Before the name Johnny Nuñez became a frequent photo credit on just about every photograph capturing the images of hip-hop’s most talented, he prayed to God for a way out of a troubled situation. He was called to photography, so he borrowed a friend’s camera and was offered a job at his church to photograph an event. “I did what they called the burning of the mortgage. They paid me $100 for it. I thought I was rich and I have been in love ever since,” he remembers.
What is your responsibility as a photographer?
One of my responsibilities is to make the client happy and capture emotions. I try to make sure I keep the viewer curious and asking, “What are they talking about?” When they see a photograph of Lil’ Kim talking to Mariah while she’s holding Biggie Smalls’ daughter. What are they talking about? When they see a photograph of Snoop throwing up the east side but he’s from the west side. There’s KRS one, Raekwon, Fat Joe … every time I take a photo of something it’s a chance to showcase a special art: witnessing. I’m an observer. You’re allowed into the mind of the photographer.
Which celebrities have you traveled with around the world?
I have traveled with Damon Dash, Puffy, Russell Simmons, Naomi Campbell, Richard Branson, Robert Deniro, Bono from U2, Patti LaBelle, President Bill and Hillary Clinton, President Barack Obama, Spike Lee, Oprah Winfrey, Lebron James, just to name a few.
Why do they trust you in their personal space?
I photographed them when I was still doing showcases and was at the apex of my career. They were just starting. The secret to my success is showing love to artists who are unknown. I’m always there being a cheerleader for the unknowns because when the unknowns become known, all the photographers that don’t care about our culture and hip-hop will be swarming around the celebrity acting as if they are the official photographer. Tell them to recite one verse or one lyric and they won’t know anything. Ask them where that artist grew up. They don’t know. All they know is that artist in hip-hop is money to them. They’ll get rid of the Black photographers just so they can be the main photographer … it comes down to the green.
How can we continue to progress in hip-hop and build an archive of images that reflect our royal heritage?
We need to honor the founders, people who helped make hip-hop global and worldwide. I think people don’t give recognition to some of the architects. Some artists actually take credit for a lot of things in hip-hop when thy really weren’t the originators. Personally, I think artists have the responsibility for shaping the culture and as a person of color I think we need to educate. Let’s stop talking about the problem and come up with the solution. I don’t want to dis anybody’s dress code but an example is brothers with their pants sagging. I’m not even sure they know where that comes from. In some distorted illusion we think that that’s cool. Where it originates I don’t think that’s something to be proud of. What are we creating here? We are not creating a solution but we are telling our young youth that it’s OK. You’re a real man. You’re not someone else. You’re a tough guy. In reality, we are confusing the youth. I fall guilty of saying the N-word too but I try to catch myself as much as possible. That’s a perfect example. A word as evil as that word is still popular. If that isn’t an example of how subliminal genocide works then I don’t know what is. We are educated enough that we can tell young kids, “Yeah you go a choppa. Yea you want to sling coke. Yea you mix up the pot with baking soda. Yea you are giving directions.” But do you know where crack was invented? Did you know that it was actually invented to suppress our culture? It was made in a lab. The goal was to make some many people that were addicted to marijuana convert them to being addicted to crack.
I’ve never met any real hustler that ever said he hustled. Cats I know would shoot you just for mentioning their name in a song. It’s entertainment but if you say a lie enough times, the masses, the fans and the youth will believe that you really are a killer or really are a drug dealer.
My boy Pat Charles is an amazing brother. I went to Rikers Island to speak a few months ago and he was speaking there. He broke it down that there are four to eight jails being built by the U.S. government but there is a problem. There are no inmates. Guess what? They are going to make inmates. Guess who’s going to be on that bus to Rikers Island? Guess who’s going to be on their way to San Quentin?
We are popularizing crime and criminology in raps and the youth think its cool and it’s not my brother. I don’t know about you, but I don’t want to see my kids working for anybody that’s trying to put them in jail. I have great friends from all different nationalities and with the recent of police killing civilians I was proud to see such a great amount of different race from Asian to White, Latino all marching for these people that were murdered in solidarity and I’m really proud that that’s a step that we are taking. At the end of the day, I make a living shooting great artists. Whether it’s gangsta rap or opera, I love it all. I love to be entertained. Tell a story about a shoot out or flipping birds. Making crack out of baking soda. You can do all of that. Talk about it if you really did it but know that it’s destroying our youth. My kids will be listening to the corniest Nickelodeon songs about love.