This is the story of Walid Azami. While on stage with me at FlynnCon, he blew me and the audience away with an amazing origin story about how he became Usher’s personal photographer on tour. It starts with something in his gut telling him to buy a camera – something he had no idea how to use. He’s since gone on to photograph celebrities including J Lo, Madonna, Ricky Martin, Mariah Carey and many more.
WALID AZAMI: Look so grainy and so contrasty, I kept pushing buttons. I turned everything black and white I sent them like 10 images. I get a call back, in under half of an hour. Usher’s manager’s on the phone, he’s like I don’t know what you did, but his whole thing is old Hollywood, and he wants.
WALID AZAMI: I was like, what? And so, he wants this black and white, grainy, high contrast, thing and he wants to know if you’d be open to going on tour with him, as his personal photographer.
WALID AZAMI: So! That’s how I learned photography, is –
INTERVIEWER: Oh my God!
WALID AZAMI: On YouTube
INTERVIEWER: Meet Walid Azami, a renowned photographer from Los Angeles, who has worked with celebrities, like J Lo, Madonna and Usher. His photographs are stunning! But it wasn’t always like that. In fact, when he first started out, he bought a camera and didn’t even know how to use it.
WALID AZAMI: If you ever give a piece of electronic like a grandparent and you are like, “Here, work it.” And they’re looking at it. That’s how I was with the camera. I did not know what an f-stop was, I didn’t know, I don’t even know for Photoshop existed.
INTERVIEWER: But then something incredible happened. Thanks to the power —
WALID AZAMI: YouTube!
INTERVIEWER: — and listening to his intuition.
WALID AZAMI: That God feeling!
INTERVIEWER: He was able to land the job of a lifetime! Here’s the story, about how Walid, became Usher’s personal photographer?
INTERVIEWER: I would like for you to welcome to the stage, Walid Azami.
WALID AZAMI: I paid rent that month. So I had no more money left and I had one more credit card. You know and my mom and dad, you know also refugees, like they did everything, from picking fruit to working laundry mats, to washing dishes and like no less than two jobs ever. And I thought, how am I going to be a failure, when they’ve worked so hard? You know, and I have a college degree and I’ve all these things going for me, but I was really failing.
And I had this weird feeling, this thing that he’s talking about, to buy a camera. But I don’t even know, like you know, if you’ve ever, if you ever like give a piece of electronic to like a grandparent and you are like work it and they’re looking at it. That’s how I was with a camera. I did not know what an f-stop was, I didn’t know, I’d even know Photoshop existed. That’s how like backwards I was.
INTERVIEWER: Something told you to get a camera?
WALID AZAMI: — Get a camera and I kept suppressing that thought, and it wouldn’t go away! But the next rent cycles coming too, you know and I thought, okay. It kept, buy a camera, buy a camera, and buy a camera so one day, I get in my car after two weeks of this feeling not, you know, silencing itself!
Like a dummy, I went to the camera store, no, I mean I’m glad I went, but I was like, hi, I want to be a photographer and I’ve $2000 on my credit card,
WALID AZAMI: And they sold me like $1998 and like whatever, right! I bought batteries and battery chargers and everything! The look that you have, I sat in my car and I was like, what did I do? Okay! This story that I told you was going to take a minute.
Interviewer: No, keep going, please.
WALID AZAMI: And so I went home, I’m looking at this thing, like what am I supposed to do with it?
WALID AZAMI: Really, for real! I did not know anything, I had bought all these like weird arm extensions that they sold me.
INTERVIEWER: Oh my god!
WALID AZAMI: And like, yeah, it was terrible!
INTERVIEWER: They sold you then —
WALID AZAMI: They sold me yeah, yeah. And I had the kit lens, I had a prosumer camera, which is a nice way of saying, you’re not really there with the professional camera. You know, it’s just big body, small insides. And with the camera, that’s what it is.
WALID AZAMI: Yeah, and it was, so about four five days later, now what happened in that one week of like staring at this camera, I ran out of money and my credit card had like a dollar fifty left in it, or something, and I was embarrassed to tell anybody, even my like my best friend, he’s here somewhere, Matt. but I couldn’t ask anybody for help and I’m trying to figure out how to go to the next room and tell April, my roommate.
Hey, I can’t pay rent, you know? I get a call from a friend, so I had actually called Trader Joe’s and I said hey, what day do you guys throw out food? And the guy knew why, I guess they were getting a lot of calls as the recession was really hitting, you know?
And he told me, he’s like, on this day produce, on this day, dry goods, on this day, whatever. And, I went dumpster diving for food I did not even has enough money for food.
And probably three, four days after that, I get a call from a friend, of a friend, of a friend, that said, “Hey Walid!” So whenever someone says, Walid, but whenever says, “Walid”, they don’t know me. So I’m like, “Who is this?”
WALID AZAMI: And they said, “Do you do behind the scenes video?” and I was like, “Yes!” and they said, “Okay, well Usher “just fired his videographer”.
WALID AZAMI: Okay?
WALID AZAMI: That’s literally the look that I had too!
And I was so excited because I could buy food! I don’t have to go to the back of the grocery store next week you know and, I went out and as I was about to close the door, this feeling came up again, and said, “He doesn’t know that you’re here for video, “grab that camera that you bought too!”
And so I grabbed that camera and I had the little blackberry curve, I think, remember the one with the ball?
AUDIENCE MEMBER: Yeah! Oh yeah
WALID AZAMI: And if you had greasy food the ball would get stuck.
WALID AZAMI: Not only your shirt and clean it, and stuff. And, I wrote on that, F-Stop means, if you want the picture to be brighter, do the button here.Like a Googled this, right?
And I went, and I went to the Kodak theater,it was two levels underground, so there was no reception and I have had in this little blackberry notepad, and I put the cast. Literally I was on autopilot with my instincts and I said, I’m just going to go with it. I have nothing else to lose right now. I’m going to go with it.And I’m taking pictures, and, so there’s this thing called Kelvin, which is light temperature.
They have fluorescent lights, so my pictures are like yellow and blue, and every color and they’re like muddy looking, because I don’t know what I’m doing, right? I have no idea, I’m pushing buttons.
INTERVIEWER: And you’re taking photography of Usher while doing this?
WALID AZAMI: Pictures are coming out, but it’s not the pictures that I want, yeah and then like will I am comes in there and I’m like (gasps).
WALID AZAMI: What is going on, right?
And Usher, okay when I get nervous, I look really, really, really nervous.So again, kind of like this, you know? Again, and so he asks me, “What F-Stop are you using?”
WALID AZAMI: And I had this deer in headlights face, and I’m telling you, the instincts were kicking in, like times a 100 and I looked at him and something in my brain said, it’s better that he thinks you’re crazy, than not having any idea. I looked at him and I walked away.
WALID AZAMI: Yeah, and I did, and I, yeah!
WALID AZAMI: I walked away. And I went upstairs, two flights, to the Kodak Theater, like where that forever 21 is and all the street performers, and I’m like, F-Stop was that. Okay. Come back, you know.
And I’m taking pictures,I’m taking them the video camera, by the way, is on a tripod, record, it’s just like a wide shot.Like a security camera pretty much.And I’m taking pictures and I’m going on machine gun mode.I’m like (clicks), like whatever.
I went home, completely, just shook up about everything. I don’t know what happened. I went home and I looked at these pictures, they are every color, but the color that they should be.
And I didn’t know Photoshop existed, and probably out of, oh I had a 1 gig card by the way, and I was shooting on it, if you guys take pictures, on JPEG small.
So you can’t even make more than like. More than an 8/10, at best!
And I kept shooting and shooting, and I went home I was like, okay. And I, if you guys use Mac, I’m sure PC has something too, the preview thing, like you open a PDF in? I went into settings and I was trying to retouch on that.
INTERVIEWER: So the monitor changed, but the actual photo did not, Kind of thing?
WALID AZAMI: So if I was to send you a JPEG, you can double click it and then on a Mac, I don’t know what PC has, but you can what is it, you can it’s like you can change your contrast and the saturation.
INTERVIEWER: Oh Okay. Like vibrance and all that?
WALID AZAMI: That’s it, you know.
So they called me, after three days of me going, what just happened? But I was getting a paycheck for food, to buy the next month groceries.And Benny Medina, ushers then manager, called and he’s like,“Hey, where are those pictures?”
And I have to open the folders and I pulled out, maybe 10 that you can tell that was Usher.
WALID AZAMI: And something told me, I’m literally on autopilot of instincts, something told me, you know what?
Just go black and white, because your pictures are right now, blue and yellow, and everything because of light temperature.
WALID AZAMI: And because I didn’t know how to brighten a picture, I kept pushing the ISO all the way up, so it was so grainy, and so contrasty, I kept pushing buttons. I turned everything black and white, I sent them 10 images. I get a call back, in under half of an hour.
Usher’s managers is on the phone, he’s like, and “I don’t know what you did, but his whole thing “is old Hollywood and he wants.”
I was like, “What?”
WALID AZAMI: “And so, he wants this black and white, “grainy, high contrast, thing and he wants to know “if you’d be open to going on tour with him, “as his personal photographer.”
WALID AZAMI: So! That’s how I learned photography, is —
INTERVIEWER: Oh my god!
WALID AZAMI: On YouTube and I would type things on YouTube, like how, I would, and the first searches were like, how do you take off a lens, on a camera?
WALID AZAMI: You know, it was like that. And —
INTERVIEWER: Oh my God!
WALID AZAMI: Yeah, yeah, yeah, so it was really rough and I would go, and he loves to party, so we would and record real late nights. I would follow him everywhere and we would get home, or to the hotel room at three in the morning, and then I would sit till five or six, till I would fall asleep sitting up.
And I would learn one new thing, on YouTube.And I promised myself, I was going to learn one thing, every single day and the next day usher would be like, “Let’s do this?”I’m like, “well let’s not.” because I had learned,
WALID AZAMI: I have learned, window lighting and so I was like, “How about this window here?” because that’s all that I knew. But I knew one thing more than yesterday. And then on Tuesday, I would know three things. And I kept going and at some point. I discovered there was Photoshop, you know?
WALID AZAMI: And I discovered, so that’s what I would do and I would just make things up, and so that’s why I was so nervous to release the book, to answer your question from 35 minutes ago.
WALID AZAMI: That’s why I was so nervous. Because I was learning things on my own and I was making lights with Home Depot stuff, and everything and then, I don’t know, I guess people just started calling after that. Like I did, I did a lot of things and yeah! Now there, here I am! FlynnCon 1,
INTERVIEWER: Yeah! Wow
INTERVIEWER: So you got people standing up for you.
WALID AZAMI: Oh, thank you!
INTERVIEWER: Thank you.
WALID AZAMI: Long answer.
INTERVIEWER: I did not know that he was going tell that story.
WALID AZAMI: Yeah!
INTERVIEWER: That story needs to be a book!
AUDIENCE: Your life story needs to be a book!
WALID AZAMI: Thank you.
INTERVIEWER: There are so many. Thank you.