Rozette Rago is a photographer based in Los Angeles, California. She takes incredible images of people and places, but in this interview we focus a bit on her music and concert photography, which she does so well. She is also a big music fan and you can sense it in her photos; she takes the viewer from the moshpit to the backstage, capturing portraits that endear the music fan to the seemingly untouchable music icon.
Hi, Rozette. What’s a typical day for you?
On a weekday, if I’m not traveling, I have a regular 9-5 job. Sometimes, I head straight to an assignment from work. The thing about being a freelancer is that your schedule is always kind of up in the air. When I’m working out of town, my schedule could be as crazy as getting up at 7 in the morning and getting back to my hotel as late as 2am. I recently started taking vitamins.
Aside from photography, what else are you into?
I used to be really into filmmaking and even though I don’t feel as strongly about it anymore, I still try to write from time to time. In the future, I would still like to produce a short film. I also enjoy traveling so I try to do as much of that as I can with my husband.
Tell us about how you got into photography. Who/what inspired you to start taking photos?
My parents would always leave me in charge of the camera whenever we traveled when I was really young. I obsessively documented everything. I didn’t get serious about it until I started university. That’s when my work became more intentional, but not necessarily better. I was planning stuff more and really thinking about what I was putting out there. I also became more interested in master photographers like Henri Cartier-Bresson and Ansel Adams. I know my photos will never be in that caliber, but it helps to educate yourself on the pioneers who really made a difference in photography.
Do you remember the first photo you took? What was it?
I don’t, but I’m sure it had something to do with Hong Kong, where my family and I went to a lot back then. Maybe candids of my family or street photos.
Who are your favorite photographers and why do you like them?
I love Alec Soth. His images are simple, yet so magical. They’re soft and beautiful and really quite emotional. His images are the kind I would buy to hang on my wall. I am also obsessed with Alex Webb. He just knows where to look and he has an incredible mastery of color that I really aspire for. I am also a huge fan of National Geographic photographer Gerd Ludwig. I had an amazing experience studying under him for a week and he has an understanding of light that I can only dream of. His photos show his patience and openness. He has an endless well of energy!
Do you shoot film?
I did shoot film for a while. I found a Canon EOS Rebel G at a thrift store back in 2010, which worked with my existing Canon lenses, and I paired it with a Diana F+ 20mm lens. That roll of film became one of my last series of images taken before leaving the Philippines for good. I like how film requires me to be more careful. And I also like the thrill of having to wait to see my images.
Is gear important to you? Do you think that finding the right camera makes a good photographer?
Gear is stupidly important to me because my job requires it. Unfortunately, you really need to invest in great lenses if you want to do music photography. You’re dealing with changing lights, various photo pit situations (you’re either right in front or way in the back), and constant movement. Obviously, you could still get great images with cheaper lenses, but it won’t be as consistent as when you’re using gear that can actually handle all that and whatever else that might get thrown at you. That being said, outside of music photography, it matters less I think. In general, you should invest in at least one great lens.
Taste is subjective, but in your opinion, what makes a good photo?
A good photo is one that elicits an emotion. This just happened recently when I was looking at this photo of a cat by Gregory Halpern from his book “A”. I couldn’t get it out of my head! There’s also this stunning series on carnival strippers by Susan Meiselas. They get embedded in your brain.
You’ve taken really awesome photos of the most iconic figures in the music scene. Do you ever get intimidated or shy? How do you approach them, and what advice would you give someone who needs a little push in approaching potential subjects?
I always get intimidated and I’m always shy. I’ve just learned to manage it better. I guess the knowledge that you have a purpose there and that you were sent there by someone to do a job helps because you feel less of a nuisance. They are usually informed ahead of time. Small talk is really tough and I’m still trying to get better at it. When you only have a few minutes with your subject, it’s hard to turn the conversation into anything more substantial than that. This is mostly why I prefer doing the backstage assignments because I actually get to spend time with them. It’s also important to always be kind. Most of the time, you are meeting with people who are very exhausted and have had to deal with five or so other press people that same day, so never take anything personally.
Let’s talk about taking photos in music fests and gigs. A lot of people think it’s all just about free media passes and backstage parties. Now is the time to clarify any misconceptions! Also: what’s a normal day like if you’re shooting in a festival?
The reality about shooting music festivals is that you will never see your friends. I’ve given up trying to coordinate with anyone when I’m working. When I get 15-30 minutes of free time, I try to spend that eating, sitting, and hydrating. Then I have to run off to another stage to shoot a set or meet up with a band to do portraits. I always have a small printout of my schedule and important contact numbers because trying to stay on schedule is the most difficult part of my day. After the last set of the day, I celebrate by getting some food with my friends if the food stalls are still open. Then I come home to work on the photos right away if they’re needed for publication the next morning. Very hectic!
I remember you mentioning some horror stories in the pit. What was the most frustrating so far and how did you deal with it?
My most frustrating experience, which many of my friends are familiar with because I’ve talked about it a lot since then, happened in February this year on my birthday. I was hired as an official photographer for an event that I do every year. A guy twice my size accidentally hit me in the head with his camera and I reacted because it hurt. Instead of apologizing, he responded so condescendingly, probably trying to intimidate me. He asked out loud if it was my first show. I ended up crying in the photo pit, which was pathetic. I was standing beside my friend, also a photographer, and he tried his best to console me. That was a turning point in my life. I’ve shared this story with a few friends without naming names and they’ve all guessed who it was correctly so I guess he’s made quite a reputation for himself! That’s just one of many experiences, but definitely the worst so far. I have had to deal with a lot being as small as I am.
As a photographer, what’s one thing that you can’t live without?
Apart from my camera? Hand sanitizer! I go to a lot of music festivals. Two words: porta potties.
If you could collaborate with anyone, who would it be?
I would like to collaborate with my ultimate fave Dave Eggers and do a visual storybook. I think that would be a lot of fun. I would like it to be something investigative and nonfiction. Also, Alec Soth. That’s my dream project.
What’s your most memorable shoot? Any strange or funny stories you can share?
I really love my Dan Deacon shoot from last year. It was so short, but he was so fun and easy to work with. I will also never forget being in the same room for about an hour with Brian Wilson because I know that opportunity will probably never come along again. A lot of people have asked me what he was like, expecting something weird or horrible. But my experiences with people as famous or legendary as Brian Wilson have always been amazing so far.
What’s your all-time favorite photo (if not all-time, your current favorite)? What’s the story behind it?
I have two at the moment – a black and white shot of Arctic Monkeys’ Alex Turner in Las Vegas and my Morrissey photo taken in Los Angeles. They were taken two years apart. When I photographed, Arctic Monkeys, I was in a really unsure place career-wise. I had just started freelancing and I was confused about the direction I wanted to go. They went on stage and I remember just taking some time to absorb the fact that I was so close to one of my favorite bands. I often get moments like that where I just feel really, really lucky to be doing something that I love. I also felt that way walking away from Morrissey’s set two years later. I had just finished shooting him during his first three songs (the usual allotment we get at festivals) and I was running to get to the other stage to shoot another performer. I could hear still hear him singing as I made my way through the crowd at this outdoor field in Los Angeles and I was just so happy to be there. It was such a dramatic this is my life! moment for me and I promised myself I would never take it for granted.
What’s the most important lesson that you learned through photography?
I have a couple of important life lessons, actually. Things that I’m still trying to fully understand. The most important thing is to be genuine and kind. Brace yourself for constant rejection. Give yourself time to process your sadness and then move on to the next thing. Help others as you would want to be helped.
Any advice to those who want to get into photography (most especially music/concert photography)?
My advice is to keep at it. Keep an eye on your favorite music publications to see what’s out there. Form your own distinct style.