Nabil’s Liquid Light
Before moving back to his birthplace of Chicago from Australia in 1999, Nabil Elderkin’s photography mainly focused on the surf scene in which he was an avid participant. But back in the waveless Windy City, Elderkin’s interest turned to Chicago’s emerging music scene, where he became obsessed with a mixtape by Kanye West, who, at the time, was fairly unknown. In a moment of impulse, Elderkin acquired the unregistered domain name, KanyeWest.com, and soon received a phone call from Roc-A-Fella Records asking him to relinquish the rights. Instead of a shakedown, Elderkin negotiated an opportunity to photograph the emerging hip hop artist. The images developed as West’s first promotional shots ahead of his 2004 debut album, The College Dropout.
Photograph by Jaesung Lee
Since then, Elderkin’s career has flourished and expanded across mediums, from portrait photography to directing some of the most progressive contemporary music videos of the past decade, including iconic shots for Frank Ocean, FKA twigs, and Nicki Minaj. With a natural gift for storytelling, Elderkin is not afraid to use surreal imagery and bizarre camera effects to create a unique world for each song. With the same fervent attitude as when he began, Elderkin is now transitioning into directing short films, including a new piece with Nelson Mandela’s family. Whether he’s creating visuals for a hit rap song or directing a film about a national hero, Elderkin never lets pretension and fame get in the way of good story telling.
Did music videos play a big role during your youth? Can you think of one in particular that inspired you?
I was more into surfing and living on the beach than watching television. Man, I was the biggest Michael Jackson fan, from “Moon Walker” to “Thriller,” but I think more subliminally. I never thought I would be doing music videos. I didn’t even know I would be doing photography until I was about sixteen. I did photography in my last year of high school and my teacher failed me. She literally failed me on my final project. Whenever I think about it I laugh.
Your big directorial break was when you started collaborating with Kanye West in Chicago. What was it like working with him?
Working with him was always good. He is a real creative, crazy person—but crazy in a good way. Obviously, sometimes it comes out differently in the media. He went to art school, so he appreciates and tries to push creativity. Just being on his music video sets and shooting photos when I was young was one of the biggest inspirations. It made me passionate, seeing the way he was so involved and so articulate with what he wanted. He never settled for anything he wasn’t proud of. He never let it go under the rug or said, “Okay, this is fine.” He would just keep working on it and pay with his own money until it got to that point. That is how my work ethic is. I need to be proud of everything I work on and I want it to be one-hundred percent before it comes out.
What was your favorite project you worked on with Kanye?
Nothing in particular. I like working with him but it is not easy because I’m similar to him in the way we do creative things. I am very controlling and he is very controlling, so it doesn’t always work out for the best. It has been fun. The “Mercy” video was the last video I worked on with him. Basically, he called me up and said to come to Qatar and shoot a video. I got off the plane and in an hour I had to come up with an idea. We shot three hours later.
You have since worked with Frank Ocean, Arctic Monkeys, Foals, Nicki Minaj, Bon Iver, and Lana Del Rey, to name a few. Does your immediate interaction with the performer or artist define the story and vision of a video?
No, they usually send me a song and I just come up with something. I get the song, put it on repeat, and I write down ideas and build off them. I did meet with FKA twigs and she played “Two Weeks” for me in the studio. I pitched her the idea six minutes later. Well, the rough idea of her being a Cleopatra-type royal who has liquid coming out of her fingers, feeding little versions of herself. We went back and forth about her dancing. It was a one shot video.
How would you define your overall creative aesthetic, and what inspires that style?
Just weird as fuck. I like the idea of magic realism or thought provoking in a way without it being too literal. I like people to take from it and interpret it however they want. At the end of every video, you can say it had a defined meaning. But my goal is not that. My goal is for you to come up with your own thoughts, to walk away and say that was ridiculous, or that was funny, or that was cool and made me feel something.
Are there any key ingredients required for making a standout music video?
Simplicity. Just keep it simple, and make something awesome. Everyone is different. Some people like Hype Williams videos, and some people like AJ Rojas videos, and some people like Spike Jonze videos— there are all different vibes that connect to people. The best tip would be not to make it above people’s heads. Do not over think things. I hate pretentious shit. Don’t be pretentious.
Do you envision the future for music videos? How do you see them progressing in years to come?
I think music videos will be around forever. I don’t know where they will evolve. Maybe there will be technology where as you listen to music you see something in front of you. As long as there is music there will be a visual interpretation of it.
You’ve also done everything from photojournalism to documentaries to movies. Is there a difference in your creative process when filming between genres?
Yes. With photos, I go for an even simpler approach. A photo is one click, one moment. You do not have to go from A to B. You need to just capture the A. I love portraiture. I like docu-portraiture. I like capturing real people in real lighting.
Who would you like the opportunity to photograph or direct, dead or alive?
Tupac, all day, every day. If I could have done a Tupac video that would have been amazing.
What are you currently working on?
I am doing a short film in Jamaica with the Nelson Mandela family and Tribeca Film [Institute]. I am developing some movies, and my Skrillex video will be coming out. Hopefully I’m not doing too many more music videos. I am just trying to stay creative.
What is your WILD Wish?
I am going to go super corny and say I wish everyone had the ability to travel, and everyone in the whole world had four passes a year where they have to go someplace else.