After a career in the nightlife and entertainment industry, Travis Keyes forged a new path, finding fulfillment in photography. He has worked with clients such as Sony, Airbnb Plus, the Clinton Foundation, and the Philadelphia 76ers. His commitment to photography goes beyond his in-demand aesthetic. As Chairman of the Board APA/NY- American Photographic Artists, Travis is just as focused on his work behind the scenes to help build the photography community and give back to the industry. SfA was fortunate to hear his stories, advice, and insight.

A self portrait of Travis Keyes

Why is it important to give back to the industry?

As human beings, we thrive on music, art, and culture. When times are dark and questionable, art becomes a very important escape outlet. Like music it has the power to pull people together. I started my career in TV and film but become disenchanted with it for many personal reasons. I ended up owning bars, restaurants and nightclubs for many years before I realized I wasn’t seeing my friends or family, I was depressed and felt trapped with nowhere to go from there. I took some time off and found photography. It saved my soul. Having gone through such a transformation I strive to share this experience. I love giving back and helping others, maybe even see that look of enlightenment in their eyes that photography has given me.

How did photography save your soul?

After walking away from my nightclubs and restaurants I decided to take time off just for me. I found myself picking up a camera every day and enjoying it. Soon, people were asking me to do jobs for them, and I was using the internet to figure out how to pull it off. I keep pushing myself to learn more and more. It was like a light bulb went on in my head and I knew this was something I loved doing and had to do. It was time to jump in head first, so I enrolled into ICP – International Center of Photography – for their one-year GS program.

Going back to school certainly doesn’t bolster one’s ego. Everyone wants to tell you how they would have done it. I had several moments wondering if I was making the right choice and almost left. Jump forward five years since from graduating ICP and I have woken up happy and have been shooting ever since.

Then, I got the very best compliment I’ve ever received.

I was in Cuba with Pulitzer prize winning photographer Alex Garcia. He looks at me, kind of exasperated, and says “You’ve only been doing this for 3 years? If I didn’t like you so much, I’d f***ing hate you.” That compliment keeps me going every day. It reminds me to trust my instinct. You need a sounding block of people whose opinion and advice you trust, but you also need to trust your instinct unconditionally and go after your passion.

Alongside Alex Garcia’s compliment, did you have a mentors to guide you?

There are so many people in the community who have guided me. After ICP, there were a couple of professors who were always there to help. My use of SONY cameras quickly brought me into the fold of the Alpha community, their artisans and creatives. I’ve become friends with many people who I look up to through SONY events. Being around this creative collective and having the resource of back-and-forth discussions with people was great. Most communities don’t give to each other in that way.

On that same trip to Cuba, I met Tony Gale, Sony Artisan and president of APA National. We became friends and traveled Alaska together. He told me to explore the different community options and it is one of the reasons I am now so involved with APA. APA has a great community feel to it. Everyone is here because they want to help and be involved.

How did you get involved with the SONY community?

When I first went to film school, the first class I took was photography. I figured if I can’t take a single photo, how am I going to be able to make a movie. There was no digital photography at the time. It was all dark rooms for processing film. I didn’t enjoy that even though I liked photography. Jump forward a few years, SONY introduced their full-frame camera the A7s. Suddenly, you could see live on the screen. There were so many options to aid you in shooting. I bought it thinking I would use it to film, but I never used it to shoot one video. I was hooked on full frame photography. The camera came out at a time when I wasn’t very confident in my skills and I just fell in love with that camera. It changed me, gave me confidence and was truly the tool that made me the photographer I am today.  

Call it Sony fate, but life kept my path crossing with Sony Artisans like Ben Lowy, Robert Evans, Tony Gale and Katrin Eismann to name a few. There was a love and excitement for this system that was contagious and electric. I also started and moderate the SONY Alpha Facebook page which is a community of almost 5000 people. It is one thing to own a great camera, but Sony has created and cultivated something very special. They support the Sony community and understand it must go well beyond just making and selling a good camera. They have built a place where Sony shooters are excited to collaborate, where I have personal relationships, and they make me feel special. For that, I will always be grateful. So my advice is to find the tool and support that works for you as a photographer, but also a community that does too.

That’s some solid advice. What other guidance do you have for people?

My best advice is: if you don’t wake up loving photography in such a deep way it defies explanation, if you don’t feel with every being of your soul you have to shoot and create, then you need to find that something else that does make you feel that way.

Even with bad projects, I still love what I do. Every moment is somehow great. As chairman of APA, I have less time now and focus on planning events, workshops to further knowledge in the industry, Student/emerging artist outreach, member support and advocacy. But I can’t see myself doing anything else. I love pushing myself and will continue to do so.

Even now, I look back at the pictures I took only a few years ago and see how far I have come. I look forward to the photographer I will be in several years from now. The best way for me to explain my growth in photography is: it’s a lot like learning a new language. The first year you don’t understand anything and you certainly can’t communicate what you are trying to say. The more you stick to it, the more words you learn, the more fluent you become and the more you can communicate your vision.

When it comes to shoots, how do you make the impossible happen?

Time is usually the biggest factor. How do you make time appear where it doesn’t? But, long ago, I learned a great phrase from Japanese culture: we don’t say no, we ask how to get to yes. Nothing is impossible when your philosophy is how do we get to yes. I’ve had challenging shoots, dangerous shoots, amazing shoots, troubling shoots, but never an impossible one.

What’s an example of a dangerous shoot?  

The 76ers moved their practice facility to Camden, NJ, which was one of the most dangerous neighborhoods in the country at that time. They asked me to shoot portraits of the people in the neighborhood that would be affected. So, I was shooting this guy. Now, I’ve since learned that a teardrop tattoo can mean that person has either killed someone or served time in prison. Well, this guy had 2 tear drops on one side of his face, and 3 on the other. Anyway, I was photographing him and the police squad car pulled up to the corner. They motioned for me to come over wanting to know what all the commotion was from the shoot, and the 76ers SUV.

Now, I halt the shoot to go explain the project to the police and the guy asks me why. I say, simply, “well they have guns” The Guy looks at me dead pan and motions to his waistband and says “So? I got a gun.” Well I guess I instinctively knew I had to say something to defuse the situation, so I responded “yeah, but I trust you with yours.” He just looked at me and smiled and patted me on the shoulder as he said “true dat, true dat” We were friends from that point on. I even got portraits of the police that pulled up too. It’s a great example of a time when I just had to figure something out in the moment. It reminds me that to be a portrait shooter, you must communicate and connect with people first. The camera comes second.

How about a troubling shoot?

I had just gone back to ICP when Hurricane Sandy hit. I went out to Staten Island after the storm and saw all the devastation. Among it all, there was a man sitting outside his house, his house was in tatters and his belongings water soaked, destroyed were stacked outside his home on the curb.  He sat motionless with tears in his eyes in a state of shock. I could see the loss, pain and helplessness in his eyes as tears rolled down his cheek. I shot that picture and I still see him perfectly in my head. I never released that photo. It was such an emotional moment. I used to think I wanted to be a war journalist, but I know that is no longer in me.

After that moment, I decided on a different series following the hurricane. I went around the city and took pictures of the little pockets of light among all the blackout areas. It might have been a hotdog cart, a pizza place, or a food truck. They were the only source of light in blackout that occurred downtown. But to me it was positive in a negative. Little pockets of hope in that light that was surrounded by darkness.

Why is the industry still relevant?

There’re more images now created in a single day then all the history of images. There’s a barrage of it, you can’t keep up. Kids today can take an iPad, a drone, a camera and do things that could never be done before all while fitting it in a backpack. It’s an exciting time to make content. We’re able to do things creatively that was not possible or only on massive budgets. Every generation changes with new technology. We constantly need to adapt and figure out what makes our vision different than before. You need to know where you came from and where you’re going.  It really is an exciting time to create

How would you describe the current generation and its vision?

Fractured. I kind of blame outlets like MTV, the rise people expecting their 15 minutes of fame, the desire to be on Instagram with 5 million followers and be a sudden superstar. They seem to believe they are the special ones that can achieve this by being found and negating the actual work it takes. It takes a lot of work! I fight everyday to become better and I do that because I found something I love. I didn’t find my passion in photography until later in life, so in many ways I always feel like I’m playing catch up. So, I keep pushing myself to be better, whether it is a bad day or a good day. Keep pushing. It takes work and devotion. And the difference is what you do when you have been beaten down or having a bad day.

What are the challenges to the industry?

There are so many challenges. It’s a time when everyone has a camera, so you really have to work to show what makes you different and showcase your unique voice. It’s a tough industry. I don’t think enough people in the industry understand just how important it is to band together as photographers and support one another. To have each other’s back and share knowledge. Social media and the Industry are constantly trying to find cheaper options and photographers which devalues photos, we need to band together to spread the knowledge of what a photographer’s work is worth.

What do you look for in a studio?

I love having space. I don’t want to feel too tight or restrictive. I like a studio that is clean with plenty of outlets, a place to sit chill and work with the talent and crew. A studio with the basics because I hate carrying around stands. The less I have to bring, the better! I want a studio to make it easy for me. A good space has thought things out before you get there and anticipates what you have not.. The perfect space is the one I can load in easy and get up shooting quickly.  

What is the value of SfA to the community?

Its invaluable, especially when traveling. In this industry, to have a resource to find what you are looking for quickly is such an incredibly powerful tool. It saves you time, money, headache and hassle.  I mean it is a no brainer! How can you not use it? Unless you like headaches.

A big thank you to Travis Keyes for taking the time to speak with the SfA team. Don’t forget to check out the rest of our interviews and conversations.