Joe Pekara, who shoots photos of alternative hip-hop group Nappy Roots' tours, was recently nominated for a Grammy and a Smithsonian Institution award for his work.
The Fort Collins man stumbled into the job by chance almost three years ago.
“I was photographing a show in Fort Collins for another group, and I ended up being asked to photograph [Hieroglyphics],” Pekara says. "I did another show for the same act and photographed them. I got paid for that show. They wanted me to go full-time, but they wanted me on the road for pretty much an entire year.”
Pekara’s mother has battled terminal cancer for three years, so he declined the job offer. The group, California rap legends Hieroglyphics, liked his work, however, and shot it over to Nappy Roots, which hired Pekara, who's able to come and go as he needs to so he can spend time with his mom.
“We have a videographer. He takes over as the photographer when I head back home, and I pick it up again when I go back," explains Pekara.
Pekara, who also goes by the name Pharaoh 171, has enjoyed photography since his uncle introduced him to it several years ago. He inherited his uncle’s digital single-lens reflex camera (DSLR) after he passed away from cancer.
“It was a huge thing for me, because it was what he created his art with,” he says. “He did amazing photography. The Nappy Roots show was actually the first show I used that camera on. So in a way, I got the job using my uncle’s camera, which was big for me.”
Pekara shoots photos for Washington, D.C., rapper Wale when he isn’t on tour with Nappy Roots. He also enjoys shooting wildlife photos.
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“I never use autofocus, and every shot I take, I want it to be 100 percent me,” he says. “I shoot birds because it keeps me in motion of stage presence. I know every Nappy Roots song by heart, but I never know where they are going to move on stage. ... It keeps me in the rhythm of my job.”
Two of Pekara's Nappy Roots photos were nominated for a Grammy Award for Best Recording Package last year. The award nomination was also tied to the Smithsonian Institution. He didn’t win, but it was an honor to have his work recognized. His work is also displayed on the Smithsonian Magazine’s website. His five photos were among about 5,000 submitted in total, and he was able to attend an awards ceremony in November.
He says last year was the first year the Smithsonian was involved in the award, and he appreciates that the institution acknowledges the work that goes into music photography.
“They housed the event and wanted to also present an award to the top nominees as an addition to the Grammy Award,” he says. “So it was a two-for-one award for this area of the Best Album Package. It is a way for the Smithsonian to get involved in helping judge and choose the winners of the photography area [of the Grammys], in exchange for getting to house the award-winning photograph in their museum.”
Pekara had been set to go out on tour with Nappy Roots again, but the group decided in March to postpone its shows. In the meantime, Pekara says, he’s going to focus on his other photography.
But in a normal, non-coronavirus world, he shoots concerts as well as promotional material that will end up on Facebook and Instagram or on show fliers.
He takes about 1,500 to 2,000 photos at a show and edits them down to between 50 and 100 for the band to use. It’s the most time-consuming part of his job, because he takes a close look at each photo.
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“A lot of photographers will just skim through them,” he says. “They don’t actually look at every photo. In my eyes, that’s what I get paid to do, so that’s what I do.”
He currently has no aspirations to move on to any bigger hip-hop acts, though he would like to win a Grammy some day.
"Someone asked me the other day, because my favorite artist is 50 Cent, and they were like, 'What would you do if he asked you to work for him full-time?'” Pekara says. “I’ve worked with Nappy Roots for three years now, and I don’t care what kind of money you shot my way. The respect and the way they treat me and treat their fans, I wouldn’t want to work for anyone else.”