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Chris Gampat: From Paparazzo to a Photography Industry Authority

by Topher Kelly
featured, photo & video

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Running a successful blog is no easy task, especially in the competitive and fast photograph industry. Chris Gampat, founder of The Phoblographer has stumbled upon the right recipe to attract new viewers and keep them coming back for more. In this exclusive interview, we find out all about his journey from amateur paparazzo to becoming an authority in the photography industry.

When did you get into photography? Tell us about your background — when you first picked up the camera, how you learned what you needed to know, your first job in the industry, etc.

I first got into photography very casually.

Growing up, my family was poor. When my parents divorced, I was to stay with my mother. My father was the technical one in the family and taught me to build a PC at the age of 9; but my mom was behind on lots. We still used film cameras instead of digital. When I was going from high school into college, I took a trip out to the west coast and discovered that as long as I really placed an emphasis on composition, I could take really amazing photos with a phone camera. This was way back in the days of flip phones and 2MB sensors.

Then I went to college and needed a digital camera; so my mom bought an old HP point and shoot with full manual control. My professor used to tell me about how terrible my photos were. In order to pass and because it pretty much destroyed me when he said that, I became obsessed with creating better images.

Fast forward to 2009 when I graduated college and I was a kid that mostly shot video, though I still dabbled in photography. But when I was applying for jobs during the height of the second economic recession, stills paid the bills. So I became a paparazzo, then a freelance journalist, then a wedding photographer and in the midst of all this, I realized that nothing was working.

At that point I decided to take matters into my own hands and I started the Phoblographer.

Fast forward four and a half years and I’m doing this interview with CreativeLive.

When and how did you decide to found the Phoblographer?

The Phoblographer was founded in 2009 around New Year’s Day. I was still living with my mom at the time and she used to tell me about how much of a failure I was because I didn’t have a steady job and settled for freelance gigs. In her mind, it was all about working a 9-5 and getting benefits and all that jazz that’s part of the monotony of the American dream for some.

Add into the fact that I went through an incredibly depressing breakup and lost several of my freelance gigs at the hands of the recession, and you’ve got yourself one super depressed guy.

I’ve never been one to just bend over and take what the world gives me. I believe that if you don’t go after what you want in life that you’ll never have it. I knew no one was just going to hand me a million dollars and a paycheck every month despite how well networked I was at the time. So I started Phoblographer knowing that my intention was to create something that would take care of me and others. Plus, I really wanted to see how far I could take something that I built and was passionate about.

You’ve worked with big companies within the industry such as B&H. How did you know when it was time to fully commit to the blog and leave your job(s) in the photo industry, a secure paycheck, etc., behind?

Well for some background, I started the Phoblographer way before I started working at B&H Photo in the social media department. I also already had quite a list of PR reps that I worked with. B&H Photo was a nice run; but I’m not one to sit around and deal with things like politics, always being known as the ‘super young guy,’ or just not doing things that I believe in.

Hurricane Sandy hit NYC in late 2012, and though my roommate told me that I was crazy for doing so, I went out and walked around four different neighborhoods of Brooklyn, NY. I went all the way to the shoreline and a friend and I almost had our heads clipped off by a large piece of roofing shingle.

The whole experience was thrilling, and I knew that for the rest of my life that I wanted to embrace the adrenaline junkie inside of me. No matter how far you think you can go in life, you can only go so far under someone else’s company.

A couple of days later I gave my two weeks notice.

What’s the most important thing you learned from working at big photo companies such as B&H? What job — either in the industry or not — was most instrumental to laying the foundation for where you are now?

B&H Photo taught me a ton about social media marketing. They have an incredible team and building on what they taught me, they’re probably a big reason how I was able apply those skills to building Phoblographer’s Facebook audience to 6K to 230K in under a year.

I learned how to work with super stressed out small teams at Magnum Photos. I interned there for a little while right after President Obama was first elected. That agency does an incredible job; but when I was there everyone was very stressed out. We worked weekdays and weekends.

But what really got me out of my shell was working as a paparazzo. It taught me that no matter what, I need to get the shot. And it was just about needs, it was literally for my survival. When you’re looking through your lens and about to photograph a celebrity while someone is yelling at you, you experience a major thrill. I adopted a mentality that threw what I learned about photojournalism out the window. It was about getting the shot and being able to put money in my bank account in order to survive.

That’s when photography became about not being a hobby or being nervous, it was about survival. No matter what someone may say about being a paparazzo, it’s a much different game when you’re super young shooting for your survival and in the height of an economic recession.

In addition to photography, you are also an editorial and social media expert. For those who are trying to start a successful blog, what tips can you give them when it comes to content planning, design, social engagement?

First off, if you want to start your own blog and make it your full time living, you’re certifiably insane. Sure, there’s all the content production and social engagement, but you still need to make money. Working with companies like Amazon and Google for affiliate revenue is a start, but after that you need to network like crazy–not only online but in person. You also have to know a ton about SEO (I learned that at PCMagazine).

Content planning has to do with analyzing and looking at trends and working around them. Anyone that runs a newsroom will tell you the same thing. Design is all about listening to your readers and balancing your identity with what they want, and social engagement is all about creating content that you know folks will want to share.

That’s all significantly easier said than done.

What has been most integral to the Phoblographer’s success? What, if anything, were you most surprised by during or after launching the site?

To be honest, this site would be nowhere without the wonderful folks that work for us and those who have worked for us in the past. Some folks in the industry still think that it’s a site that is totally run by me and that’s absolutely not true. I do a lot of the work, but so does everyone else.

After I launched the site, I was most surprised by how easily the name caught on with some folks. Also, I wasn’t aware of just how incredibly mean, egotistical, and wrong lots of folks on the internet can be. We used to get tons of traffic from Reddit and other forums. We still do, but some folks are just so ingrained in their ways that they don’t have an open mind at all. As a result, you run into people that genuinely need to be punched in the face sometimes.

The Phoblographer is about more than gear and shooting techniques; it’s about the culture of photography. How do you choose what stories to run?

Culture is usually talked about by myself, Executive Editor Julius Motal, News Editor Felix Esser, and Features Writer Michelle Rae. They’re a wonderful team that is able to spot trends way before they happen to get big.

We also just try to look at stories that are popular and how photography (if it has at all) affects it.

What other photography outlets do you read or admire?

Despite the fact that I feel Michael Zhang (owner of Petapixel) and I used to have a very quiet competitive nature, I respect him a ton. DL Cade, the new editor in chief of the site, is a good buddy of mine and I seriously like the work that he does.

I have subscriptions to American Photo, Pop Photo, and PDN. They do a great job of curating culture.

As far as reviews and tech go though, we do something that no one else in the industry really does. We focus on cameras, lenses and more from a real world point of view. It isn’t about pixel peeping because we understand and know that your clients probably aren’t going to do that. Plus modern editing software has become so good now that very few people can probably tell the difference from one camera to another. I still love reading Imaging Resource and PCMag for that super techy and quantitative lab stuff–and it’s sometimes fun to geek out about it but in the end it means nothing if you don’t have a creative vision to begin with and can’t keep in mind who the product is aimed at.

Gear reviews are a common practice in the industry — how do you structure them to make them more creative?

The Phoblographer is all about doing reviews out in the field. We have a format and standard that we’re constantly working on. It’s not about pixel peeping images as I stated previously. It’s more about the overall experience.

Put it this way: if someone wants you to shoot their wedding, how are you going to sell yourself and your price to them? Are you going to be like, “I’ve got a 1D X and lenses.”

They’re going to be like, “Okay, do you have sample images?”

And then if you try to sell them by talking about pixel peeping, you’re doing it totally wrong. So with that in mind, we try to emphasize a real world scenario. Besides, it’s not like anyone is making a bad camera or lens these days. You really can’t afford to in this economy and technology advances so quickly that you can pick anything up and take great photos. Look at the iPhone for example! With that said, it’s all about the experience and the creative person inside of you. Most folks don’t get that.

Each of us has different specialties: Gevon is an events and product shooter, Julius is street, Felix is street/landscape, and I’m candid and studio portrait. Kevin Lee is one of our newest additions and we’re working with him to improve his photography, but he’s already doing an incredible job.

What up-and-coming photographers are you most excited about?

Photographer Eliot Dudik is still one of my favorites. He does an amazing job. Alexa Sinclair is also someone who totally blows my mind away. Lastly, Conor Harrigan who’s based here in NYC is also someone who, everytime he posts portraits, I’m in total envy of. His sense of balance, composition, and editing is just remarkable.

How has the industry changed since the launch of the phoblographer?

It’s become a lot thinner and a lot smaller. This is just natural selection. I think one of the biggest changes that we’re going through right now is social media flipping. Everyone used to be all about Facebook, but now we all feel that the company is genuinely screwing over small and medium sized businesses.

So lots of us are wondering what the next big thing might be. Each platform has their ups and downs, but it’s also about careful thinking and strategizing.

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Topher Kelly

Topher Kelly is a San Francisco-based freelance writer and editor at CreativeLive. Follow Topher on Twitter@Topher_LIVE.