A Soundcheck Chat With Anthony Pham

A Soundcheck Chat With Anthony Pham

by Bailey Richards

Trying to find anything in the sea of pride flags, cowboy hats and feather boas at a stop on Harry Styles' Love On Tour is nearly impossible (think Where's Waldo?: Pride Edition.) But if you take a deep breath, choke back any “Matilda”-induced tears and look very carefully, you may just catch a glimpse of Anthony Pham, an unmistakable blur of camera equipment and bubblegum-pink hair, expertly weaving through concertgoers to capture the spectacle.

Born and raised in Los Angeles, Pham has spent nearly his entire life at the intersection of music and photography, shooting enough artists to fill his own red carpet. For the past two years, he has worked closely with Harry Styles, capturing the singer in his signature film-like style, a gig that landed him Favorite Tour Photographer at the 2022 iHeartRadio Music Awards.

With a job that requires his (and his camera’s) focus to be on other people, Pham says that trying to talk about himself is “like pulling teeth,” but he hopped on a call just a few hours before showtime in Cologne, Germany to do just that. With his phone in one hand and a cigarette in the other (manicured pink to match his hair), Pham chatted with PAPER about how he went from sneaking into college lectures to touring with one of the biggest pop stars in the world.

You used to shoot music videos when you were little — is that what led you to where you are today?

I think I would credit my career to skateboarding and the hardcore music scene, in a way. The biggest thing that's helped my photography is just being a part of a community. Having something that you can constantly shoot and capturing people that trust you, I think that's the best way to make photos. All the portraiture stuff that happens in the in-between moments, that's what I get excited about, just those happy accidents.

What do you think your younger self — either that person who was just getting their start in the field or your way younger self — would say if they saw what you're doing today?

My younger self never expected to be touring the world shooting musicians. I grew up in a more strict household where the expectation was more of a traditional job, so the fact that now I'm living this freelance life, it’s the dream in a way. I think that yes — little baby me — but also even me four years ago would be like, “This is kind of crazy.”

You've worked with so many people before Love on Tour — Nipsey Hussle, Migos, Wallows. What was the first moment that gave you that “Oh my God, I made it” moment?

It's hard because I feel like I don't even know if I've made it yet. But I think the turning point, the first celebrity I ever shot was Mac Miller. It was this tiny little thing but looking at it now, especially the influence he had on me and my friends, I feel so fortunate to have had that experience, especially after his passing. That was the first time I shot an artist that I listened to.

What led you to where you are right now, to this tour? Was it the “Watermelon Sugar” behind-the-scenes photos for Vogue?

The first thing I did with Harry was the “Falling” music video. After that, we just kind of clicked and the rest is history. I’m here now because of that specific moment.

Did you work on the [“Falling”] music video itself?

I just did behind-the-scenes stuff for that one. I actually feel like behind-the-scenes [work] is another thing that helped me in my career. It was such a good way to see the process and see the things that interest me about filmmaking. To me, my school was doing behind-the-scenes [work] for stuff and just staying curious and watching how cinematographers lit and what lens they picked and how directors communicated to their cast and crew. There [are] so many people involved in the process and you're only as strong as your team.

So you never went to school for photography or film?

I went to school for graphic design and I got a job while I was in school doing editing for a sports company. I had a crazy commute but I loved the job, so I’d drive two hours to do that job. Eventually, I was like, “Why am I going to school? I'm on my way to doing what I want to do.” After that, I hit up my friend who was going to film school super close to where the job was and just started crashing on his couch. During that time, I would drop in on the classes and rent the gear but the whole time I was never paying tuition. I feel like I’m an alumnus but in reality, I have zero student debt and the community to show for it.

How different was that from what you’re up to now? I see your Instagram stories and it seems like you're having so much fun on tour.

It's interesting because I've done every aspect of tours. I've been in an SUV with five dudes with a trailer sleeping on people's floors and shit. And then this. I've experienced the full spectrum of touring and each version is special. I'm having such a good time on this one because it's my first real experience in Europe. You only have one day off, and it's not really enough to feel a city but I consider it location scouting for the next vacation or something [laughs].

Emotionally and physically, it can be a little taxing. I've just been lucky with this tour of making really good friends and having a sense of community slash family away from my town to hold me down.

What's the shift been like from the smaller venues that you were shooting before to the huge stadiums on this leg of the tour?

I honestly miss shooting in small clubs and the energy in the room that way, because you're so much closer to the artist and the fans. Stages are half as tall, so you’re not looking straight up someone’s nose [laughs]. I do think it's pretty insane, the feeling of how big these rooms are and the energy of these bigger places. I’ve never been in a room so loud. It's crazy. It's contagious, you know? But yeah, I’ve got my Apple Watch, and I’m averaging a lot more steps [laughs].

This community that you found on tour, you're photographing them day in and day out — can you tell me a little bit more about what that's like? What’s it like to be with these people 24/7?

Man, this is the second [tour]. The first one, we got to know each other and then this one, we know each other and it’s fun to have partners to explore these places. When we're feeling down, having someone that you feel like you can talk to and kind of lift each other up when people need it, I think that's super important. As much as you're around people, it can feel lonely on the road when you're away from the people that you care for the most. So I think the fact that we've been able to get close, not only in the band but the crew members and the carpenters and the video guys and the assistants…everyone's looking after each other.

You photographed Harry in the bathtub — there's got to be a level of trust there. Is that something you had to work on a lot these past two years in order to capture those intimate behind-the-scenes moments?

I think when you're working with anyone, it's all about the energy you put out and seeing people as human beings. Trust is always built over time, right? It's never gonna happen on the first meeting with somebody or shoot with someone. Just coming in with good intentions, I think the people that I work with can see that or feel that. I want it to feel — whenever I work with anyone — that we're working together towards something and that it's a collaboration.

You capture these really sweet moments — one of my favorites was that shot of that kid in the “Daylight” music video outfit — but you also have these explosive photos that are full of motion. How do you approach an energetic photo like that versus one of those small, intimate moments?

When I walk around the crowd for [Love On Tour], the energy in the room is infectious and there's so much love and excitement. So I think it's kind of easy, in a way, to find those things. I always try to find moments that feel authentic. My favorite thing is when I find someone that's totally lost in the show and the art and the music and dancing and they don't know I'm there. When I go to see music, when I see someone I really love, I just black out the rest of the world and it's only me and that artist. I try to find people that are just lost in it. I guess I’m photographing myself in those kinds of moments.

For the live stuff, if you’ve watched the show, these musicians [are] just exploding with energy. There's just so much kinetic energy in the room. For me, it's more exciting to feel like the photographs are representative. I guess I'm more interested in composition and lighting and energy and all that than I am in how a person may look.

I definitely feel that. When you capture someone in motion, I can really feel the energy in a photo. It makes sense that that’s something that you prioritize.

I'm just trying to reflect for people that aren't there what it may feel like and I feel like that kind of texture gives them more life. I think there's a perfect balance between motion and still, as in having some blur in the frame but still something sharp enough to put your attention on. To me, those are more exciting than something shot at a higher shutter speed and it's Tic Tac-sharp. It feels less representative.

When you go to share these photos, what is that like? Especially when sharing pics of someone whose fans are very detail-oriented and critical of the way their favorite person is portrayed — do you feel the pressures of that?

I think whenever I post any of my work, I only really want to post things that make me excited. I just want to be able to find a breath of fresh air in something that's been done so many times. Ultimately, it comes down to what I personally am most excited about. That may be composition or lighting or expression or a specific moment in time. Those are the things put at priority.

People make your photos their lock screens, they’re on merch. How does that feel, when you're just out and about and you see your photo on a bag or something?

I started trying to collect these things because I feel like when I'm older, I'll be like, “Oh, yeah, it's special.” I think it's rad. I took that photo of Nipsey Hussle on the bus in LA and someone got it tattooed on them. It was crazy. That was really cool, especially because of Nipsey and what he did for Los Angeles. But yeah, it's cool. You make stuff for other people to enjoy and it definitely gives you nice, warm feelings when people receive it and give it the time of day.

What have your interactions been with fans?

Oh man, fans are incredible. They’re the nicest, sweetest people. They waited such a long time to see the artists they're gonna see and there's just so much excitement in the room, and it's contagious. I feel that stuff too. It's great, the warmth that fans can give. Someone had a sign that said, “I'm here for Anthony,” or something like that. I forgot what it was, but that was cool. As a photographer, you're not used to… I like to hide, to not be seen, so that was a trippy, fun thing.

You say you like to hide — what's your go-to concert fit? The people on stage are wearing these crazy, colorful fits, obviously, but are you going full camo when you're taking photos? Or I guess the pink hair might be kind of a giveaway.

Oh yeah [laughs]. Show black is typical. I've tried my hardest to find a collection of black shirts that I like to wear because I don't like to wear black that much [laughs]. I feel like you're not doing your job if you're being noticed, for this kind of thing.

So on your days off, you're not wearing any black is what I'm hearing.

Oh yeah, for sure. There was a time in my life when black was the uniform, but then I embraced color. Now it's hard to go back.

I saw your post where you said, “only five more shows on tour.” Was that just referring to the number of dates left on this leg of the tour? Or your time on tour?

Yeah, that was five days left in Europe. And then it's on to the next beast.

You're going to continue for the rest of the tour?

Yeah. I'll be popping in and out, doing my thing.

I’ll be at one of the New York shows, so I will be sure to look out for you.

Which one are you going to be at?

The last one. September 21.

The last shows are fun. Last shows at any tour or last anything is always a good time.

Because there’s more energy? Or just a different energy?

You get to do something for a certain amount of time and then it comes to an end, and I think there's definitely a specific energy that's there. It's like saying goodbye, not only to the people that you spend time with but also to the fans and that lifestyle. Touring feels like you're daydreaming. Nothing feels real. Then you go back home and are like, “Wait, where was I for the past couple months?” Then reality sinks in.

Will you be at the Halloween show again? You had a great fit [Wednesday Addams] at the last one if I do recall.

Yeah, I'm trying to figure out what the costume is gonna be. I’m pretty limited with what I could do with black and a dress, but I’ll figure out something [laughs].

Photos courtesy of Anthony Pham