Cameraman Nairobi Jones is not a fan of the notable people he photographs. His work with stars like, rapper Young Thug, football player Odell Beckham Jr., and artist Wiz Khalifa, however, have made people a fan of the photographer.
At Steelers training camp this summer at Saint Vincent College, Nairobi remembers a boy tapped him on the shoulder and wondered if he was "Seton." Cameraman Nairobi replied yes and the boy asked, "Will you sign this for me?" The fan was among Nairobi's followers of @iamseton, a tag that honors his late father, on Instagram where Cameraman Nairobi showcases his photographs of relevant sports and music figures playing in Pittsburgh, Pa.
Nairobi, a native of McKeesport, catches eyes thanks to particular subjects that appears in his photos, Steelers wide receiver Martavis Bryant and others. Visuals from Bryant's daily life and photographs of the hip-hop talents who perform in the city make Cameraman Nairobi a popular subject.
Currently taking classes at Pittsburgh Filmmakers, Nairobi has been taking pictures since he was 6. He says, "I remember people telling me how good they [his pictures] were for my age." Nairobi says he sees life differently from everybody else and poured his creative abilities into his photography.
At 19 Nairobi is a personal photographer for his clients and travels the country. One night he was impatient with his progress as a photographer and thought about taking a nine-to-five job, something he now says he will never do. That same night Bryant sent him a Direct Message on Instagram and requested Nairobi as his personal photographer. "I give him [Bryant] all the credit. All of this is because of him. He changed my life," Nairobi says.
For a year now Nairobi's camera lens has been trained on Bryant's every move. When Bryant took to Los Angeles to train over the summer for the 2015 NFL season Nairobi traveled with the wide receiver. He captured Bryant workout at Compton High School and mingled with other football stars in the area like Sammy Watkins.
In Pittsburgh Nairobi documents Bryant on the field at Steelers home games, washing his car and even speaking on his behalf to KDKA for a TV-news spot once.
Even more, Nairobi's relationship with Martavis Bryant has become personal. He says, "I don't look at him like Martavis the football player. I look at him like he's my friend. I can talk to him."
Nairobi's photographs remind us that celebrities are regular people with extraordinary talents; his images make them more down-to-earth.
The cameraman does not spend all of his time with Bryant. When Nairobi is on the same stage as rappers Young Thug or, most recently, Shy Glizzy at a Levels Agency event held at the Irish Center in late October, Nairobi has to contain himself. He notes, "We know who they are and we know what they do. Celebrities have a million people a day come up to them and say, 'Yo! You're such and such, you did this, that and the other!' It makes you stand out more when you can sit there and chill."
Levels Agency CEO, 21-year-old Elijah Hill from Wilkinsburg says, "He is a very humble guy and he is excited about perfecting his craft," The great moments he captures of the culturally relevant people in the city of Pittsburgh are highlighted on his portfolio website www.PHOTOSBYNAIROBI.com.
While the cameraman checks being a personal photographer and traveling across the country off his bucket list, Nairobi still dreams of one day working for ESPN and will remain adamant in not being a fan of the notable people he covers. "You have your own path. Make the people want to know who you are," he says.
Interview contributions by Alex Young and Nairobi Jones - photos are original work of Cameraman Nairobi
Nairobi: When I first met Martavis Bryant it was strictly business, but you know as time goes on it gets to a personal level, it’s real personal. He doesn’t tell me every little thing, but he tells me a good amount of stuff and I share a lot of stuff with him. I don’t look at him like Martavis the football player, I look at him like he’s my friend, I can talk to him.
Alex: What sports events other than Martavis Bryant and the Steelers have you shot in Pittsburgh?
Nairobi: I shoot high school football games, specifically McKeesport. I shoot weddings, family portraits, I do normal photoshoots, I do everything, I don't limit myself to just one topic, I spread my craft to other areas.
Alex: In what ways is Pittsburgh culture unique or what does it offer?
Nairobi: I think it offer a lot. It all just depends on how you look at the city and exactly what you do. A lot of people around here if they're not being productive they just find a job and work. A lot of times their job isn't exactly what they want to do so the city gets boring to them because during the week they're working and on weekends they go to the same club, it all just depends on what you do. if you're out doing like me, doing something you want to do, the city is what you make it. Photography wise Pittsburgh offers a lot. There a so many different neighborhoods, you got the Strip District, South Side, not just Carson Street on the South Side, the overlooks on the South Side and the West Side. Then you have suburbs, like Beaver County where there is a lot of woods. Really it depends on what you do and how you view the city.
Alex: What’s your favorite part of the city?
Nairobi: Downtown, because you get so many different types of people. Whenever you go downtown you could run in to people you see everyday and everyday you see people you’ll never see again. I like downtown for all that it offers really.
Alex: Is taking pictures your way to document your life?
Nairobi: Yes, I feel like a camera is a time capsule. I have millions of pictures of people I’ll never see again. I feel like whenever you take pictures of people you don’t know you go back and look at them and it’s like, ‘sheesh I wonder what they are doing now?’
Alex: How do you feel when someone says no they don’t want you to take their picture?
Nairobi: You’re entitled to your own opinion, you can say no. You get the people that are kind of self-conscience about their looks, so I can understand why.
Alex: Do you think as a photographer you have the ability to take their imperfections or insecurities and make them cool?
Nairobi: I do. I feel like whenever you express your true self and take closer looks at your flaws they’re not so much flaws anymore, they’re just something you are insecure about and that’s okay because everybody has insecurities, everybody does.
Alex: Is there anybody in the city right now in terms of photography, music, the culture in general, that you look up to, want to work with or don’t like what they are doing?
Nairobi: Really I am open to work with anybody and I don’t not support anybody, it’s just I don’t like to follow other photographers on social media. It’s not me looking down on their work it’s just me knowing what I can do. I don’t want to see somebody else doing what I know I can do or I have yet to do, because I plan on doing everything. It’s not anything personal it’s just me wanting to come up with my own creative ideas.
Alex: You work premiers a lot on your Instagram and you also have PhotosByNairobi.com. Is Instagram your main platform for showing your work?
Nairobi: It is because everybody gets on Instagram. Everybody gets on Instagram. Everybody might not use it the way I use it but everybody gets on it. That is why I promote myself the way I do, I constantly post, “Book Me!” with my website and contact information, it’s everywhere. Whenever I put my work up it’s showing what I am capable of.
Alex: Whenever you promote yourself on Instagram and Twitter you post a lot. I remember when I wrote the article on your Steelers training camp photos you were sending the link to people like Nicki Minaj, people who aren’t even in this [Pittsburgh] landscape. That shows the confidence you have in yourself and says, “I know I’m the best at what I’m doing so I want everybody to see it.” What would you advise to somebody who doesn’t have that confidence in their work or themselves?
Nairobi: Always be confident in what you are doing because you have to remember why you are doing it. Are you doing this just because or do you want to go far with it? I send out my link, my website and my work to these celebrities because you never know when they open it or what they look at. Do you feel if they were to look at it would they hire you? Would they book you? Or is it a waste of your time sending it to them? You gotta feel like if they open this they are going to call me because they will see something in the work they like. Just always remember why you are doing something, whether its photography, your job, why you’re in school, anything.
Alex: What kind of music do you listen to?
Nairobi: I listen to a lot of hip-hop. I like reggae, I like R&B, and different music inspires me. When I was younger my school bus had a radio on it and my bus driver would only listen to country music. I would listen to the stories and be like… are you serious? This is what you guys were doing? I have my fair share of experiences with country music.
Alex: [laughs] It seems like while you may be indifferent to country you still took something valuable away from those stories the singers were telling.
Nairobi: Mmmhmm. I don’t want my work to resemble everything else on my page. The music inspires me to switch it up because you don’t listen to the same music every day.
Alex: How does it feel when you’re listening to music and that same artist coming through your headphones visits Pittsburgh and you’re standing on stage with him, taking his picture during his live show?
Nairobi: It’s crazy because the artists don’t know their music is on my phone, they don’t know they are on my playlist because I carry myself that way. My main thing is to not come off as a fan, that’s something I take pride in because I have been around a lot of people. I don’t want them thinking, “Oh there’s this kid in front of me with a camera and he’s just here because he’s a fan and he just happened to be a photographer.” That’s not the case at all, man. But, it definitely has a crazy feeling to it, like standing in certain sections of a party with them and then they go on stage and they didn’t even know I was a photographer. Just make sure to never come off as a fan, ever.
Alex: What artists have come to Pittsburgh that you really enjoyed, even if it’s somebody like Wiz Khalifa who is from the area?
Nairobi: I’ve actually never been to a Wiz Khalifa concert.
Alex: Neither have I.
Nairobi: I have been to two Lil Durk shows and a Young Thug concert that I took pictures at.
Alex: Would you say that Pittsburgh’s hip-hop community could be more welcoming to the contemporary artists? I find people like Travis $cott and Vince Staples do not frequent Pittsburgh often for one reason or another. Do you think that has an effect on the quality of music that comes from Pittsburgh?
Nairobi: Not at all, everybody in Pittsburgh thinks they are a rapper now. I don’t think it is the music that keeps them away; I think it is the promoters that keep them away. You have to be big enough to come to Pittsburgh. You’re not going to be an underground artist and come to Pittsburgh. If you’re an underground artist and somebody hits you from Los Angeles you’re going to LA because it’s a bigger stage. I feel like certain artists only come when they are big. The venues here aren’t as nice, like New York has a whole bunch of halls and centers, but Pittsburgh has Mr. Smalls, the Console Energy Center or Stage AE. If you’re not a drill artist or a hardcore hip-hop artist you’re not going to Stage AE or the Console, you’re going to the bars, the local clubs to perform, then another club and an after party. If you’re recruited to come here the promotion has to be done the right way.
Alex: So, if we are going to make a plug here, Shy Glizzy is coming to Pittsburgh Friday or Saturday?
Nairobi: He’ll be here Friday [Oct. 30] through Levels Agency.
Alex: How has your work been with Levels?
Nairobi: It has been great, all business. Twins, Elisha Hill and Elijah Hill, along with Wayne started Levels. I have known them since ninth grade when they were playing basketball for Wilkinsburg. I forget what the first conversation consisted of, but we followed each other on social media and I would see them around town, but once I got my camera and they started throwing parties that is how our relationship started. I appreciate them for sticking with me whenever my work wasn’t as solid. The first party I did for them was called the All Black Affair and it was the first time Lil Durk came. Ever since then it has been all business, it's a friendship too, but we are in it for the business.
Alex: You’re only 19-years-old and you said at times you have to pinch yourself. You are a personal photographer for somebody with notoriety and you have travelled the country, what is next? What do you see yourself doing in the next month?
Nairobi: The next month? Hmmm, I’m not sure yet, but I want to do another photo movie and I have a project that uses receipts. But, I do find myself pinching myself. I have to remind myself that I’m only 19 because whenever I was 17 and 18 I wanted to take pictures, travel, and do a lot of different things. I’m still in school, I’m about to graduate, I still haven’t figured out my camera all the way yet and I have a lot to learn myself. Everything that happened early this year with Martavis, travelling to Los Angeles and meeting people I looked up to this time last year or even chilling with people I watched play college ball, like, “Damn! He’s hard, that’s my man,” is because of Martavis. I give him all the credit. All of this is because of him he changed my life.
Alex: You’re working with people you admired, when you get in that moment its like, “Oh shit, you’re in front of my face, instead of on the TV.” How do you compose yourself professionally but also recognize them as real people, real people who just play football or happen to be a rapper? How do you compose yourself in that moment to network and just be friendly?
Nairobi: Make sure you never come across as a fan, that’s something I pride myself on. I know where I want to get, so the reason I network the way I do is because you never know who is willing to give you an opportunity. Like Martavis did for me, I never thought in a million years he’d ask me to come to LA and do these things for him. Whenever these people are in front of me I make sure to contain myself. We know who they are and we know what they do. Celebrities have a million people a day come up to them and say, “Yo! You’re such and such, you did this, that and the other!” It makes you standout more when you can sit there and chill. You don’t need to be in this man’s face, you have your own path, make the people want to know who you are.
Alex: When we talked earlier you said, “No handouts.” Can you elaborate?
Nairobi: I don’t appreciate handouts. I appreciate people doing things for me, but I don’t like people feeling like I need them. I don’t like whenever people say, “You only got this because of this or you got here because of this.” No, God is real; God is so real. I prayed on a lot of things to happen and I still can’t believe they actually happened.
Alex: You have tackled work in studios, done music videos, done personal photography and journalistic photography, and done photo-shoots. What is your dream assignment?
Nairobi: My dream assignment?... I've lived my dream. Going out to LA, being a notable person's photographer? That is really what I wanted to do, but now that I have done it I can't stop dreaming. In the future I would like to work for ESPN. I love football and I love sports as a whole. The atmosphere sports provide is good for me.