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Nick was originally educated as a graphic designer but ultimately found that making images with a camera was more fulfilling—and you can see that he didn't leave his design skills behind when he picked up the camera. We follow Nick around New York City as he meets with Cosmopolitan's photo editor, photographs a fashion model, and returns to his home in Brooklyn to share his story with us. We also meet the founder of Pencils of Promise, a nonprofit organization that builds schools in underdeveloped countries, and uses Nick's photographs as the centerpiece of its fundraising efforts. Then we're off to Guatemala to watch him create his magic.
Nick shows us how he has evolved as an artist and how the business of photography has changed—for example, using an online portfolio as opposed to the traditional "book" that art directors review. He's energetic, motivated, and talented. We've captured him for the lynda.com Creative Spark series but it was no easy task getting him to sit still.
Skill Level Appropriate for all
(music playing) Nick Onken: I guess photographers, we tend to shoot our life. You know, a lifestyle kind of breeds out of that. (music playing) For me, I just like to shoot things that I see, and it's just kind of everyday things that people do and turning it into an actual picture. (music playing) I was a designer, and it was just like, you know, sometimes I would need textures and put a few things on my website.
A lot of it was like tighter, close-up shots. And then I decided, I was like, I can pitch this non-profit client of mine to, say, go build a photo library in Africa. That's what I did. It was definitely kind of an experimental growth period. I still didn't really know a ton about what I was doing, but I think with the graphic design background, it kind of helped me visually think of what I wanted. I mean, I started just kind of grabbing some attractive friends and I was like, "Hey, I'm trying to like figure out this photography thing. Would you be down to like go out and I can shoot some pictures of you?" And after I start doing more of them, the concepts of what I was doing was more than just the models.
It started to be about the lifestyle, and it just started slowly evolving. I was looking at different photographers' work and kind of like seeing what they were doing, and that's how kind of the lifestyle evolved. (music playing) The first advertising campaign I got through an ad agency was Secret deodorant. They loved the energy in my work and wanted that moment. And it was a shot of this girl jumping into a pool at a pool party. She's carefree and fun, and I think the art directors saw those carefree moments in my work, and that's what they wanted on their concept. (music playing) Kristen Ingersoll: I'm so glad you're here to talk some stuff today. Nick: Talk about some fashion.
Kristen: Talk about some fashion. Nick: Some lifestyle. Kristen: Nick is, I think, well, unique. He's, he's special, and I think that people have to be on the lookout for that. He's courageous and creative, and he takes risks. I think that's very important. But he has a good eye. And he also has some quirky concepts, which I think can be tied into anything that you're doing. Kristen: Oh, a weekend getaway. That sounds great. Nick: Like, a weekend getaway with a hot couple.
Nick: Maybe they're, maybe we'd go up to like an old cabin or something in the Catskills or... Kristen: That sounds good. You know what? That is something that is definitely for Cosmopolitan. Nick: Yeah (laugh). Kristen: And the countries would love it, so... Nick: Cool. Kristen: He's very good at bringing out the best in the models, and he enjoys it. He's a creative mind, and it's fun to with people like this. And you know that you'll get something good.
Nick: Yeah, so I'm looking for something for the model today, maybe like a rock 'n' roll T-shirt, something, maybe one or two pieces that we could kind of add into the mix. I mean style is everything. Style is why people hire you, like, how you see, what your vision is for creative. And it comes down from like the way you choose your clothes, the casting, like how you see, how you pick talent. You know, the types of locations, the types of colors, the types of clothing that you use, the type of light that you use, all those are part of the ingredients that actually make up how you see, how you see the photo.
So your style, and then that's what people will buy in the end is, in a sense, your decisionmaking. (music playing) Yeah, do that again. Mouth open just slightly. There you go. Great. Nice. Part of it is people skills. It's learning how to kind of build a rapport and like, you ask them questions, you kind of get them to feel comfortable with you. Then you kind of run them around a little bit. And just having them run around and jump, and part of that wasn't even what I wanted to shoot.
It was more trying to make her forget about what's going on, and then she kind of gets warmed up and used to it. And then the other part is just like you've got to know your camera so you're not thinking about it. I can focus on the creative stuff, and I don't have to think about technical stuff because that's what I'm paid to do is the creative stuff. Okay, go. Good. Cool. Little flirty smile.
That was another challenge, was being able to contrive a moment that felt completely carefree and natural, and everything was, like, preplanned and preproduced, and I had to figure out how to do that. It took a while. Actually, stay right there. That light's great. After a while you start to see a common thread in all your work, and pretty soon it's like, oh, that's totally a Nick Onken shot. Style comes a little bit more from maybe the lighting and the energy, and then that translates all across the board from my lifestyle to my travel. And the more you shoot, the more you learn.
You make this decision and then you look at the photos afterwards, and you're like wow, that didn't work. That's why you grow every time. So you learn things from every time that you shoot that either you will or you won't incorporate in the next shoot. (music playing) Photo Trekking kind of was birthed out of travel photos that I've taken over the last few years. At this point, I've been to forty-five countries. And I mean, the travel stuff that you're seeing here, I've never really been paid for.
It's more, you know, non-profit, you know, working with charities or shooting my own personal work on vacations, or going to visit friends and I'm walking around with a camera, that kind of thing. You never know; it could turn into a book. And that's kind of what happened. Well, I guess overall, in general, part of how I shoot as a photographer is very moment-driven, very, I see, like, natural moments and I try to catch those. And so when I'm looking, when I'm traveling, I'm looking for you know, here's, say, for instance, this kid just running and jumping across these concrete blocks.
And he just like has this motion about him that's like a moment in time. Kids, great moments, you know, running around playing. And I grew up playing and it's, I think it's something that I look for and I see when I'm shooting. (music playing) Adam Braun: Pencils of Promise is a non-profit organization, and we build schools in the developing world.
A friend of mine was out in Los Angeles. He was working for a company, and Nick shot for his company for the day. And afterwards, they were talking. And Nick was explaining how he had some interest in working with different non-profit organizations, and my friend emailed me and said you've got to meet this guy, Nick Onken. Nick, meet Adam. Both of you are young people, and you are doing really interesting things. I thought, okay, and then my friend emailed me right after--it was just to me. He said, by the way, you really have to meet this guy Nick. He's on his way to becoming one of the top photographers in the world.
And he joined myself and our first staff member on the ground in Laos, where we were breaking ground at the time on our second school, and he rode on a motorbike all around the country with me for six days and shot all of our initial imagery, which is now these really beautiful kind of iconic images that have helped Pencil of Promise grow as quickly as we have. (crosstalk) Nick: Hola! (laughter) Adam: In particular, when it comes to shooting photography or video, you know, it's a very invasive process. A lot of times you've got to get in somebody's face and capture them, and so I was a little worried, but Nick is a natural.
(crosstalk and children playing) Nick: Rapido, rapido, rapido! (children laughing) Nick: Ok, vamos. Is this where it's going to be? Oh. Adam: They're going to flatten this then put three classrooms here.
Nicke: Once you get them involved, then they start running around everywhere. You can interact with them. It's kind of a natural reaction. You show them the camera and then you figure out they love it. They love seeing themselves. Adam: Having Nick here is something that just, it makes me happy in general because one, he's not only a friend, but he's just an amazing person to watch interact with kids, with children in the developing world. You just see him dive into these situations and create situations where suddenly kids will be running around him, and so watching Nick interact with them is just incredible.
And he elicits a lot of joy that maybe wouldn't be there if Nick wasn't here, so that's really great. And so Nick's photos are the story of Pencils of Promise, the people of Pencils of Promise. And in a lot of ways, it's also the emotion of Pencils of Promise. And so, you know, when you see kids with these huge smiles--and we have our media gallery. I wrote this kind of opening phrase and it's, people say yawns are contagious; we think smiles are too. And I could only use a Nick Onken photo to match that subtitle. And so it's great what he's going to shoot, and it's going to tell our story going forward.