I Shoot Rockstars: An Interview with Kyle LaMere

Kyle LaMere shoots rock stars. And with the money he raises by doing this, he goes to Ethiopia, where he works at the Awassa Children’s Center. A simple set up, which requires hard work and empathy—increasingly rare traits. We recently sat down with Kyle to learn more about the business of shooting rock stars, and doing good.

ANOBIUM: First, who is Kyle LaMere?

KYLE LaMERE: Someone who really gives a shit.

What are a few things which you give a shit? And why?

When I was 5 yrs old, there was a girl named Wendy that lived on our block. Wendy was mentally challenged and the kids in the neighborhood would constantly tease her. I remember one day the kids were asking her to drop her pants and she listened and started to undress herself. I ran across the yard and yelled at the kids and told Wendy not to listen to them. It’s one of my first memories I will never forget and throughout my life, I’ve always stuck up for people when being teased and never judged anyone. I always wanted people to be treated as human beings, not objects of others insecurities. I care about people reaching their purpose in life and encourage everyone around me to strive to become better, stronger people.

What are ways you are helping other people realize their potential? How do you know when someone has achieved it?

I want to set an example in my personal life to those around me. With volunteering in the community and stretching beyond with my volunteering in Ethiopia, I want to inspire people in their own lives to get involved and help others while growing themselves as better people. I want to show people it’s not impossible to do everything you set out for.

I know when someone achieves it when they stop talking about all the things they want to do with their lives and start taking action. It’s easy to say what you want, it’s another to follow through.

Often in cases of philanthropy, such as yours, there is a religious motivation. Are you motivated by spiritual ideals, or something else?

Great question. I grew up in Rockford, IL and went to a private, 1st assembly, Christian School. I didn’t go the because I come from a religious family. I went cause the public school system was terrible at the time. I learned a lot while I was there. I even at some point in my high school career tried the Christianity thing out. I did so more out of feeling pressured by my peers to convert. It didn’t last long. I was very upset how they ran their religion there. We were all kept in this bubble, trying to save each other and we were looked down upon if we hung out with kids who didn’t go to our school. It was a very “look how much I love Jesus, I’m such a great Christian”-type environment.

With that said, I learned a lot about who I was and developed my own opinion towards organized religion. My approach isn’t so much a fuck you to Christians. I want to show people that you don’t have to have a religious agenda to do good. You can and should help people because it’s what we should be doing as human beings. Why else are we here..to just take what we want in the limited time we have? We’re all connected for a reason and I feel like we do have a certain obligation to give back to others less fortunate. I’m not saying that in order to be a good person, you must give back. Everyone’s lives are different. But, I think people can do just a little bit in their lives to push those around them to be a better person. I have been so fortunate to have an amazing childhood and my focus is on children. Childhood is the most important part of a humans life & I want to reciprocate that to kids less fortunate so they know that someone out there cares about their well being. I just want to live my life knowing that I did everything I could to make the people around me, lives better. Whichever God wants to judge me when I die, he/she can do that but at the end of the day, I can at least say I tried.

How do you know what is good for another person?

I’ve generally had this knack for understanding people & the various situations they come from. I get it. I am never one to judge, everyone has their own lives, personalities & certain quarks that make them who they are. I listen to them, find out what they are good at, their strengths and I encourage them to follow through and the steps they should take in order to achieve it. Whether someone wants to take my advice or not, I don’t care. Ultimately, it’s them who has to make the decision and choices for their own life. I can at least be a cheerleader in their corner & hope for the best. In the end, I want all of my friends to succeed. It inspires me to push harder in my own life.

Can you outline some of your professional and academic background? I’m interested to learn how you eventually got to Ethiopia, so if your narrative goes outside of your profession or schooling, all the better.

When I look at where my life is going, the more my past makes sense to me. I started volunteering when I was in 2nd grade. I read to mentally challenged kids in my elementary school all the way through 6th grade. It was my plan my whole life to be a Special Ed teacher. That was until in 9th grade when I was introduced to Photoshop. It completely changed my life and created an obsession that lead me to where I am today. After that I was dead set on becoming a graphic designer. I studied design all throughout high school and even went to college and got my BA in Visual Communications. After graduation, I got a job as a designer in the city for an online marketing company. I was about 2 years in the design world where I started to have feelings that this is not what I wanted to do. I didn’t want to be working a typical 9-5 and I took the wrong design career path. I took the first job that was offered to me and burned myself out quickly.

I was tired from designing for 8hrs a day & then having to come home only to have more freelance design projects to work on. I wanted to stay creative but do something that didn’t involve being on a computer 24/7. I wanted to meet more people and being locked behind a screen designing, wasn’t helping. To get out of that routine I started taking photos, mostly for myself to help with my own design projects. I started shooting my friends hip-hop groups for fun and everything just snow balled from there. I started to get more of a reaction from my photos rather than my design. I remember when I would go on interviews for different graphic design positions and art directors would tell me I should focus more on my photography than my design. I started to get it & at that point that I was done with graphic design as a profession.

From there on, I cultivated my skills in photography for the next 4 years while still holding down the graphic design job. In 2008 I met Dawn Hancock who owns Firebelly Design, a design firm that believes in Good Design for Good Reason. Dawn quickly became one of my closest friends and mentor. I was attracted to all her philanthropy efforts and how she gives back to the community & I wanted to be a part of that. I started freelancing with Firebelly, taking on any projects that needed photography. I started to see that I could do what I love and give back at the same time. I joined the board of Dawn’s “Reason To Give” charity that helps underprivileged families in Humbolt Park get basic supplies/food & clothing.

In March of 2011, Ethiopia landed in my lap. I ran into an acquaintance of mine, Paul Chadha & he was telling me how he just returned from Ethiopia. Like most everyone, I stopped and said, “What the hell were you doing in Ethiopia?!” Paul began to tell me how he was the president of an orphanage, Awassa Children’s Project in Awassa, Ethiopia for the past 10 years. I mentioned to him that it was a dream project of mine to go to Africa and help out children. Paul told me that they had never had a professional photographer take photos of the kids and tell the story of the orphanage. He told me that if I ever wanted to go, he would help me arrange a trip. I told him that I would make a couple phone calls and see if I could get a sponsor. I made one phone call to Dawn and asked her if she would help me start a fundraiser so I could go to Ethiopia. In true Dawn fashion, she offered right there to sponsor my trip. I called Paul back within 15 minutes and told him I was fully in. 5 days later I was leaving the country for the first time in my life to Ethiopia.

What’d you do the first time in Ethiopia, and how long were you there? What were your initial reactions? Did you have any moments of doubt?

My first trip was a short 12 day trip. My sole purpose was to tell the story of Awassa Children’s Center. I wanted it to be honest. What I saw was nothing like I would have ever expected (thanks Sally Struthers). I saw pure happiness and joy. Through everything that these children have been through, they couldn’t have more happy & loving. So, I wanted to tell a story of positivity. These children have amazing lives because of our donors that I wanted to show what the effects were when you help people out. How much good can come from it and to motivate people to keep donating.

I never had any doubts being there. Paul gave me a great pep talk before I left. He told me to never worry, that things would go wrong. It’s an unpredictable environment. And sure enough Paul was right from the moment I walked off the plane. My ride didn’t show up because they run off a 12hr clock. So, 12:15am meant absolutely nothing to them. So, I’m in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia for the first time, let alone out of the country for the first time and my ride is not there. No phone, no Internet, no understanding of Amharic to speak to anyone. So, I said to myself, “here we go.” Soon after, this man came up to me, about 28yrs old and said to me, “you look lost.” I told him that my ride wasn’t there and all I had was a phone number to the manager of the Children’s Center.

He called Girma up and talked to him for me. He then arranged a pick up location for me in the morning. With no place to stay, the man offered to take me to his home and stay with his wife and son. At this point, I was so disoriented from traveling I agreed. We get in a cab and he takes me to his home. We walked down this dark alley to his one room apartment that his family lived in. They took me in that night, fed me and offered me their couch & in the morning they fetched my van that took me down south to Awassa. After that experience, I quickly learned how hospitable & caring the Ethiopian culture is. Everyone blew me away as to how respectful and kind they are. I immediately felt comfortable while my eyes were popping out of my head everywhere I looked. It was incredible.

I’ve been out of the country a few times (and once to Haiti, under the same sort of circumstances), and it was always a strange feeling returning home. How many times have you been to Ethiopia at this point, and does that ‘strangeness’ of coming home ever go away?

I’m about to embark on my 4th journey back to Ethiopia in mid-August. I’m going to spend time visiting the northern region cities, Lalibela, Gonder & Aksum. Friends would ask me if I had culture shock in Ethiopia and it couldn’t have been more opposite. I loved what I saw in Ethiopia. We’re so distracted with all the shit we have in our lives here, it was nice to get away from that life and be able to take life in a slower pace. I was in so much culture shock when I came home to Chicago. I remember being at a night club and almost having a anxiety attack. I was thinking how fortunate we are to have so much freedom & to do what we want. The fact that we’re able to be out past 9pm blew me away. I stopped sweating the small shit and learned to appreciate the hell out of the fact that I can flip on a light switch and there will power or, I can have hot water and hell, just having fresh water in general was a great feeling to come back to. I’ve gotten a little use to it but every time I come home, everything just feels uncomfortably different for a while. The strangeness I think will always linger, which I think can be a good thing.

Also, now that you’re becoming a ‘regular’ in Ethiopia, what exactly is it that you’re doing there?

There’s a few reasons why I will continue going back. I became the children’s center creative director this year. Committing to that means I signed up for 2 visits a year. There’s a lot of work to be done and I’m fortunate to have the center where I can do any creative projects I choose.

The other main reason is the fact that I now have a relationship with these kids. I know them and they know me. They are a part of my life and I want to see them grow up. I want them to know that no matter how far I live from them, I will always come back to see them.

On top if all that, personally I want to see the entire country and photograph it. Hoping in the next year to do a show and possibly a photo book on my travels throughout Ethiopia. It’s a wonderful balance and escape for me. I have made lots of friends there who are now family to me.

What are some of the things you’ve done—and continue to do—as a creative director at this center? What is the center like?

The first thing I did was establish a visual of the center through photography. Helping the organization use the photos for the website and putting together print materials to raise awareness. We get a lot of inquiries from around the world of people who want to do creative projects at the center. I have to review them and determine if the project will be good for the center & that the quality will be high enough to move the center in the direction we hope to. I also enlist the help of my friends around me to get involved. My good friend Aaron designed the new logo. I also recruit creatives in my community to take trips with me to work on projects. We had a great filmmaker, Tom Clayton come with me in March to shoot an official commercial & do a lot of video work that we will use on our website in the near future. My goal is every March, to bring a new creative with me to volunteer and do something to help the organization. It’s important to me to get my friends involved so they know and understand why I am so passionate about these kids and this project. It’s one thing to see photos/videos, it’s a whole other story to see it with your own eyes and experience it for yourself.

The first time I walked into the center, I gasped. It’s a gorgeous utopia. If I were a kid, I would love to live there. The buildings are so colorful. The landscape is so green and comforting. It’s a great place for a child to grow up.

What do you do while you’re here in the States?

When I’m back in Chicago I run my photo business, IShootRockstars. I take on an array of projects from music, fashion & entertainment portrait work that usually keeps me pretty busy. I freelance for various design firms/agencies doing portrait work. I love how much the work changes. One week i’ll be shooting portraits of lawyers, the next week it will be professional wrestlers. Photography has enabled me to pass through so many different worlds and walks of life, It inspires me to keep pushing forward to see who I will come into contact with next.

Why rock stars? And how did you start to get some bigger names interested?

In 2007, when I was starting to shoot, A lot of my focus was music. From shooting local acts to live shows, it was where I started. I wanted a name that was memorable and made sense to what I was doing. When I came up with the name, it was geared towards music. But, as I got into photography more, the name became just something fun. It’s that whole, “you look like a rockstar” motto & my idea was anyone can be a rockstar. It’s like having a band name or an alter ego. Under the name ISR I can wear any hat I want to. I am not obligated to fit a certain style or form. Any shoot can look completely different from the last shoot I did.

Everyone that I shot I did it through my own hustle & networking. The important thing when it comes to photography & any creative profession, is self awareness. Know how good you are and at the same time, know how not good you are. I never over stepped my boundaries or took on a project that I didn’t think I could handle. I am constantly aware of where I stand skill level wise and what I need to improve on. To get to work with so many amazing people that I’ve admired, I stayed persistent and never shelved my goals. Patience is key in this business. It can be so frustrating at times but, keeping a level head & doing what you can to push your craft, eventually pays off.

Does IShootRockstars have an end goal in mind, or is it an ongoing project?

There’s really no end goal. I definitely want it to grow over the next few years. I would like to make my clientele bigger and have the opportunity someday to choose who I want to work with. That’s the dream right there. I would love to be in a position where when I’m really into a musician or band, that I can have the access to work with them. I plan to keep ISR as is and try to grow the clientele. I’ve put so much into over the years, I will continue pushing it forward. With that said, after my experience in Ethiopia, I want to allocate much more of my life to humanitarian photography. I plan to launch a new photography site that has a completely different name and no association to ISR so that I can show off my non-profit/humanitarian work. I will be putting much focus on that over the next year. Traveling the world & offering my services for a good cause is the direction I’d like to take my life in. I like the idea of having this balance of ISR being my fun creative outlet to the things that interest me in pop culture & then having this other life of giving back. The beautiful thing is I know these can be accomplished through photography. I don’t feel like I have to choose one over the other.

Any last words?

Be good to people and do what the hell you want to do in this short life. It’s all we got.

[Read Kyle’s blog here, or pick up a copy of IShootRockstars here.]

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