Most Shared

Culture

Meet the photographer who is on personal request of Jay Z and Beyonce

By Zackary McDowellJuly 1, 2015

Ben Vogel with camera
Ben Vogel Zack McDowell

Ben Vogel is a budding art director and cinematographer originally from Evanston, Illinois. Currently residing in Brooklyn, New York he is typically found traveling the world creating images for some of today’s biggest pop icons, including Beyonce, Jay-Z and Rihanna. His work has been represented in Jay-Z and Beyonce’s On the Run tour, and in the music documentary film “Where I’m from.” His artistic style has been described as gritty, authentic and transformative. Whether he is taking photographs for "Life +Times," creating a documentary for major league baseball player Robinson Canó, or taking Polaroids of his closest friends, he brings a distinct style to all he does. I caught up with Vogel in his Fort Greene neighborhood on a casual Sunday afternoon.

In his own words, Vogel talks about his typical day in the life:

Ben Vogel
Ben Vogel. Photograph by Zackary McDowell

"In a poetic way, I would say that I'm Jacques Cousteau and my camera is a shark cage because I feel comfortable dipping into a variety of waters, observing and learning about the environment I’m in. My profession allows me to be accepted into neighborhoods in Chicago, where outsiders are questioned, but then, I can access the most exclusive corners of the music world and experience that too. It's the opportunity to see everything in this world. I'm an explorer and a capturer of light and a director of the eye, but at the end of the day I'm just a man with a camera.

I went to school in Georgia, where I studied film and television at Savannah College of Art and Design. I was finishing my senior project when a very young production company called Scheme Engine, contacted me and asked if I would like to come to New York and film for them. Three days after I graduated I moved and started working with them. I had no intentions of going to the city beforehand. I was going to go home, and make my living working with my cousin in Chicago. Then this opportunity came up. I didn't really think — I just went. Working for them ended up being one of the greatest decisions. I'm in New York, doing something very rare and it’s my livelihood. I'm very grateful for that.

 

I'm an explorer and a capturer of light and a director of the eye, but at the end of the day I'm just a man with a camera.

A typical day varies because in the media world, you have your crazy-busy weeks and then you have nothing. On non-shoot days I grab my coffee, sort through my usual mind clutter so when I arrive at the office around 10:00 my thoughts are organized and ready for use. I’ll stay there until 6 p.m. always trying to produce something or contemplating a new project. On days where we have projects, we’re shooting constantly — all day. 

My style is very raw, very real, very gritty. It's like cinematic home movies. I feel like I'm a fly on the wall, but I'm also an active participant in what's going on. I go with a handheld approach. I’m usually in an intimate situation and don’t want a huge rig. I have to be extremely mobile. You can’t be invasive. I pretty much run the camera until everything's up. I never stop. Taking breaks is not really my style, unless I remember that I'm hungry or thirsty. There's always something going on in the shoot, so I never stop recording. 

Vogel's coffee table covered in photographs he has taken. Photograph by Zackary McDowell

I would try to capture everything, but that would lead to instant gray hairs and a lot of regrets. It’s shooting an essence of everything you see, which leads to successfully capturing moments that most definitely lead to telling an intriguing story. If you're fortunate enough to spend a lot of time with a certain subject, you know their mannerisms and what they will do next. This enables you to think two steps ahead of the game while creating dynamic visual language. And by the essence, I’m referring to the details that might feel common but are unique and add texture to the situation you’re in. It adds a more complete understanding of the environment that you're in and gives the viewer a closer intimate look without putting the camera in a subject’s face the whole time.

 

You can get freaked out when you are around someone like a celebrity, but they're just focused people who have decided to do something the best that they can
 

There is something liberating about my work. I work with a company called Scheme Engine and we work alongside Roc Nation. We do a lot of the online media for them and Roc gives us all the creative freedom in the world. This freedom allows me to practice my art and grow in an environment that breeds talent. I respect Jay-Z and everyone at Roc for that opportunity. 

You can get freaked out when you are around someone like a celebrity, but they're just focused people who have decided to do something the best that they can. Through my filmmaking I’ve been able to pull back the curtain of Oz. I've seen the man that controls the wizard. He's just a man, with passion and direction, I can learn from that.

Ben Vogel's polaroid photographs. Photograph by Zackary McDowell

I'm passionate about putting beauty on the most basic things. I feel in this world people stray away from reality so much that it's not healthy. I grew up going to a lot of matinee movies. It was always the hyper-sensualized fighting movies or love movies. If that's where you're getting most of your information from, then you get this distorted reality on life that in your 20s you have to battle with.

My passion is to make sure that there's always a sense of personal touch within all of my work. You're shaping a story and a story always needs a point of view. Whether it’s my family or a high-end fashion designer from London, there's no difference. It's just a moment in time. It's energetic, it's beautiful, and it's super unique. That's what I'm passionate about, just the realness.

Ben Vogel. Photograph by Zackary McDowell

I’ve been working on a social issue documentary, "Shot In The Dark," for the past three years on the West Side of Chicago. We followed a young man on a basketball team, Tyquone, from his sophomore to his senior year of high school. We expose all of the social inequalities we’re so neglectful to bring attention to today because it doesn’t make waves like violent acts do. It’s their day to day and it’s not pretty. I know this film could ultimately be something that gets information out there and it will make a difference. I also have another documentary with the a cappella group Pentatonix coming out very soon. I am very excited about it and thats about all I can say about that. Bye." —Ben Vogel