This Festival Photographer Strives To Capture People As They Truly Are

Ryan Farber

If you were at the Dirtybird Campout West this year and you were one of thousands in the audience for the Family Set, you saw Ryan Farber (AKA Ryan Forever) hit the stage and turn the party. When he dropped his track “Nasty” that was it; everyone lost their ish. The next week, Dirtybird signed the track and put him on the lineup for Dirty Bird Campout East, this February.

But, Farber isn’t new to the music scene. In his mid-twenties, this talented dude is a popular Philly photographer — known best for his work with musicians, festivals and on the club scene. But, he was involved in music before he ever even picked up a camera, so it’s no wonder he can take control of the tables and an audience and get people on their feet. A multi-talented renaissance man, a love for the visual arts and music runs through everything Farber does — intersecting in a variety of creative ways.

Sometimes you’ll find him taking intimate photos of artists backstage, and other times you’ll catch him directing and editing videos for a musical act. His creativity is endless.

We were lucky enough to catch Farber this week, between bouts of inspiration to talk about his dual careers in music and photography. He explained his beef with the term EDM and dropped some knowledge for people looking to get into the music festival game. Scan through what he had to say and check out these hot pics. We’re sure that you will hear more from the man in the future.

Ryan Farber

Did you begin your photography career working shows?

Yeah, just taking photos at concerts, just of the people in the crowd. And, eventually, that led to my hanging out with more artists and taking photos of behind the scenes, backstage stuff. And, then, I started getting involved one on one with artists and climbing my way up the ladder.

Okay, so you’re not just taking shots from the crowd, you’re creating a relationship with the subjects.

Always. I think it’s really important, especially with my photography, to develop a relationship to tell a story. I like telling a story of one person or a group of people. You have to hang out with those people for a while before you even start taking photos. You have to become friends with them first and get a glimpse of their world as it really is.

Why use such an intimate approach? What’s appealing about that?

My approach is to get the raw, real story as people are naturally in their lives and not some façade that people might put on if they’re dealing with unknown photographers. I know a lot of the artists that I work with may be shy in front of certain cameras if they don’t know the people. Or if they’re getting interviewed, or something, they might not be completely honest, and truthful, and transparent.

That’s why I approach it like, “Hey, I just wanna get to know you as a human, and hang out first.” And then like, “Can I document your story?” And that way it’s… I get reality from them, instead of the layer above it.

Ryan Farber

Do you think that that humanity, stripping away that façade, does something for the viewer of the photographs?

Definitely. I love getting to showcase this side of artists, musicians, and the like. I like showing the side of them that people don’t really get to see. But, I think it’s a balance between showing them that side but not revealing too much. You don’t want the magic to be gone. I feel like you can’t give it all away; you have to leave something to be desired. You have to leave some sort of anticipation for people to want something more.

If you give it all away, if you reveal the full unadulterated nature of someone, then it’s like, “Whoa, okay. Now I know everything about them. What else is there?” So, you have to limit yourself to pick and choose little bits that you want to reveal.

Wow, that’s so much more complicated than just taking a picture.

The funny thing is I don’t really think when I’m doing it, I don’t think about that stuff at all. I’m in the moment, taking pictures of what I feel is the right moment. And that’s it. And then everything else happens afterward.

Do you do a fair amount of festival photography?

I used to. I used to do a lot of live show photography. I’m pulling back on that a little more.

Ryan Farber

How does that go from being the dude with the camera to the guy on stage performing? That’s how you got signed, right?

It’s really interesting. My life in the creative realm has just been a rollercoaster of different expressions. I was doing music before I was doing photography. And, it’s like the tides for me. I have different creative expressions, and one day, one thing will express itself more. Then, it’ll recede and something else will take its place. Photography had a big influence on my creative output for a while, but right now it’s leaning more towards the music side.

I work with an artist named Mija and she’s been super awesome. She knows that I make music and have been trying to put it out there. So, she’s been super cool letting me play on some of her shows. When we played the Dirty Bird Campout, I got to play some of my original music. They saw that, and that’s pretty much how they signed one of my songs, which is cool.

At the end of the day, I just wanna do everything that I can. Whether it’s music, photography, or film. I can’t do one thing, I have to do it all.

You’re gonna need a nap.

Yeah. Totally.

Ryan Farber

So, does being a performer change the way that you photograph performers?

Absolutely. I don’t think I would have been able to take photos like I did if I didn’t have the perspective of playing and the artist perspective. I toured with a band. Three years ago, I started touring with this band from Philly, but I was running sound for them and tour managing for them. But, I was also taking photos and videos the whole time of tour life. And, before that, I was in bands. So, I take this weird well-rounded approach to the stories I wanna tell. Like, I don’t wanna tell the stories unless I have some sort of perspective from the person, or people, or group that I’m taking pictures of.

Oddly enough, one of the only times that that hasn’t happened was when I was taking pictures of these dancers in Philly. A lot of B-Boys, break dancers, and house dancers all come and compete at this party called Second Sunday. It’s a dance level party. So, you get all the best dancers from New York, Philly, Baltimore, D.C., and they all come and compete at this party. I was taking photos, but I’m a terrible dancer. I’m just complete shit. I can’t dance to save my life. But for some reason, they kept asking me to take photos ’cause they really liked them. And I had so much fun photographing those dancers.

So that was one case where I really didn’t have any perspective of those dancers, their backgrounds, their lifestyle. I had zero perspective. But, I think that benefited me at the end of the day. I wasn’t biased, so I was able to take photos that had a completely different perspective that no one had seen before. So, I think honestly, it can go either way.

Interesting. Okay, so you’re really involved in music. Is it EDM?

I’ll be the first person to tell you I’m not a fan of the word EDM because I think it pigeonholes a lot of people. EDM is very different to a lot of people. Like, my EDM is way different than my best friend’s EDM, so I try and stray away from that. And personally, my music is still evolving. I don’t really know what it is yet. I’m making a lot of house music, ’cause I do love house, but I wanna branch into weirder stuff and probably start performing live again. I used to play in bands as a drummer and guitarist, and I wanna start incorporating that more.

Ryan Farber

And then you also do video?

That’s the other side. I really wanna start directing some more music videos and films. And I really like documentary work. I have a few projects on the back burner of my own that I’m trying to finish right now. But yeah, I’ve been working a lot with the artist Mija. I’ve made three music videos for her and some other small documentary series stuff. What’s funny is I don’t have quite a large body of work for myself, yet. But all my work is flooding out there in other artists’ world.

If you’re taking that time as a photographer, a manager, or a videographer to really get to know your subject, you do end up sharing big chunks of yourself with them back. I don’t think it’s that surprising all kinds of people have your stuff.

It’s like an identity issue. You wanna spend so much time and deliver so much work for these other artists that you lose touch with yourself and what it is you want to do. Sometimes, you have to just create boundaries and be like, “Okay, this is me. This is my art. And then this is the art that I’m creating for someone else.” Sometimes those lines just get blurred.

Ryan Farber

I’m curious… Do you think there’s a time, an expiration date, on being a festival photographer? Do you reach a point where you’re too old?

I don’t think so. Age is never an issue for me. You can be 85-years-old and taking pictures. It’s your personality. It’s your character. It’s your art that you’re making. It’s not how old you are. But, personally, I think that festival photography, that whole form, just blew up in the past five years. People got super into it and I think it became saturated. That’s why I got out of it because there were just so many photographers taking the same pictures. There wasn’t any real edge to it that I saw anymore.

I think there’s room to work and to create inspiring pieces out of festival photography, but I think you really gotta hone in. There are a million other photographers out there capturing the same angles. You gotta work that much harder to get something unique.

Nice, that makes sense. I wondered if it got punishing or something. Like, you just couldn’t do it anymore.

I think it punishes the soul more than anything. I can’t even count how many festivals I’ve shot. Sometimes you’re a part of a team of photographers or you’re just flying solo. But if you don’t have the best access, then you wind up only being able to shoot in the pit for a performance. And then sometimes there are 20 other photographers in the pit, and you feel just like, “Oh, what am I doing here?”

And maybe you do get better access. Like, if I shoot festivals, I tend to want to get the best access that I can, so I can get the best and most unique shots that I can. If I’m backstage or something, usually there are a lot fewer photographers back there. I’ll try and finagle my way in with artist management or whoever’s running the festival, so I can get that access and get the photos that no one else can.

I think that was my way of beating the system and not getting the same photos as everyone else. I wouldn’t be where I am if I wasn’t doing festival and music photography because I think it was such a welcoming community, and it was such an easy stepping stone to get into the photography world. I think it still is for a lot of people, and I encourage it. But, do it for a little bit, and then find your voice in something else. That’s my advice.

Ryan Farber

Anything that you wanna talk about that you’re gonna be doing in the future?

Yeah, well I guess I have some projects of my own that I’ll hopefully finish next year. One of them is this photo book mini-documentary on the B-Boys (the dancers that I was talking to you about earlier). So that, and another little audio-visual photo piece on the band that I toured with a couple years ago. That band is called The Districts. I’m focusing on those things, so I can move onto more projects.

And one thing that I really wanna do that I haven’t really started on yet, but I wanna do is a documentary piece on the creators who are the creative directors and the tour photographers of the world, the people that are creating the identities for a lot of artists but don’t necessarily get that same spotlight as the artists. I wanna do that because that’s the way I have felt for a while. I think those people are so vital to the creative world because they are creating a lot of artist’s identities. But it’s that case of losing your own identity. Where do you draw the line between creating art for someone else and creating art for yourself?

Ryan Farber
Ryan Farber

Ryan Farber

Ryan Farber
Ryan Farber
Ryan Farber
Ryan Farber
Ryan Farber
Ryan Farber
Ryan Farber

Ryan Farber

Ryan Farber