Three months worth of living expenses and camera equipment—that’s all artist-turned-photographer, director, and editor Ben Hagarty brought with him when he moved from Cedar Falls, Iowa, to Los Angeles, California in the summer of 2015.
One problem: Hagarty, 30, didn’t have a stable job lined up. No safety net, either; really, no plan beyond leaving Cedar Falls. And so for roughly 15 months, couches and floors were home.
“It was worth the risk for me to come out to LA, spend my money, and get myself on sets or wherever I needed to elevate myself,” Hagarty tells me by phone. “If I could go do that and put myself out there, who knows what could come back from it.”
Although there wasn’t a dynamic strategy behind his relocation 1,790 miles southwest of his hometown, two Los Angeles connections, director Andrew Sandler and Top Dawg Entertainment’s Moosa Tiffith, the son of TDE founder and CEO Anthony “Top Dawg” Tiffith, helped Hagarty connect a few dots.
“Immediately I got plugged into working as Andrew’s assistant on the Chris Brown documentary Welcome to My Life, which then turned into me becoming the co-editor on that film because I did so much on that project,” Hagarty says.
Hagarty didn't expect to earn a co-editor title; he didn’t even expect to get paid. Cognizant that his work on a documentary set to be released globally was a precious opportunity, however, Hagarty willingly dipped into his three-month security blanket fund to cover his daily transportation from the Valley to the production office in Midtown.
“Offer anything you can of value without any expectation of getting something in return,” Hagarty says, demonstrating the best way to stick around when you're the fresh face in the room. “That’s probably my best piece of advice.”
Over the past four-plus years, Hagarty has racked up photography and directorial credits with a Who's Who of industry A-listers, including but not limited to JAY-Z, Beyoncé (Homecoming), ScHoolboy Q, Chris Brown, and Mary J. Blige. Hagarty has also worked with Kendrick Lamar, except for when, in 2017, he passed up a filming gig on The DAMN. Tour in favor of starting his "Black with No Cream" network, an online community for creatives with a specific focus on cultivating shared resources.
The opportunity to shoot a Kendrick Lamar tour doesn't come around every day, but for Hagarty, there is no greater feeling than "being able to be innovative in the world that you’re in."
Add value, always.
My conversation with Ben Hagarty, lightly edited for content and clarity, follows below.
DJBooth: Upon arriving in Los Angeles, were you aware you needed to make yourself available whenever the opportunity came knocking.
Ben Hagarty: Absolutely. With Moosa [Tiffith], for example, he told me I was going on tour when I was at SXSW and I thought it was going to happen that month. Then, I wouldn’t hear back from him. When I did talk to him he said they were working on it and he’d let me know, but eventually, I had a feeling the tour wasn’t happening. You never saw anything about it on the internet, and nothing was being promoted. I was just a sitting duck back in Iowa and it was crucial for me to get there and be in his face.
When I got to LA, Moosa would always be at the house I was staying at—my friend Craig let me sleep on the floor at his house—and when he was there, they would work on other projects not focused on the tour. I decided to lowkey be working on other stuff in the background that was irrelevant to the tour. When I picked up steam, people would be bragging about me to Moosa at the house, so he was always paying attention. By the time ScHoolboy Q’s tour came along, which was a year and a half later, he called me and was like, “Yo, now is the time! I am putting you on this tour and we gotta go.” It ended up happening, [it] just took way longer than I anticipated. He continued to see me working on Chris Brown’s music videos and working with different artists, like Mary J. Blige. That all played a role, but it's about being in people’s faces in a nonchalant way.
It seems like most of the opportunities you’ve seized have come from your network and word of mouth. What’s your take on professional relationship building?
Offer anything you can of your value without any expectation of getting something in return. That’s probably my best piece of advice. I came in and sat down with Andrew [Sandler] for days on end without ever asking for a dime. All I knew was that I was in a position to empower Andrew to make sure that he makes the best film possible. I did everything I could on my end as an editor and as a creator to uplift him as a director and make him look really good. If he looks good, then in the next project they’ll want to bring me in on it. I ended up cutting a lot of Chris Brown’s documentary and that worked itself out to get me that credit, but I didn’t plan or expect that credit.
I didn’t expect him to even invite me back after the first day but by offering any of my wisdom, any of my ideas or suggestions in a helpful manner, he saw it as a value and brought me in and allowed me to work on the project with him to help elevate his content. If you can do that I think the possibilities are endless!
Coming from Iowa, a place where working with some of the world’s biggest artists probably seems like a distant dream, how did you respond to “too good to be true” opportunities?
Did you see the video I made that recapped the last three years in my life? There was so much I couldn’t include in that because there wasn’t enough time. Watching that video I was like, “Holy shit!” I’ve done so much just in these three years alone, not even counting the last ten years of proactively being involved as a creator, but it all happened so fast. You get into one thing and then it moves into the next and all of a sudden it levels up and it feels like a game.
I finally got to be on [a tour bus] for ScHoolboy Q’s tour but I also got to travel the world in it. Following that, I got to go to Coachella to shoot for him and Kendrick. After that, they asked me to do Kendrick’s documentary and I remember saying to my girl that, that was it on my checklist. Kendrick’s documentary with arenas sold out? I felt like there was no artist I could do anything bigger with unless it was Beyoncé or JAY-Z. A year later, it turned into Beyoncé’s Coachella performance and then touring with Beyoncé and JAY-Z, which is the most surreal shit. I wanted to do arenas but it turned into stadiums and now… There’s nothing bigger than that.
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Give me an example of how, situationally, a new experience has completely changed your perspective.
When I was working with Chris Brown and we would be on set or when we would be at any of his music videos, it was easy for me to communicate to him and to create things for him because I knew what I would want if I were him. Having been in the artist’s shoes, I see things a little different than Andrew does, for example, because Andrew is coming from the director’s standpoint and has never been involved in music as an artist. As a musician, I could see or hear or understand what Chris would be saying that other people wouldn’t get just because I have lived in music. I think that has always given me this upper hand having done music like that because I have a whole other insight to what it’s like to be an artist and can act on that, which is dope. I think that’s why I am so deep in music because of my obsession with it for so long. You need to talk to them in their language.
Have you ever experienced losing an opportunity that was offered to you and then taken away?
Yes, absolutely. Things come and go very quickly. Things are always promised to you and then no one hits you back or the project gets dumped. Especially on the corporate side, which is obviously where the money is at. There was a company that basically needed someone internal that they could have on a retainer for editing content; minimal work but they’re a multimillion dollar company. They said they wanted me to come in on three different projects and each project was like one hundred and fifty thousand for the year. It sounded like a layup to get all three of them. I was sitting there, barely paying my $1,200 a month rent in LA, and all of a sudden they’re talking about paying me almost a half a million dollars a year to do something easy.
I am immediately looking at a BMW i8 online. I’ve never cared about an i8 in my life but I was like, “What’s it [cost] to lease an i8?” I felt like I could finally get a new apartment and it was going to be amazing! Then, all of a sudden, that person that was in that department got moved to a different department and that budget was completely gone. It was that easy. Maybe if we just pulled the trigger two days before... You feel those hits but you have to train yourself that nothing is real until it’s either released or a check is in your bank. Nothing ever is real out here until contracts are signed.
Biggest mistake as a creative?
I think the biggest mistakes are when you realize you could have charged more money. That’s why I always try to change the way I do rates. I don’t have a rate for myself because every project is different and every project has a different budget. If you say you cost five dollars a day to do the job and you realize they had one hundred dollars for you, they still got you for five. You’ve got to find different ways to get them to tell you how much money they have. It definitely sucks when you realize you should have made way more money for a job but you live and you learn.
How did you initially determine your value?
You learn what going rates are. You start learning how much certain things cost or how much someone would pay. My friend Tim is Iowa’s best wedding photographer and is the goat for this shit. He was hired all the time. When someone would ask me to do something, I would always go to his website because he would have his prices listed out and I would compare something similar. I was like, “Cool, Tim would charge $600, then I could charge $300 because I am not as good as him.” I didn’t know how else to charge. You just learn. My dad used to get on my ass all the time because I would always do work for free and he would always tell me not to sell myself short. I started to learn that as things went by living out in LA.
For artists who are on the come up now, why is investing in video important?
It’s so crucial. Video is the number one thing [artists] will be paying for in the next five years. It’s so big. Look at YouTube. The way we consume content is unreal. Images and video are the main way to do it. People aren’t going to Instagram looking for records. You hear about records because you see a picture or video that’s advertising a record.
I always talk about this and use Travis Scott’s tour as an example. There was this single shot from a long zoom camera, I think Trash Tyler shoots for him, tight in on Travis and he’d be like, “Fuck the club up!”, and then zoom out and you see the entire stadium lit as fuck. That made me want to buy a ticket.
What should artists keep in mind when hiring a videographer?
They should find someone that understands that same value of video. A lot of videographers and photographers that are on tour with artists just want to be in the mix and get a quick photograph of someone cool walking by because they’re at an event. Some dope artist comes through and they think that they’re killing it because they’re getting all these rappers in their photos.
There’s got to be another level to it in the sense of marketing. How can you create content that the artist can share that is going to help elevate their brand? Same thing with me helping Andrew with his documentary. I wanted to help elevate his brand with the hopes that it would turn key for me. By doing that same thing for an artist, you have to think about how you can make their experience better. How can you help add value to what their mission is as an artist? What’s their story? How can you tell their story? Then try to be original and create something that is interesting to watch.
Also, I know a lot of artists who, the last thing they pay for is videographers and photographers, which is fucked up. To me it’s so fucked up that videographers and photographers are the last people to catch a check. They are the most disrespected creators in the whole industry of creating, in my opinion.
Your producer is going to get his percentage of a record that he works on in most cases, songwriters are getting points on their records, and then they’re going to try to get videographers to bite $100 a week or even less. I’ve heard horror stories. I would never go out anymore for a job that is that cheap per week. Then they expect them to shoot nonstop and edit nonstop, do photos, do everything. That’s so fucked up to me, especially when that content affects the way your brand moves, the way you build, grow fans, sell merch, ticket and album sales. That should be the number one thing you put money into. That should be the first person you support nonstop.
A lot of [people] will shoot for an artist full-time—like I’ve been doing for JAY-Z and Bey for the last year or with ScHoolboy Q for six months—and when they go home, they’re sleeping in some grimy four-bedroom [apartment] with a buncha people. They should be able to be in a nice condo. They should be able to invest in their 401K and retirement and all that, too. They’re working their ass off for you to be able to do the same thing.
As much as it’s an honorable experience, how has working with Beyoncé and JAY-Z been a learning experience?
Their work ethic is inspiring as fuck. They’re the most talented people on Earth. When I work with an artist I always feel like they are the most talented person but it’s just another level of talent with Jay and Bey. What they have is untouchable. I don’t know if it’s the team that they surround themselves with or what but they just push it every time.
Every creative has to bring something new to the table; something that makes them different and valuable. What’s that one thing for you?
Being able to be innovative in the world that you’re in. Even if it’s in meetings, find ways to innovate in those meetings and empower those you’re around in the most creative way possible. To me, it’s always trying to find something new that no one’s ever had before. To be ahead of the curve and find ways to add value. I’ll stress value over and over again.