGM Grand and Caesars. I also began shooting a LOT for MTV and the Viacom properties.

Life was grand.

In the years following the great recession budgets dropped and money was harder to come by and my lifestyle was pretty excessive. It was during this time I had to reevaluate what I wanted and needed. I say that the great recession saved my life because I had to stop doing a bunch of drugs and spending money on shit I didn’t need. Simply because I couldn’t afford them! It was a refocusing that I needed when I didn’t even know it.

Today, I shoot a lot of celebrity portraiture and the more loose stuff in the FEELSGOODLETSGO style. In my spare time I have a few personal projects that I’m working on including; documenting the Indy wrestling circuit in NYC. These days I’m also interested in shooting more in the political space – portraits of politicians, political rallies etc. I am very politically active and aware and i really want to do my part in this extraordinarily important election year. 

The state of the world is changing at a geometric rate and today I think it’s essential to stay up to date on emerging technologies and techniques. I spend a lot of my free time trying to study and learn programs and become at least semi proficient. After the pandemic and with the specter of AI looming,  the industry still seems to be somewhat in flux. I believe it is part of our jobs as professional photographers to be aware of the shifting landscape so we can be effective in the field. Photo and video are fusing in a lot of ways (certainly clients seem to believe this).. so its incumbent on us to keep up.

Today there are certainly some new problems to solve. Fortunately for us, Photographers are problem solvers.

In the end, I’m just some kid from Germantown who has been able to travel the world based on the fact I like to take pictures.. I’m the luckiest guy you’ve ever met and you’ll never hear me complain about what I do. 

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About The Author: Kareem Black is a New York City based professional photographer, specializing in celebrity and lifestyle portraiture. This is his first contribution to Tony Ward Studio. To learn more about Kareem’s photography, link here: https://www.kareemblack.com

 

Kitchie Ohh: Rebuilding My Self-Esteem

Glamour model Kitchie Ohh in a bath tub wearing lingerie
Kitchie Ohh. Photo: Regina Marie Photography, Copyright 2024

Text by Kitchie Ohh,  Copyright 2024

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Rebuilding My Selfesteem

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As I sat down to write this I began as I always do, reflecting on how I even got to write this column. . It all started with a picture. Several pictures really. 

 A vanity project turned hobby, pinup photo shoots, began as something just for me. Dressing up, having full hair and makeup, pretending for a few hours while someone captures those moments. What’s not to love? Those sessions were a large part of rebuilding my self-esteem. They helped me find myself and my voice. This was especially true when I began having photosets published in magazines. I never did it for the attention. Contrary to popular belief there is NO money in it. It was validation. I was good enough to be included and felt good enough to even try. 

Exploring this interest over the last decade or so also introduced me to some incredibly interesting and talented people. Photographers, makeup and hair artists, clothing and accessory designers, musicians, performers, and of course other models. For all the similarities that made our paths cross in the first place, there were countless differences that made us unique. 

Initially, I felt incredibly welcomed into this community of retro-loving people. There were invitations to events, public and private, all the time. There were social groups that used common interests to benefit charitable causes. My professional fundraiser heart was so happy, I dove in headfirst. My skills and professional experience allowed me to lean in where I could be helpful with fundraising, social media, organization, volunteer management, anything and everything. It felt great. Until it didn’t.

Despite all outward claims of being welcoming and celebrating diversity in the scene, there was so much judgment, so many cliques, and far too much backstabbing where there should have been support. I speak in past tense due to removing myself from this social scene, but I cannot imagine much has changed since.

I found that, more often than not, inclusion came with a price. IF your uniqueness made you useful to someone or a group, you were included. If not, some other reason would be conjured as to why you weren’t included or invited. I also discovered that as much as you might hear words of encouragement to be yourself and not make comparisons, that wasn’t the standard practice. There was constant comparing and contrasting, not so quiet and not at all kind judgment of why one person’s appearance wasn’t as good as another’s, how their expression of themselves was inappropriate or not authentic. Be yourself, but in the way WE say is correct, or risk the potentially damaging repercussions. It’s not a competition, but I am way better than you. It was never said aloud, but generally understood, and felt.

In fact, one of the biggest things I grew to dislike about this part of my social history, was a blatant disregard of the ideas that “this isn’t a competition,” and “there’s no judgment here.” Yes, The Pinup Contest. I have been a contestant, judge and organizer in a few. I took home a crown once; it was a very strange feeling. 

I soon realized why. In an environment where you’re told everyone is welcomed and there’s no judgement or comparison, one of the biggest entertainment outlets is to literally make a contest out of comparing people to one another and awarding prizes to the best. There were always nerves and self-conscious comments expressed by contestants, myself and my friends included. Inevitably, those feelings and comments got reinforced if/when someone else was deemed the winner. There was also the all-too-common occurrence that the winner was not genuinely congratulated. Instead there were whispered accusations about how or why they won and other nasty things said that made those who didn’t win feel better about the loss.  In which case, there really was not a winner.  

Looking back, there was absolutely nothing award-winning about my responses or appearance on the day I won that contest. I was simply familiar to the organizer. I had never entered any previous contest with them but by simply having attended other events, I was the best choice. It wasn’t exactly fair. Having made that realization, I never entered another contest and was extra careful to check my biases when judging the few I was involved with after. 

It’s been several years since I’ve even considered myself a member of this community. Sure, there are individuals with whom I maintain friendships, but I no longer seek out events and contests with the crowd at large that pit women against one another. No disrespect to those who still put on the shows, attend and participate in the contests; they are just no longer for me. I’m a much happier person when I’m more concerned with showing up as the best version of myself and less so with actively trying to prove I’m better than anyone else. Because I’m not. 

I ended up right back where it all began; doing things just for me. Blog contributions help me get thoughts out of my head, and maybe put an idea in someone else’s that changes their perspective; or at the very least allows them to kill a few minutes. I haven’t taken new photos in quite some time, but maybe I need to…just for me. 

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Kitchie Ohh is a full-time professional fundraiser who has worked with a number of health and human services nonprofits in the Philadelphia area over the last 20 years. She found her passion for modeling after a pinup-style photoshoot in 2013. Since then, she has worked with many talented photographers, stylists, hair and makeup artists in a variety of styles. She has been featured in- and on the covers of – multiple print and digital publications. Over the years, she has branched out from pinup studio modeling to serve as a figure model for live sketching, walked a runway, and was part of two campaigns for Philadelphia designer K. Vaughn.

In addition to her philanthropy-focused career, she has volunteered with art, historical, and community organizations, and even the events team of a local brewery for a while, pre-pandemic.

You’re just as likely to find her whipping up something deliciously plant-based in her kitchen or knitting a sweater as you are to find her on a photography set. Her motto is “be both.” The model and the homemaker, sultry and sweet, serious and silly. All the things, all at once. To access additional articles by Kitchie Ohh, link here: https://tonyward.com/kitchie-ohh-place-my-job-is-to-help/

Nefertari Williams: Students Protest and The Truth

Text by Nefertari Williams, Copyright 2024

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Student Protests and The Truth

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Truth seems to be beyond reach as of late. Even definitions of words can be left to interpretation. The questions that young people longed to have answered as they eagerly leave high school during this graduation season and enter the colleges of their choices seem to have turned back the hands of time to over fifty years ago. Is history repeating itself as college students lock arms to protest issues that our parents thought were resolved issues back in the 1960’s? 
 
Regardless of  how I feel about the current geopolitical conversations that the news stations are discussing daily, I would never be as bold and brave as the college students that are protesting today. Some of these students stand firm in their beliefs and risk being expelled for what some argue are their constitutional rights – the freedom to peacefully assemble.
 
It is very scary how the narrative of what some of the students are saying have been twisted by some of the news agencies. A student will make a very clear statement and the news personality will clearly spin their words to whichever narrative fits the political angle that particular news outlet generally covers. This isn’t the way those of us raised in the 80’s experienced “news”. When a reporter told a story, for the most part, we were told and unbiased version of the facts and allowed to form our own opinions as to right or wrong. 
 
These days watching our young impressionable students peacefully protesting with locked arms chanting how they feel about a situation that is happening in our world; Their words can be clear, their signs can have words that are easy to read yet somehow their message is being sent out into the world differently than how they are intended. We the television watchers are being told that what we are seeing is not what is actually happening. Trust is no longer truth. 
 
As a mentor to our youth I must admit I feel helpless in these situations. Some topics are not to be discussed in this country. The tragic topic that they’ve bravely chosen to tackle at such a young age could cause some of “adults” to loose employment, contracts, professional relationships and more should we chose to speak on the subject. 
 
As sad as it may be the best some of us older people can do is to tell our college students to remain silent. I feel cowardly not speaking out but until black is black and white is white, most of us can’t risk losing everything, being ridiculed like we were during the BLM protests. Although most humans would agree that leaning on a man’s neck until he can’t breath is wrong, a large portion in this country found a way to turn it around to imply that some lives have more value than others and the rest of us have been paying for our decisions to speak on every since. 
 
We don’t want our children to be branded, labeled and mistreated just because they have an opinion about humanity that some may disagree with.
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About The Author:  Nefertari Williams is a jewelry maker, activist for women with heart disease and the mother of five beautiful children.  She lives in Willingboro, New Jersey.  To access additional articles by Nefertari Williams link here: https://tonyward.com/nefertari-williams-facts-are-facts/

Tracey Olkus: The Latest Vixen

 

Text by Tracey Olkus, Copyright 2024

Photography and Set Design: Tony Ward, Copyright 2024

Styling and Creative Direction: KVaughn

Lighting Assistant: Anthony Colagreco

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THE LATEST VIXEN

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I have had the honor of working with Tony Ward only a few times over the last couple decades-most recently with Ellen Tiberino for The Vixen Series. So when Tony asked if I would be a part of this project, I thought he meant behind the scenes doing hair and makeup.  I was shocked when I realized that he wanted to photograph ME.  I’m never in front of the camera. I don’t even take selfies.
 
I love creating Vixens and encouraging Vixens,  but I had never thought of myself as a Vixen. I think of a Vixen as a woman who breaks from tradition, supersedes expectations and takes control of her destiny. She exudes confidence and sexuality.  She IS fire!  Well, part of that is definitely me.  I have been an entrepreneur most of my life. I have never had the patience to wait around for things to happen.  I have been told that I’m outspoken. And I only know how to do things in my own weird ways. I’m a sexual being through and through but I have never considered myself to be sexy.  When I told Tony this, he assured me that I was in good hands. And THAT I believed. I stepped out of my comfort zone and let him take the lead.  And it was a wild ride!
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Portrait of hair stylist Tracey Olkus wearing black sheer dress on night out in Paris
Tracey Olkus. The Vixens Series. Photo: Tony Ward, Copyright 2024

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR: 

For almost two decades, Tracey Olkus  has been transforming faces and elevating styles from her private studio in Philadelphia. Specializing in everything from everyday glam to commercial shoots to TV and film. 

 
Tracey’s artistic interests extend beyond the chair. With a passion for costuming, she crafts bespoke headdress designs available through commissioned works.  
 
As the curator of The Performance Salon, Tracey provides a platform for emerging and established artists to showcase their talents in an intimate setting. From musicians, to thespians, writers to chefs, The Performance Salon has become a hub for artistic expression with performances that leave audiences mesmerized.
 
But Tracey’s interests go beyond her professional pursuits . A dedicated patron of the arts and the finer things in life, she enjoys hosting extravagant dinner parties and whimsical camping trips…often simultaneously.
 
When it is time to escape, Tracey can be found exploring the world, talking to strangers, and collecting stories from every corner of the globe. And along the way, she is most happy to have has amassed an eclectic collection of friends that share her passion for the extraordinary.

Kitchie Ohh: My Job is To Help

Kitchie Ohh photographed for Tony Ward's Vixen's series wearing KVaughn ALUMINUM WRAP DRESS
Kitchie Ohh. The Vixens Series. Photo: Tony Ward, Copyright 2024

Text by Kitchie Ohh, Copyright 2024

Photography by Tony Ward, Copyright 2024

Styling by KVaughn for The Vixens Series

If you’ve had any number of jobs in your life, they probably weren’t all great. Maybe the job wasn’t satisfying, didn’t pay well, had terrible coworkers, or an even worse boss. It happens. More often than not, people take a job out of necessity. They work multiple jobs to make ends meet. They put up with a LOT of unnecessary stress and dysfunction just to afford to live. I know all of this all too well. 

I’ve been working in the nonprofit space for all but one year of my career. I’m mission driven. Working for a cause helps make all of the office drama, the headaches and stress worth it. Until even that can’t balance the scales. I firmly believe people don’t leave jobs, they leave situations and people. 

I began my previous job, as a food bank fundraiser, in the Autumn of 2019. It seemed so perfectly suited for me. I was really feeling like I found my place. I had just a few months in when the world shut down for the pandemic. As an essential service, we remained open, figuring out daily how we would operate amid ever-changing precautions. If that wasn’t stressful enough, we soon experienced a huge shift in leadership. Suddenly the amazing team we had built came crumbling down. New faces, new rules, resignations, terminations, a general sense of unease and mistrust. My perfect role was turning into a nightmare. I no longer had a designated space to work in the office, it was assigned to someone else, but I was still required to be there several days a week, finding whatever space was available. Soon, I was accused of not meeting the expectations of the job. Those expectations turned out to not even officially be related to my role with the organization. Yet, I was being reprimanded for failing to perform and told to start making them my responsibility if I wanted to remain on the payroll.  I began the job search that day. It wasn’t easy. 

In the midst of the job related stress, I had an emergency home repair that came with a giant price tag and also forced me out of my home with just a few hours notice. I had to pack myself up to live at the closest dog-friendly hotel for an as yet undetermined amount of time. Living and working from a standard room at the Red Roof Inn with a giant, nervous about everything dog was not a good time. It was even less of a good time being told unsympathetically, that regardless of what was happening, I still needed to be present at work. 

In a shocking case of the Universe can be a real bitch sometimes, in between all of that, I lost my aunt quite suddenly. I did get to tell her goodbye, but it wasn’t enough time and it certainly wasn’t fair.  As I sat with her, she rubbed my back and told me how proud she was of me for choosing the line of work I did. For making it my job to help people. It seemed a strange turn of phrase when she followed that up with, “you know what you have to do, you do, you can. Keep fighting. I love you.”  Shortly after she passed, I had a very vivid dream about her. I was also having a rougher than usual day at work despite it being a “from home” day, and was talking to my sister to vent my frustration. Mentioning my dream, I was met with an “OMG ME TOO!!”  We took a few minutes to laugh about it, recalling funny things about her and her way of being the unofficial boss of the family, while pondering what she was trying to say. I was feeling a little lighter so I dove back into work. 

As I took my lunch break, I was hopefully checking my email to see if any of the job applications I completed had gotten responses. Instead, I found a notification about a position I might be interested in. I clicked. I read. It sounded perfect. And coincidentally  the cause had a direct connection to my lovely, bossy, missed dearly aunt. The aunt I dreamed of, the one whose last words to me were cryptic then, but made total sense now. Shaking I relayed all of this to my sister. Who told me if I didn’t apply right fucking now, I was insane. 

Over the next few weeks, I had a series of emails, phone calls, and in-person interviews. Every single one felt right. It went so fast. I was terrified, but I accepted an offer and tendered my resignation on the same day. Two weeks and three days later, I was sitting in my own office. Not a shared workspace that I could use only if no one else was. My name was on the door, still is. 

I have grown so much in the last two-ish years touched on in all of the above, personally and professionally. I now know what that fighting and knowing what I had to do statement was all about. I have shown not only my new colleagues, but myself, what I’m capable of; that I DO actually know what I’m doing. I’ve fought for what is right and best practice to achieve the organizational goals. I’ve gained responsibility for many things, including the oversight of a whole team, and more coming. I’m co-leading a project that has been a long time coming and will be transformative.  And most importantly, I feel heard, respected and trusted. 

Just this week, my first annual review was filed. In my over two decades of work, I have gone through this process more times than I wanted to. This was the first time I was left speechless. I am honestly still processing some of the things that were said. Not because they were terrible, but because they were so positive and appreciative I didn’t know how to respond. Thanks? You’re welcome? SHUT UP!!! All of those and more ran through my head, and probably were said. It was more than the number crunch of ratings for ‘core values’ and accomplishments for the year. It was the way that someone – my boss – took the time to run through all of it but also relay to me that everything I have done since joining the team has pushed us in the right direction. That the way I am able to take every single thing that’s been thrown at me and somehow make it happen, is astounding. The way that if my name is brought up in a room where I am not present, only good things are said. The ability I have to remain calm while navigating outdated processes and simultaneously improving them is a superpower; and helped us exceed goals. 

Everything has lead up to this moment. I am who I am because of every day before this one, everyone I’ve encountered and every lesson learned. I don’t know how the future is going to play out, but I’ll keep fighting for what I know has to be done, because I can. I got this, thanks Aunt Bet.