Q&A with Music Photographer Amanda Johnson

By Natalie Leinbach

Amanda Johnson, a photographer and videographer from Austin, TX, works on the front lines in the music industry. After her brief education as an art photography major at Syracuse University, she dropped out to pursue art on her own. After I saw Amanda in the field shooting on tour with Saint Motel last year, I knew I had to sit down with her to find out more.

NL: What first got you into photography and videography? When?

AJ: I was always fascinated with video, that’s actually how I got into photography. When I was 13 I got my first DLSR, a Canon T2i, to start making videos. I’ve always had very high standards for myself so I’d always be comparing the videos I made with my T2i and Final Cut Express to those on Vimeo and Youtube with multiple people crews, crazy cinematic cameras, etc., and would get frustrated. So I started messing more with the photo capabilities and that’s where I stayed until I was about 20. During my teen years, I shot everything, “fashion,” sports, even a wedding. Though I didn’t really enjoy shooting those things, I enjoyed shooting pictures. I went to a show for a band called Wolf Gang (who I saw open up for Coldplay during my first concert) and took my camera. The photos from that night are horrid, but it was the first time where I knew what I wanted to shoot.

NL: How did you break into the music journalism industry?

AJ: I’m very lucky to have grown up in a place like Austin. The city has more music venues than it knows what to do with. During my upperclassmen years of high school, I started taking my camera to small dive bar shows on 6th street and eventually built up a pretty decent portfolio. A few months later I was lucky enough to get in with one of the local promoters, so shooting their shows became my main gig. I learned a lot of tough lessons about the music industry during working with promoters, but I’m glad I learned them when I was 21 and fresh-faced rather than in my late 20s or early 30s that really would have brought me down and probably wouldn’t make me want to pursue a career in this field.

NL: How did you gain the opportunity to shoot on tour with a band?

AJ: When I was 20 and already had a few years under my belt as a “music photographer,” I wanted to start getting back into video. I remember meeting a guy named Gibson Hazard at a Kyle show and he was really encouraging and supportive of my photo work. He inspired me to pick up a video camera again and for the first year or so, I’d text him my crappy video edits and he’d give me feedback and advice. I’d use some of my contacts that I’d built up through the years and reach out to artists whenever they’d come to Austin. Whether for shows, SXSW, ACL, or whatever, I’d do my best to shoot for someone while they were here. This eventually got me a little reputation in LA (though at the time, I’d never been) and I found artists I’d work for would recommend me to their peers and friends and I got more work and contacts that way, and that eventually led to my first tour.

NL: What was your experience working on tour as a photographer?

AJ: It’s a lot of hard work. I think people get this luxurious idea of touring when in reality, it’s quite the opposite. Don’t get me wrong, I love it and love the people I work with, but if there’s one word I’d use to describe touring, it sure as hell wouldn’t be glamorous (sorry, I don’t know if I can cuss). It’s a lot of sitting around and waiting. There are times when there’s a bunch of stuff going on with promo, fan meet n greets, soundchecks, etc., but genuinely, my workday (unless I was editing footage or an artist had morning promo) wouldn’t start until around 6 pm. However, from about 6 pm-4 am, I'm working like an absolute maniac! Trying to capture everything on camera, edit things in a timely manner, talk to fans, find time to shower before bus calls, etc.

NL: What was the strangest thing that happened to you on tour?

AJ: Hmmm… that’s a tough one. One that’s PG friendly and just straight-up hilarious is Sharp from Saint Motel brought a small taser on the last tour and used it to just terrorize! One of the funniest things ever! Was also funnier when Canadian Border Patrol confiscated it as a firearm when we crossed over to Toronto for a show.

NL: What is your favorite show you covered and why? (Does not necessarily have to be on tour!)

AJ: Probably Chance the Rapper a few years ago in Houston. It was the first time I’d been to a show and walked away with banger after banger. Almost 4 years later and a lot of those photos are still some of my favorite performance photos ever.

NL: What does your creative process look like?

AJ: Depends. On tour, I try my best to find new angles and things to shoot every night which can be a little challenging and tedious, but I love it because it forces me to really flex my creative muscles and push myself. I like to shoot soundchecks too so I can get an idea of how the show looks from different places in the venue, so I know what spots are good during the show. If during a show I suddenly have an idea for a cool video sequence, I’ll start going around the venue or stage to get those shots and bring what’s in my head to life.

NL: Who or what inspires your work?

AJ: A lot of people and luckily I know a few of them! Guys like Gibson, Greg Noire, Pooneh Ghana are all very inspiring to me when it comes to music photography/videography.

NL: What artist would you most like to shoot in the future? Why?

AJ: I’d love to shoot The 1975. Even just in the pit for 1 song. I feel like Matty Healy is both ahead of his time and subsequently a modern man. I just love them.

NL: What is next for you in your career? Any hot takes on what live music is going to look like after the Pandemic?

AJ: I had a few tours and gigs planned for this year, but that’s all been scrapped. I’m using this time to brush up on my skills and learn new things as well as make some music. I find making music and being creative in a way that’s not photo/video related to be super helpful, especially when I’m in a rut. As for hot takes, not sure, I think virtual concerts like Travis Scott in Fortnite and live-streamed shows like what Tory Lanez did will become much more prevalent, even post-Rona.

NL: What advice do you have for aspiring music journalists?

AJ: Go out of your way to meet new people and ALWAYS BE NICE. I really can’t stress that enough. People remember everything, especially how you make them feel. I remember there were a few local photographers that would always brush me off when we’d be shooting shows in the pit. I started making more contacts and landing tour gigs and the same people are emailing me for advice, always commenting and responding to my IG posts and stories and it’s just so transparent! Unfortunately, there’s a lot of that behavior in this industry. Just be nice to everyone!