How Photographer Mark Clennon Went From Using An iPhone To Shooting for Brands Like Netflix and Foot Locker
Mark Clennon, otherwise known as Mark C. is a photographer living in NYC and shooting for brands like Nike/Jordan, ADWEEK, Netflix, and more. I had the opportunity to speak to Mark about his idea of success, how he got started with photography, and what keeps him going. After having achieved many goals, Mark C. continues to think ten steps ahead for what is next, and how he can go bigger. This is Mark C. —
Milena: Can you describe yourself in one sentence?
Mark C. : Um…I…a ‘Black American Man’ (laughs)
Milena: Does that stand for anything other than what it is?
Mark C.: Well yeah, I just think like.. when I think of America as a concept there’s always a white face and a certain aspiration that does not include people that look like me or people that look like us. So kind of in a way, trying to redefine that to let people know, there’s so much more to America than what America tells us. I think it’s important for us to reclaim the American flag. Because honestly when I see like five American flags in one place, I think of racism.. and that’s so backward. That’s what I’ve been on lately.
Milena: When was the first time you picked up a camera?
Mark C.: The first time was my iPhone…
Milena: Do you remember which iPhone it was?
Mark C.: Well I’ve had the iPhone since the iPhone 3GS but when I really started taking pictures…when Instagram came out, so maybe 2013? 2013 is when I started trying to take photos…2012-2013. I was doing that for years and then I got one of those starter cameras, the DSLR Rebel Canon and I got that camera in 2014 or 2015 — and I only used that like one or two times. I put that on my desk and it sat there for a couple of years before I picked it back up again. But, I learned the basics of photography and composition with the iPhone.
Milena: So are you self taught, or is there a mentor or somebody that was there to teach you about photography?
Mark C.: I’m self-taught, everything I’ve learned you know, technical wise, is from YouTube.
Milena: Are there any creative tools that you recommend to creatives that want to do photography?
Mark C.: There are a lot of different resources, so I’d say when you go to camera stores, especially in NYC (that’s the beauty of living here) they have free classes and seminars to take that are like an hour. They do demos and show products and teach you — it’s also a learning opportunity that you can do for free. I used to go to the camera store and they teach you the basics of lighting and photography. It kind of helps, but it also shifted my perspective on things. I think the number one thing that helped me learn was going out and taking the photos so that way I knew to ask better questions. It helped me to type in better YouTube searches because when I first started photography I didn’t know what to search on YouTube to make it better. It was only when I encountered a problem, that I had to solve, that I started searching. It all started with just going out and taking photos, and at the end of the day having a list of questions I could type into google and understand.
Milena: What’s your favorite camera to work with now?
Mark C.: Canon EOS 5D Mark III, I bought mine used. It’s an older model, but it works for me. I’m comfortable with it and I know where my settings are. Every great amazing photo was taken with that technology, or lesser up until whenever it came out. I don’t feel a super urge to upgrade my camera. That’s my workhorse, it’s 5 or 6 years old now. I have a different camera for film called Mamiya 645 AF.
Milena: Mark, I see you’ve been traveling a lot living your best life. What’s your favorite city to shoot in?
Mark C.: I love to travel. I feel like it activates my brain differently. Like when your brain is in a new environment, your brain has to think different because everything is new. It’s in absorption mode. Your eyes are wide open because you’ve never been there. Your brain is more receptive for learning and more receptive for introspective because you realize that this is a very large planet that I’m sharing with a lot of people and you kind of feel the insignificance of yourself and your being, and that kind of makes you want to grow that and figure out how you can be a better citizen of the earth.
In terms of favorite places, I don’t know if I have a favorite place. Maybe, I can’t even say right now (laughs).
Milena: (Laughs) Well what’s the last place you’ve been to? Let’s go with that.
Mark C.: Well the last place I’ve been to was actually Joshua Tree, California. I was there a couple of weeks ago and I’m actually going to be there in a couple of weeks again. So this will be the fourth time in twelve months that I’ve been to Joshua Tree. This is something I did not plan. It really has changed my perspective on myself. Because I realized there’s value in being in a place that you can hear as far as you can hear, and see as far as you can see. You can take a big deep breath of fresh air and I take that for granted, living in the city — just having noise all the time. You don’t realize you’re hearing it but then you go out to the desert and don’t see a single human for so many miles because the road disappears and it really gives you a good refresh and reconnection. But my favorite places include Peru, I had similar experiences in the mountains of Peru and Machu Picchu.
Milena: So open spaces and landscapes..
Mark C.: Yeah open spaces, places I can learn about myself and like the city area. When I went to Africa, Nairobi, Athens, and Hong Kong — like the people aspect of it. Hearing the sounds and the culture and learning about them and how they react to each other. You learn about people. There are great reasons for all the places that I’ve visited y’ know?
Milena: Super cool. I’m gonna shift a bit and talk a bit more about your creative journey. I know when we met, you were on a panel to speak about your work and photography, but you had mentioned how you had just quit your job at AOL that day to do photography full time. Tell me about that feeling, what made you decide you were ready to do that? How rewarding has that been?
Mark C.: People always ask me — “How will I know when it’s time for me to quit? What percentage were you?” And I really don’t think I ever got more than 65% sure. I don’t think anybody ever gets more than 65% sure. Anyone I talk to, other entrepreneurs, working on different things, they’re like, “Yeah, 65% seems right.” You know you feel pretty confident, but there’s like a really large gap between certainty. For me, I felt like I wanted to do it. People were telling me that my work was good, and I trusted their opinions… people that knew my work ethic. And it just came down to me taking control of my own life. They were having layoffs at AOL and I was like, “Okay, I’m gonna get laid off and my care package, and sail off into the sunset.” Layoffs came in March, I waited until March — didn’t get laid off in March. Layoffs came in July —- didn’t get laid off. I was in a place where I could either wait another 6 months, 7 months, or a year or just start now.
Since then, it's been an up and down road. I’ve learned that I’m almost like an unrealistically positive person. Almost to a detriment. Like, I’m not a person that worries. I’ve never been a worrier. I have a short term memory for bad things, I have to work to remember them. So I always tend to push the bad things out. I had a few. I quit in October, by January —February rolls around and I had spent a good amount of the money I had saved up. To the point where I was like “This is not gonna sustain me much longer.”
Milena: Were you doing photography at AOL still?
Mark C.: Yeah I was. But I was only ever charging people to buy new gear. It was different from my rent, it was just to upgrade my stuff. If I got a gig and didn’t want to do it, I wouldn’t take it. I didn’t need the money to live because I was living without it. That kind of changed…
But you know, there were times when I was like I don’t know if I’m going to survive or if I’ll be able to catch up to the people I admire. Tyler Mitchell is like 24. I’m competing against people that have been shooting for 20 years and are only 20. There’s a lot of doubt and mistakes made by selling myself short. General anxieties that had to humble me a couple of times in terms of my skillsets — where there were a lot of shoots I was doing and didn’t want to do and it was not as fun. I had to think about maintaining that fun and maintaining my integrity as an artist, specifically shooting black people. I was having doubts about if I should stick with that or diversify my portfolio. I didn’t want to go back to corporate. It was hard to generate the revenue, figuring out what my next move was. I still struggle with that. A lot of the big wins I have are from like 3 or 2 months ago that I shot. Times Square, wonderful, but then I’ll know that in the past 3 weeks I haven’t done much of anything. So it’s like — dealing with those highs and lows.
Milena: What do you think you do to get out of those moments? Do you look at your work, is there something that you read? What helps you get out of that hole when you feel like.. hopeless in a sense?
Mark C.: I mean, you know, a lot of different factors. Like, Nipsey Hustle died. And even today, it’s motivating to hear the things he talked about and apply that to my life. It’s basically people that are kicking their ass every morning, to wake up or get left. But it’s just continuing to utilize my surroundings. Like if I don’t have anything to shoot then let me just get the crew together and if it comes out dope, then I have new motivation. I’m really happy when I can release myself from the concept of motivation. A lot of people say, “I want to do this, but I’m not really motivated or inspired right now,” but that’s kind of bullsh*t because I realize motivation (pauses).. if I’m a craftsman, and my job is to hammer this nail, that’s what you do. If I’m a writer, I write. I don’t complain. Shooters shoot. Doesn’t matter if I feel like it, this is who I’m subscribed to as a person. That motivation and inspiration actually come from action. Inspiration starts with an emotion. I can build motivation by just starting and inspiration will come later. I have to focus on getting that one centimeter better, and I know all the motivation will come from that. That’s the fire that keeps it going.
Milena: I saw that you posted about the Vans campaign, by the way, congrats on that! I saw a lot of comments, about people saying things like, “It’s about time black people are represented wearing Vans too!” Can you tell me about that experience? Shooting for Foot Locker? What was that like — shooting for something that showed in Times Square with black people wearing Vans?
Mark C.: Yeah, so you know — I’m not never a Vans guy. I never wore it because it wasn’t a brand that really resonated with me ever really. I’m a Nike boy or Adidas, but mainly Nike. But Tannis (who you know) has done a lot of work for Foot Locker. We built up a relationship and she trusted me. She called me out of the blue like, “Hey, we’ve got this thing in 6 days and can you produce it?” and I was like, “Sure Sure.” Cause I had produced the last one. But then I got really nervous when I saw the brief because it said SUMMERTIME COACHELLA 😮 and we were in NYC in February. And I looked outside and it was literally snowing. But in terms of having success, it’s really because Tannis put trust in me.
And putting black people, in Vans and shooting with Vans, literally wasn’t ever even a thought in my brain. Because what I make is for me and what I like. I never even put any time into the white gaze, I don’t care or think about it because I never visualized this shoot without black people. I wasn’t trying to work with anybody new — this was a big project! I work with people I’ve already worked with, who just so happen to be black, and creatives I came up with who were just trying everything out like I was. We were rising together, so it made perfect sense. But you know in Times Square, I saw it, and I was like “Holy Crap”…to see something I worked on in Times Square made me feel amazing. But that’s fleeting, as soon as I got back on the subway, I thought, “Okay like… well…what now? What’s next? there’s more work to be done. This is a nice little pitstop but my mission is much larger.”
The most joy I got from it honestly, was paying the homies. The most joy was saying “Yo I just sent you the money.” Especially the models. But I did take a good 10 min. to say “Wow, I thought of this 15 months ago.” For me, it was just like, “Whew, I can keep up with my friends!”
Milena: Well speaking of keeping up… what do you think has been your learning lesson so far?
Mark C.: You can’t take things personally and literally like, “I gotta run my race, I gotta run my spaceship and anyone outside of it does not affect my race or journey.” I don’t have the Instagram app on my phone actually, because I have an unhealthy relationship with it. Because I have to remind myself that I have to stick to my plan and I will get there sooner or later. Some people take the elevator and get the elevator pass, and I know my time will come, but for now, I’m taking the stairs. If a door opens up I’ll take it to floor number 35 and if I have to get off and it slows up again I know that — forward — just a little bit, is better than nothing. The mantra I’ve been saying recently is “I’m not competing with other people, I’m competing with yesterday.” That’s my shit.
Well, anyway, there was a span of two weeks, and in those two weeks, I got to fly to Bali for a gig. Then I got a call from Netflix, to shoot something back in NYC so they flew me back early. I got off the 33-hour flight and did the photoshoot for Netflix. And then 3 days later, did the Culturecon portraits. I got to shoot really amazing, cool people. When I got the call for Culturecon, I almost said no because I had so much going on and studio is not really my main thing. But I’m glad I said yes, and that Imani (CCNYC Founder) and Alex and the CCNYC team trusted me to do that. It was like a fear, but not a fear.. a really big accomplishment that I would not have been prepared for — had I not put in the work prior to it. So I’m really proud of that run. Hopefully, more can come of that.
Milena: How have you built up to get calls from people like that by the way? Relationships or Instagram?
Mark C.: Instagram has something to do with it. But really just like, black women, have really just come through for ya boy. Like, Tannis and Imani of course — I’ve just been getting opportunities and chances. Obviously, I do a lot of work and I work my ass off, but people are literally just coming up and putting faith in me at the right time. That says a lot about the network and I try to be a positive person when I meet people. And I think there’s something about me that makes people feel comfortable to give me those opportunities. A lot of it is timing, but this time, and this city, and this creative class (you included), we’re all kind of just — something is clicking right now. I can see everybody growing at a really fast pace. The homies is lit.
Milena: What advice do you have for creatives in general?
Mark C.: Well if you’re looking to become a photographer, you’ve gotta shoot. If you want to shoot with people, you gotta work with people on your way up. A lot of what I did was reach out to stylists to see if we could put something together that’ll benefit both of us. When I reach out to people I make sure everything is already planned. I come with a really planned out idea to make it happen and grow around that. I work with as many different people as I can to build my network. I’ve worked with a lot of different folks for free. Not free like “shoot this for me” but “let’s work together to build our portfolio.” And if you have a full-time job, it’s an advantage because you know when YOU ARE busy and when YOU’RE NOT. Now I’m responsible for all 24 hours. Use the fact that you have a large chunk of your day accounted for, and work around that.
Milena: Last question, what can we expect from you in the next couple of months and what is something that people don’t know about you?
Mark C.: Well I don’t even know what to expect from me in the next couple of months (laughs). But I want to explore more in the field of photography, I honestly am scared because I don’t want to make any announcements. I want to be the best me. I want to hopefully sell some of my pieces before the end of the year and give people the opportunity to own some of my stuff.
Something people don’t know about me? I’m actually a pretty private person, but — to I’d like to share — that — (pauses) I think about quitting all the time. And that’s perfectly okay, to feel that you want to quit. So if you notice everybody around you feels like they want to quit and they don’t? Just know, you’re not special — continue to push — just like everybody else is.
Milena: I think that’s really inspiring because you’ve spoken about that so much. I think people look up to you a lot more than you probably notice (and you know), so hearing that come from you is inspiring.
Mark C.: Well I’m happy to inspire and you continue to inspire me.
Thanks so much, Mark, for sharing your journey and thoughts! Much love and keep inspiring all of us, you’re amazing at what you do! - Millie.