A series devoted to photographers working within music.
The internet often tricks us into thinking we know everything there is to know. Truth is, there's a big world out there, and people like Shane McCauley are doing their best to really see it, then promptly show the rest of us. McCauley's photos can be found anywhere from Viceland to Marie Claire, and a handful of his own zines in-between. He has a vigorous way about him, splitting his time between Los Angeles and New York, but that's when he's not traveling to India, Jamaica, Thailand, or Egypt. McCauley's spent the last several years teamed up with Diplo for the series, Blow Your Head, which focuses on illuminating underground music communities around the world. His style reflects those worlds just right- off-guard, intimate, within the fleeting moment.
You initially started getting involved in music in the punk scene as a promoter for local shows. Were you also playing?
I started doing a radio show at a local college when I was 15 or 16 years old. I was always the kind of kid who was into weird music that no one else was into. I was really active in the scene in my mid-to-late teens; I had a record distribution, I was putting out a zine, I played shows, I was in a band, I would also travel up and down the east coast to see shows. I was into the music community, it was pre-internet so you couldn't go on Spotify and stream music, you had to go to a show in New Jersey and dig through another kid's record bin and maybe find something you'd kind of heard of, and then spend three of the eight dollars you had to buy that record. Hopefully you liked it. That was kind of the appeal to me, the sense of discovery.
When did you start taking photos at these shows?
It started in 10th grade, there was a girl who I had a crush on, her name was Susie. She talked me into joining the photo club with her. I got really into it. I started taking my camera out to shows and taking photos of all the punk bands. I moved to Philadelphia for a year and a half, then after that I moved to Reading, and that's where I started photographing Hip Hop, and got into photographing that world. I shot for the FADER in 2003, for this party Hollertronix. That was Diplo's party; this was when he was playing in basements and not popular yet. Three or four years later I photographed his first block party, then he put me on a retainer and I started traveling with him. That's when I really started documenting culture the way I do now.
Was that experience that launched your collaboration with Diplo, Blow Your Head?
The original idea was—his manager was an old punk-rock guy, and we were really into these books from New York in the late-70s that documented these underground music cultures, really raw, like here's Blondie hanging out with The Clash. People were all friends. That was kind of the idea, to make a book like that, but to make it about this blossoming electronic dance music scene that's happening in America right now. It's always been in Europe, but it's kind of a new thing in America. There was this whole new genesis of artists that were coming about, partly because of the internet. Wes had a compilation already called Blow Your Head. We stole the name and thought, let's make this our overall name for what we do, trying to expose cultures we think are great. I made a book, a second one in 2013, and a bunch of videos since then.
I got burned out on touring, so I flew myself to New Orleans and made some videos, I flew myself to Africa and hung out for three weeks. I just got a grant from Youtube and I'm gonna make real videos for the first time (laughs).
You're going into such vastly different communities around the world—India, Egypt, South Africa, England, Jamaica—, are there commonalities you've picked up on that might not be so apparent in terms of musical communities?
One of the overarching themes I have for this season of Blow Your Head is the idea that all music from Africa is really one music. Traditional African music went down to Trinidad and became calypso, then went up to Jamaica and became reggae and dance hall, then went to America and became blues and hip hop, then went down to Brazil and became bossa nova. It's all one music. All these cultures from all these places are feeding off each other, they all stem from the same place.
One of the reason I do these videos is that a lot of the kids that are current Diplo fans are young and don't know about this stuff. I think it's important to know where these musical genres come from. A lot of pop music in America comes from these genres I'm covering. Like right now the new thing is going to be Latin music in American pop. Mexico City is the hottest music market in the world right now. I guarantee that in the next 12 months you're gonna start hearing Spanish rappers in all pop music.
You're really seeking out these raw experiences, and that totally makes sense based on your past, coming up in the punk world. There's something so upfront about the punk community and that also feels present in your work. Even your portraits have this sense of action to them. Is that intentional, or just inherent to your style?
A little of both. Part of why I shoot this way now was lack of options. Touring with Wes, a lot of that was staying aware of everything and finding moments in what's around you. I think I always wanted to be more of a fashion photographer, I had an agent in 2012 basically tell me in a backhanded way I'm a shitty photographer. At that time, that loose and raw style wasn't cool yet. I felt kind of embarrassed by it. It's weird, because in the last five years since I've tried to make my work more refined, this raw style is what's popular. It's kind of ironic.
BLOW YOUR HEAD | SEASON 2
Part of what I'm trying to find in Blow Your Head are people I think are doing new and interesting things in music, and the other thing is those kind of punk rock ethics that excited me about music when I was a kid. There's a party in LA that's a great example of this, it's called Rail Up. They're very DIY, they have no social media, they're against the commodification of dance music. Everything is word of mouth. They're about bringing artists to their parties, they'll go out of the way to make sure those artists get paid. It's a very important ethical thing to happen. Everybody's kind of out for themselves these days, I like that these kids are about community.
Do you think the loose style of photography is more popular because of social media?
I think there's just a lot more photographers out there than there ever has been. I'm always looking at instagram a lot to see what other people are doing. I see trends happening, and everyone starts doing the same damn thing. The funny thing is there's more photographers but also more of a need for photography because of the way people consume media nowadays. Things are not as permanent and valuable as they used to be in terms of imagery. It's so consumed and disposable now. People need more. There's more people shooting, and I think part of the rawness is people being scrappy like me.
A majority of your featured work on your site is in black and white, is that your preferred medium or coincidence?
It's definitely preferred. I'd probably shoot everything in black and white if I could get away with it. Everybody always wants color images, it's bizarre because people in the media have an idea that black and white is old fashioned. I'm really sensitive to color palette and the ways colors clash.