Shayla Lee chooses intuition over mechanics. Guided by instinct, the Canadian photographer, writer, and vintage curator’s art is rooted in decency. Although her musings are swathed in glamour, grit, and glitter, Shayla is not exempt from the peril of 2020. For most creators this year, ambition has been curbed in exchange for a semblance of peace. Caught in the crosshairs of creativity and a government-mandated quarantine, Shayla Lee’s second sight has led to some innovative means of creation. As a live music photographer sans live music, Shayla now uses her gut-feeling to experiment with her lens, explore color schemes, and re-design the theatrical lights she’s grown so familiar with. Most recently, her zealous vocation took shape in the form of her always-inclusive, body-positive, online vintage store Another Love Vintage, crowning her an instigator against fast fashion. Amid her pursuit to achieve unanimity with her calling, this is an organic and unfiltered look into the radical mind of Shayla Lee in 2020.
Explain how you create organic atmospheres for your photoshoots without going out into the world due to the pandemic?
Over the pandemic I bought a backdrop stand and I’ve used everything from thrifted sheets to plastic with it. I love experimenting with cellophane over my lens as well as over lights. At the beginning of Covid I did a socially distanced photo shoot with a projector outside with my friend. I’m used to travelling a ton but the pandemic has given me a chance to play with lights and colors more and expand my portrait photography beyond fast portraits with artists at festivals.
Tell us about Another Love Vintage. How do you plan to ensure that all individuals are connected to the brand?
My online shop is called Another Love Vintage and it came to fruition because I needed something to channel my creativity into after shows and festivals were cancelled. I was also laid off from all my other consistent freelance work so I was left with a lot of time. In Canada the government put an emergency fund in place and I feel so fortunate that I had the time to create this.
I place an emphasis on sourcing clothes made ethically or from natural fibres like cotton, silk, and linen and my goal is to make the clothing financially accessible. Having the clothing modelled on various body sizes and on people of all ethnicities is something that is also important to me. I also source clothes in sizes XS to 3XL. I want every person out there to be able to come to my shop and find something that they like and could wear. 10% of sales are donated to the Loveland Foundation which helps provide therapy for Black girls in the US.
How does your digital thrift shop allow you to remain creative in terms of photography?
It has been the biggest blessing in terms of staying creative. I have never done fashion photography before so it’s been a learning curve but so fun. I’ve enjoyed learning how to photograph clothing in a unique way to keep things interesting. It has also been inspiring being able to plan and direct my own shoots – something that is new to me.
“One of the coolest compliments I’ve ever received is being told that someone feels like they are living in my photos when they see a live performance of an artist I’ve photographed.”
What is the mission behind your blog (Femme Riot)?
I started Femme Riot because I wanted to provide a platform for smaller/independent musicians to showcase their music. Getting publicity is hard for artists and I love being able to provide that for artists. There is incredible music in our world that never gets heard because of a lack of press so I feel fortunate I am able to provide a small outlet for musicians to share their art with the world. It’s also a great way for readers to find new music.
Does your blog provide you more opportunities to shoot? If so, explain how.
I actually fell into photography because of my blog. It’s common to get press passes for shows and events and I kept getting photo passes so I decided I should try photography because I could add my own photos to show reviews. My love for photography kind of snowballed from there.
Working in the music industry as a photographer is trying and tiring – how do you stay positive?
I feel so lucky to have an incredible support network full of creatives who understand what the music industry is like. Whether a venue doesn’t have my name down for a photo pass or I am having bad anxiety before a show, I can always reach out to a friend and they understand what it’s like because they have been through it.
Is there a specific genre of music you like to shoot in the live setting? If so, which genre and why?
EDM!! I find that electronic music can sometimes get a bad rep from other photographers who consider it “boring” or “the easiest” to shoot. Since many EDM shows have a high budget production with pyros and visuals it can be easy to create a good, technical photo; I want to capture moments at these shows and tell a story. I love the challenge of taking a unique photo instead of a photo straight on with the DJ in front of an LED screen. I want people to look at my photos and feel the emotion behind it. There is nothing like seeing people at the barricade trading kandi with security guards, seeing people’s faces when confetti goes off, or hearing a synth you love for the first time live. There is something so special about electronic music it’s unexplainable. The EDM community is so tight knit and genuinely looks out for each other. I find the shows feel so safe, beautiful, and filled with love.
“I can take a good, technical photo but if I can’t feel any emotion behind it it automatically feels flat to me and will live on my hard drive for eternity.”
Do you style your photoshoots personally?
I do! If I am doing quick portraits with artists at a festival, I will try to bring a few props to use or figure out a unique shooting spot beforehand to make the photos more interesting. Over the pandemic I’ve been able to direct photo shoots and work with models and an MUA which has been really rewarding.
Your live music photography is embellished with hazy, dreamlike editing. Why?
Honestly I don’t have a standard process for how I edit. I play around with things until it feels right and conveys how I felt when I saw the artist. One of the coolest compliments I’ve ever received is being told that someone feels like they are living in my photos when they see a live performance of an artist I’ve photographed.
Actually one of my favorite things to do to practice my editing is to go through a hard drive and find a photo that I hate. I’ll edit it until I can make it cool. It’s something that has helped with my editing skills and also has helped me try to see the good in something I originally thought was ugly.
How important is emotion when you are shooting live music? How do you know when the emotion is right to capture the moment?
Capturing a moment is the most important thing when it comes to my work. I can take a good, technical photo but if I can’t feel any emotion behind it it automatically feels flat to me and will live on my hard drive for eternity. I don’t know how to explain it, it’s just a gut feeling.
What does your “gut feeling” feel like?
For a show: It feels like an adrenaline rush goes through my body. If I have a feeling a cool moment is coming up, I’ll run across the venue and through thousands of people to get this shot. I just know.
For editing: It’s like YES okay I’m done I can finish it now. Once I get that feeling I very rarely go back and re-edit. If I am unsure I will try 2-3 more revisions and if I go back to the one that was a “maybe” that is when I know I am done.
Explain how you combat anxiety as a creator.
Combatting my anxiety around photography has been the absolute hardest thing I’ve had to do when it comes to my creative work. I have wanted to give up countless times but I am SO thankful I didn’t. I suffer from severe anxiety and panic disorder and on a lot of days even making it to a show is a battle. My anxiety is largely triggered by feeling like I’m being judged and obviously when you’re in a photo pit, you are at the very front of a venue, and even though I know people didn’t pay to see me, my anxiety makes me think people will be looking at me and judging me.
It took about a year of me going to shows consistently and shooting in photo pits to not feel like my cells were on fire and I was going to die. I still get anxiety before certain shoots still but I now know I am able to get through it because I’ve done it before. Something I’m really worried about is how my anxiety will be at shows if/when they come back again.
It can be really difficult for me to work with people I don’t know but I pushed myself to start taking portraits of artists at festivals. At ACL 2018 I took one portrait and had a bad experience with it. At ACL 2019 I think I took about 13 portraits with artists? That doesn’t mean I wasn’t nervous – I still felt like I was going to throw up, but it gets a little bit easier each time you do it. Also lots of therapy, and the right medication works wonders. And having a great support network of people who understand what it’s like.
“My creative life is my real life.”
What is more important when shooting live music, angles or moments?
How does your true self compare to your creative self?
I feel like they are the same. The lines of my creativity processes and normal thought processes are completely blurred and fuzzy. My creative life is my real life.
How do you see your photo work expanding or changing in the future? (working with magazines, shooting fashion, changing styles, etc.)
With the uncertainty of our world, it is hard to plan out my future.. I have always given myself room for my creativity to evolve and I’m looking forward to seeing what happens. I am dying to get back to working with artists and being in venues again. It’s something I never want to take for granted.
At the beginning of the year my goal was to go on tour with an artist. COVID had other plans. Touring is still one of my goals. Shooting an album cover, having my photo on the cover of a magazine, and having a photo on a billboard are also goals of mine (probably goals of any music photographer’s dreams too). With how our world is right now and the state of the music industry they seem kind of trivial and not attainable right now.
Now I am thinking about what I want to specifically create in the future instead of accomplishing certain “milestones”. I want to do birth photography. I want to shoot a music video in Marfa, TX and in the Salt Flats in Utah. I want to continue to experiment with Super 8. I want to improve with video. I want to feel anxious in a venue before a show again. I want to see my friends. I want to experience live music again. I miss it so much.
For now I will continue to create in whatever way that inspires me.