Photographer Interviews

Meron Menghistab on Photographing Trevor Noah, and Shooting Personal Work

December 10, 2019

By David Walker

©Meron Menghistab

Trevor Noah gets a shape-up. From "A Day in the Life of Trevor Noah" for

In our article, “How Meron Menghistab Went from Assistant to Pro Photographer,” the Brooklyn-based editorial and advertising photographer explains how he landed his first big assignment: a day-long shoot for with comedian Trevor Noah, host of The Daily Show. Here’s more from Menghistab about what his shoot with the comedian was like, how he keeps his cool when making portraits of celebrities, and what he does to tame his anxiety when clients aren’t calling him and he has no assignments.

PDN: What was the job shooting Trevor Noah like?
Meron Menghistab:
I got there and Trevor Noah walked in. They were like, OK, you’re hanging with this guy today. That was one of the first assignments where I felt everyone knew it was going to be a good story, and it upped my confidence and I knew I had to deliver. I was happy to have that experience.

What I learned on that assignment was that I think I do my best when I have to find the photo to make, rather than spending pre-production [time] to create it. That kind of journalistic approach is something I really enjoy doing. I learned how to think in that way: Think what photos you should want, and think about the different types of photos you’re making while you’re shooting, instead of knee-jerk reacting to the best photo. Like: “OK, I don’t think I made enough images that felt like this. I need images that are pulled back, I need images that are tighter.” I was thinking about the edit while I was shooting. Which goes on to help a lot for [shooting] commercial work.

PDN: Was it daunting [to photograph Trevor Noah]? It didn’t rattle your nerves?
The guy was working, he was too busy to worry about me. My strength with shooting celebrities is that I don’t really have nerves [about] it. I think they receive whatever energy you put out there. Not always, obviously. But it’s just one of those things where if you keep a level head, and you’re like, “I’m here to make you look good,” people typically have pretty positive [reactions to that]. A big thing for me is, depending on how much time I have with someone, I don’t usually like to take pictures as soon as they walk on set. I think a lot of celebrities are used to people treating them like: I have to get the best photo here. Whereas I think the priority for me is comfort—like I’m not trying to make you do something you’re not [intending] to do today. I’d rather you be comfortable.

Staying Busy Between Assignments

PDN: Is that something you learned from photographers you had assisted?
Not necessarily. I worked for a lot of photographers who had seriously lit photos, and would push it: “We really need [the person] to sit in this chair to make this photo.” I learned a lot of technical stuff that way, but I think that it’s more my personality that led into the types of shoots I wanted to make, because I think for me, 9 out of 10 times I just really much rather make a photo of someone where they seem like they’re in their natural place in the space.

PDN: What’s biggest challenge getting your career going?
The thing that gets tricky with being a photographer is you don’t know if the gloss on you, the shine, just came off. You have a great month where you have all these assignments, then two months later it’s not particularly busy and you’re like: Wait. Shit. Is this done? Am I over with?

Now I have confidence in what I’m doing, but early on, I could have a month where I’d think, I can’t believe I’m a working photographer, and the next month, there’s barely any work, and you’re like: Shit, do I need to start getting [job] applications out?

PDN: How did you get yourself through those difficult periods?
When work is slow, rather than thinking about what am I not doing, I try to think of it as: You finally have time to do that work that you haven’t done. If I’m looking through my work [and see] I don’t have enough studio portraiture, I bring somebody into my studio and have a portrait shoot. It’s tricky because it ultimately means you’re having to [spend] money when you’re not having money coming in. But I still I think it has always paid off in my favor. As any photographer will tell you, the amount of time references are pulled from my website or my Instagram that were things I did during that downtime is 60-40 [percent] almost.

PDN: Can you give me an example of a self-assigned shoot that has paid off for you?
I grew up in Seattle, and I recently worked on a project with the golf team at Fir State Golf Club, the second oldest black golf club in America. My friends’ father is a member. At the time I felt like I didn’t have a cohesive environmental [portrait] project that was new. I felt stale. I wasn’t making projects for me. So I had the manager’s phone number, and I went back to Seattle to shoot, and came back with 12 to 15 images, and started sending the series around. It went on to lead to more commercial-based work.

A couple years ago I photographed an indie video game developers conference in Harlem called the Game Devs of Color Expo. It’s a great community thing that I like to support. I took my camera once, that was two years ago, and I just finished a story [assigned by] The New York Times on that Expo. I brought the images that were a little old to the editor, but I was like: Here’s how I would approach it, here’s why I love it, I’d go anyway.

PDN: So you pitched the story?
Yes, definitely. It’s something I shot because I felt that down time, and here’s something I really like, I want to go shoot that. A lot of things are like: You should go shoot that, you should just have photos of that, and feel good about it. Make that work. It doesn’t have to live somewhere. It doesn’t have to have this huge professional [motivation], but sometimes it ends up being something you can use as a jump point for a pitch, or a jump point for work.


How Meron Menghistab Went from Assistant to Pro Photographer
My First Time: Amy Sussman on Her First Celebrity Portrait
How Personal Work Pays Off
Why Pitching Magazine Photography Stories Is a Great Path to Editorial Assignment Work

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