July 26, 2018

Pooneh Ghana’s Intimate Polaroid Music Photography

Article submitted to the Polaroid Originals Magazine by Matt Williams.

It only takes a very quick glance at Pooneh Ghana’s portfolio or Instagram profile to get an idea of the miles she’s covered as a photographer. Many of those miles have been logged down dusty highways with bands like Bully, Diarrhea Planet, Portugal. The Man, Twin Peaks, and Cage The Elephant, who she’s been the official tour photographer for since 2014. Her client list includes Rolling Stone, Pitchfork, Fender, and Atlantic Records.

The Polaroid portraits she shoots are intimate, full of life, and—and this is rarer than you might think—often capture her subjects in what seem like astoundingly relaxing moments. Likely because there’s a kinship there—artists acknowledging one of their own, friends in a moment where they can catch their breath together. Ghana’s work bristles with palpable electricity, pulling viewers into outposts wild and free, usually touched with saturation so vivid you’d swear each photo was glowing. We caught up with her via email just after she’d been working in London, England and at the Pitchfork Music Festival to talk about life on the road and what she’s learned from it.

Alex Cameron by Pooneh Ghana

How did you get into photography?

I started getting interested in photography in high school. I was kind of a floater at school. I often felt like I was an outsider amongst my peers at the time, kind of like a fly on the wall. I found myself gradually doing my own thing more and more as I didn’t really find any sense of comfort in my high school and was working my ass off to get out of there. I ended up graduating a year early. I started doing other things on my own around the age of 15, like traveling, going to shows in Austin, and eventually getting interested in the world of photography and buying my first camera, a Holga. I kind of became obsessed, spending all my money on film and taking my camera everywhere I went, researching whatever I could about cameras, lenses, developing film, how to play around with lights, etc. And that’s kind of how it began.

How did you get involved with shooting bands and going on tour?

It just happened naturally as I was going to shows and music events. As I started getting more and more interested in the world of photography, that eventually bled over to taking photos of bands whenever I went out to a gig. Around 18, I became more seriously interested in the world of music photography and making a career out of doing two things I love.

What’s one of your fondest tour memories that you don’t have a photo of?

Not sure if this counts, but getting to play a guitar part of “Sabertooth Tiger” onstage in front of 3000 people with Cage The Elephant when I was on tour with them a few years ago. A few other people got photos, but it was one of the rare times I actually had to put my camera down. Haha. It was absolutely insane, and I came offstage like, “Holy shit, now I get what it’s like.”

Julia [Sunflower Bean] by Pooneh Ghana
Courtney Barnett & Kurt Vile by Pooneh Ghana
Angel Olsen by Pooneh Ghana

What’s the hardest part of being on the road?

Staying healthy, physically and mentally. Getting enough sleep and trying your best not to eat pizza or gas station sandwiches every night really go a long way. You want to be able to come out of the tour bubble and still have a sense of how to function normally in society. [Laughs]

What makes it worth it?

The fact that I love what do, through the ups and downs. I’m always grateful to get to make a living doing something I’m passionate about and progressing in it each year.

Are there any festivals that you refuse to miss every year? Why?

FORM and Desert Daze are now two of my favorite festivals. Incredible lineups, beautiful locations, really well curated, not massive festivals. They are both doing something different and exciting in a very saturated and repetitive time for music festivals.

Why is instant photography such an important part of your work?

I started off shooting a lot of band Polaroids just after shows for fun. In a chaotic and spontaneous environment, I feel like every time I shot with Polaroids it captured a sense of intimacy within the artist’s world. It’s a lot less intimidating and can capture a unique and genuine energy that you can’t really duplicate with other mediums.

Mac De Marco by Pooneh Ghana
The Strokes by Pooneh Ghana
Bleached by Pooneh Ghana

How does instant photography suit working on the road?

There are so many spontaneous moments on the road, and the way Polaroids are able to capture those moments like I mentioned in my last answer, really brings a wall down in the photo and lets the sense of intimacy come through.

Tell us the story behind one of your favorite photos.

The Polaroids I shot for The Strokes a couple years ago will always be some of my favorites personally, as that shoot was a really full circle moment for me. My first show in Austin was The Strokes back in 2014 at the Austin Music Hall, and I think listening to their music and seeing them play at such an important time in my adolescence really helped shape the person I am now as far as my musical taste, passion for live music, and eventually what I ended up doing as a career in that world.

Who’s the number one artist on your shooting bucket list?

That’s a tough one! Maybe Beyoncé. Or Spice Girls reunited.

What’s the next frontier for you? What would you like to explore with your photography that you haven’t yet?

I’m definitely dabbling in other things now. I’ve actually begun to take on more video work, like music videos and tour videos. I’m really excited to dive into that more. I’m definitely nervous as well, but in a good way. It’s good to be a little nervous about what you’re doing, otherwise I know I don’t feel like I’m progressing or learning something new, which I always want to be doing within photography and my creativity.

What’s the most important thing you’ve learned doing all this—in life, photography, whatever—so far?

Be nice and be humble. The people who can show others what they can do don’t need to be talking about what they can do all the time.

Courtney Barnett by Pooneh Ghana

Follow along with Pooneh’s adventures on tour via her Instagram.