The College Dropout

Toronto rap photographer Devon Little finds his own way

Uninspired by the formal photography assignments he was tasked with at college, Devon Little left Humber in February to focus on his own photography. Since dropping out he’s worked with Charli Champ (bizZarh), Clairmont the Second, OVO founder Oliver El-Khatib, Harrison, Kieta Juma, Sean Leon, G Milla, Nue, Ruff Pup, Travi$ Scott, the 6th Letter, and many others in the Toronto rap scene. On Nov. 14, Little will exhibit his photography at Long Winter alongside a series of performances from some of the artists he’s featured in his work. We caught up with Little to talk about what he loves about documenting this community.

Long Winter: Why’d you drop out?

Devon Little: I was feeling totally uninspired. I wasn’t shooting at all, and with the assignments they were giving us, I was just totally uninspired. So then I dropped out, and that was actually the start of this project, the Toronto rap thing. Originally I didn’t have this in mind – having a full body of work – I dropped out, I sort of had to figure out what I was gonna do, so I just shot exactly what interested me and artists like Sean Leon and bizZarh and stuff like that were really intriguing me at the time.

What was it about them that excited you?

With bizZarh, I’m a huge R&B fan of like Erykah Badu kind of stuff and like their image and their sound and everything. And to see that in Toronto was just exciting. They just have such an awesome image and their music is wicked. And then Sean Leon was just making really forward thinking music. It just really blew me away to see something like that so close, in Toronto.

How did you get connected with them?

I reached out to them and they were both kind enough to give me a chance even though they’d never heard of me or anything like that. So that was awesome – thanks to them for doing that. But yeah, from there I saw an opening, like, ‘this is something I can focus on,’ shooting Toronto artists and stuff like that. So I started reaching out to more people.

What is it that excites you about hip-hop as a visual subject?

I’m a huge music fan. I like everything from jazz to classical to hip-hop to folk. I’m just a music nerd. But I’ve always studied the[hip-hop] culture, and especially in Toronto right now there’s just such a boom of young, creative talent. Especially in hip-hop. It’s just something I’ve never seen or been a part of. It was exciting to see all this energy in the city. So I thought it would be cool to document it.

There’s this guy Peter Beste who did a documentary project on Houston rap, and he was in the scene for like five, six, seven years just shooting portraits and hanging out and documenting the scene, and I thought that was really cool. So I’m just trying to put my own spin on that with what I can do here in Toronto.

How did you get from shooting shows to deciding you wanted to take portraits?

I’ve done a bit of concert photography. Not so much this year. That was kind of last year when I was just trying to figure out how to make my place in the scene. Because I wasn’t from here. I was from Barrie. So I spent a lot of time – even when I was in Barrie – I’d drive back and forth to Toronto going to shows at night, driving back and getting home at 3AM and then going to school in the morning, just trying to get into the scene, watching the scene from outside just trying to figure out how to get in because I felt like my place wasn’t in Barrie. It wasn’t for me.

So I started with concerts and it just evolved to portraits after that.

The thing with concert photography was that I enjoyed it, but then after a while I’d go to a show and there’d be 10 or 15 photographers in the front row and I felt like ‘how is my shot different from these 15 other photographers?’ I just wanted to get a different perspective while still wanting to work within the music scene. Getting the artists one-on-one is a unique perspective. No one else is going to have a shot like that because I have them one-on-one and out of their environments. So [concert shoots were] something I wanted to break away from.

And I feel like when I go to a concert I wanna experience the moment and be in it. I don’t wanna worry about taking photos. I wanna be focused on their art and their performance.

You’ve also done a lot of shoots with fashion models.

With the fashion photography, in July of last year – a month before I started school – I got an apprenticeship with a fashion photographer named Javier Lovera. I was apprenticing at his studio two or three days a week and then going on shoots with him and assisting and stuff like that. I was just learning so much more on the job from a real professional.

Do the different types of shoots inform your shooting differently?

Both are really good exercises. I shot models before I shot any musicians or artists. Shooting models you really learn how to give direction with things like motion and posing and making people feel comfortable, and coming out of it with a natural shot. So I shot a lot of tests with models through modeling agencies that my mentor hooked me up with. Being on set with Javier, I realized the pre-production that goes into a shoot. Going into it you have to have a certain kind of vision, just to kind of execute properly when you’re doing the shoot. Being on the set you just see what goes into it. So when I approached the things with the hip-hop artists, I always approached them with a certain theme or a location. I would always know one piece, just so I felt prepared. Shooting models just really helped me prepare as a photographer.

What’s your process like? Do you go into shoots hoping to get something specific?

Everyone is different, but with Charli [Champ] from bizZarh, we’d been messaging back and forth and she saw one of the images that I took of a model with some plants in it.

She was like, ‘I love this image, I love plants. I’ve been wanting to get my photo taken like this.’ I was like, ‘okay, cool.’ So I messaged some of my friends and asked where I could go with tons of plants. And they were like, oh, Allan Gardens.

Usually on a shoot I go like half an hour, 45 minutes before and just walk around so I feel prepared and I have a couple options in mind.

I shot SeT from SmashMouth Entertainment and he actually had the idea to do a shoot near Mt. Sinai, because that was the hospital he grew up in. So we just walked around in there.

Usually it starts with one location and then we’ll just walk around and we’ll get the best shots later. But it depends.

Is there a portrait you’ve taken that sticks out as an especially intimate depiction of its subject? What made it so special?

There’s one I took of Sean Leon where he’s standing in front of this building in Parkdale, and it’s a black-and-white photograph, but he just has this look on his face. He looks very raw and almost vulnerable. Not agitated, but vulnerable and raw. And I just feel like his music is very vulnerable and raw, and I feel like that image just broke through the tough barrier and got at a bit of his vulnerability.

Posturing seems like a big part of a lot of hip-hop. Do you find it difficult to shoot subjects when that’s involved?

Editing has a big part to do with that. I’ll take a bunch of photos and edit it down to the five best ones, but I always try to pick the photos that have a ‘documentary’ style and a more honest image, like [without the artist] putting up a front – just more honest and natural feel, to portray the artist in an organic way. I just want to portray artists in a natural way, because really they’re giving me an opportunity to work with them and stuff like that, so I just want to portray them how I see them.

You recently shot Francis Fiction, another portrait photographer. Can you talk a little bit about that experience?

I met him at Humber, actually. He’s another college dropout. He dropped out before me actually, and he kind of inspired me to do it, because I saw him shooting a bunch of stuff. We talked a couple times at school, but he dropped out and I told him to keep in touch because I thought he was one of the coolest guys in the program, and he hit me up one day and asked me to assist on a shoot with him. So I basically skipped school the next day and went to assist him. And that was cool. And we actually found out that day that he moved in just down the street. Like he lives right down the road.

So he’s just someone I met through school. Very talented guy; works a lot with video and fashion, and he has a project called Humans of Hamilton, and it’s kind of like Humans of New York.

 Did he have any suggestions to bring to the table when you photographed him?

That one shot was actually just location testing for a shoot I was doing with a model in Kensington Market. But yeah, it turned out to be really awesome.

Polaroids seem to feature prominently in your work. But you shoot mostly digital, too. Right? What attracts you to either of those mediums? Is there one you prefer over the other?

I shoot digital but I usually bring the polaroid to every shoot and take a few of those because they just have a really cool aesthetic and it’s cool to have a variety of images on a variety of formats. People also just love Polaroids, too [laughs]. It’s instant, so that’s fun. I got that Polaroid camera for my birthday this year in May. And yeah, it was an awesome present because I’ve been using it a bunch.

What’s one of the most visually striking images you’ve ever seen?

One that comes to mind right away is Jonathan Mannion’s portrait of Lauryn Hill. She’s standing in front of a yellow wall. I saw Jonathan Mannion speak earlier this year and he told a cool story about how she was actually pregnant during that photo. So that one. I had that as my desktop background for a while. It’s an awesome photo.

 Would it be right to say you’re attracted to pictures that have a story behind them?

Yeah. That’s definitely a bonus for sure, when you can see behind the scenes and you can kind of look at it longer and talk about it longer because instead of a fashion image that you see in Vogue or something that you know is set up, if you’ve got something with a story, it’s always good because you look at it longer and it resonates with you longer. Even if you’re not looking at it later, you might be thinking about the story.

You’re showing some of your photography at Long Winter next month. Is it all going to be your hip-hop photography?

It’s just the Toronto rap stuff. And there’s going to be three artists that I shot that are performing that night as well. So that’s just going to be really wicked. Ben from Fucked Up manages them, so when I reached out to Long Winter, I guess Ben was around, so he emailed me right away and said that he was interested in curating a [photo] show with artists performing as well. So I thought that was really wicked because with all of the images on the walls, people are gonna walk around, see that, and then they can see them performing later, which is kind of sweet and ties everything back together and brings it back to the artist – which is what it should be all about.

It should be fun. I’m excited for it. It’s my first time showing my work, too, so it’s awesome to have their support.

What are you hoping people will take away from the show?

I hope the images are striking enough that [the audience will] make an effort to find out who the artists are and listen to them and support their music, because at the end of the day I’m just a fan of all these people and I love to see them do well.

A truncated version of this interview originally appeared in issue one of the Long Winter newspaper.

See more of Devon's work at http://devonlittle.tumblr.com