Hey, You’re Cool! Photographer Akira Ruiz
"I don’t know, I’m an artist, we do weird things."
New York-raised photographer and director Akira Ruiz can be considered a legend in the game. He’s a 20-year veteran that has focused his lens on a number of greats in their own right, including Rick Ross and Jadakiss, along with members of rap’s new generation. like Lil Yachty and Desiigner. In Ruiz’s most recent design project, he reimagines the value we place on material things with his collection of images of burning sneakers. Ruiz’s résumé boasts partnerships with brands like the NBA and Foot Action, and his most recent work includes a collaboration with 2017’s Freshman Class for XXL Magazine.
Who are you?
I’m Akira Ruiz. My first interest in photography was in junior high, 7th or 8th grade. I went to UNIS for two years after going to PS 41. Tried UNIS for two years and realized I didn’t belong at a private school, but that’s where I got the interest. It’s been 20 years, that was 1991.
What do you feel like was your first big break?
I went to SVA and got my BFA in photography from there. In college I realized I’m going to major in this because there’s a career in it. My eyes really opened after college at Milk Studios in ‘01. That’s when I saw how much money people were really making. I started assisting other photographers and realized how much money was in this game for the big ads.
Was there a particular shoot?
Wow, we’re going back. The first shoot that I made some bread on was a shoot with Nike. After starting the NYC Bridge Runners Club in ‘04 or ‘05, Nike started picking that up. Through Nike, I was able to meet some people and by being in the office, I met other people in other departments. One of the departments had me go to Philly, Baltimore and D.C. to shoot these Nikes in the window. I was still young and I think they paid me 10 or 20 grand, but that was good money for me at that time. That was ‘05 or ‘06.
What was the first camera you ever shot on?
The one that allowed me to really focus a lens and enjoy what was happening through the viewfinder was a Minolta 35mm that my step-pops Phillip got for me.
What’re you shooting with now?
I shoot with a Canon 5D Mark III. For other jobs that require other things I rent cameras, but that’s my own personal one.
How did you get the XXL gig?
I didn’t shoot the cover, I was called in to collaborate with my good friend Travis Shinn. He always calls me since I have street in me. So he hired me for that. I didn’t necessarily shoot it, but because he’s my friend, he allowed me to set up and take my own portraits.
Can you talk a little bit about your burning sneakers project?
That series was basically because of the love of sneakers that I used to have before the craze happened. That was a series I titled “Intervention.” Before they reissued all these Jordans, one of the main shots of the Jordan burning was a classic, original Jordan III. Anybody that looks at the image of the burning sneaker can see the Nike in the back instead of the Jordan symbol, and the fact that I really burned it was kind of a message to all these kids like, “It’s not that important.” It was kind of an intervention for myself to not care about sneakers that much by burning the most important shoes. I don’t know, I’m an artist, we do weird things.
What advice do you have for aspiring photographers who are trying to figure it out?
Originally I was shooting film, so it’s kind of hard for me to give advice to the kids today because they probably have more insight on the social media aspect, so I don’t know if my advice would still be good. However, my advice would be to still shoot film every now and then, because who knows if the power grid goes out that we’ll still be able to see our shit. They should learn lighting, it’s so important. What else? Longevity. Don’t think about whatever fad is happening now, photo-wise, like shooting on top of rooftops, bridges and tunnels with smoke coming out. All that shit is great and it looks good, but don’t go with the fads, shoot whatever interests you the most and stick with that. Longevity in this game is what holds its own. And talent. Knowledge of lighting and knowledge of knowing what the camera does is so important.