Personal Work That Lands Assignments: Shaniqwa Jarvis

By David Walker

© Shaniqwa Jarvis
 An image from the ad campaign that Shaniqwa Jarvis shot for a collaboration with Converse and the streetwear brand Undefeated.

When surfing, skating and streetwear clothing brand Stüssy recently released a kid’s collection emblazoned with Looney Tunes cartoon characters, Shaniqwa Jarvis got a call to photograph kids wearing the clothes for the company’s website and a social media campaign. She had planned a studio shoot, but then decided to photograph kids wearing the clothes in their own homes, as she’s done for several other campaigns inspired by her signature personal project called “This Charming Man.”

“It became ‘This Charming Kid,’” she says of the Stüssy x Looney Tunes shoot. 

The numerous assignments she’s shot in the style of “This Charming Man” have been mostly for clothing and shoe retailers, and they usually feature 20- and 30-something guys with self-possession, personal style and a bit of mystery. But she sees a potential to reach a broader range of clients.

“Companies want this look and feel and styling,” says Jarvis, noting that many brands are trying to art direct a look she’s figured out how to create naturally. 

It all began when she was trying to start her career in London, where she relocated from Los Angeles in 2008 after a difficult breakup. A London agent who looked at her portfolio suggested she photograph the people around her. The advice struck Jarvis as hackneyed and “ridiculous,” she says. “But I took her advice to shoot something personal to me.” 

She came up with the idea to approach intriguing men in public, and ask to photograph them in their homes. “I was working out my issues with dudes,” she says. She also wanted to improve her portraiture skills. “I thought: I’ll do this, it’s practice.”

The men she approached had caught her attention with their dress and demeanor. Some had a blustery confidence. Others were shy. Jarvis was curious about what was behind the facades. “I would say, ‘Hey, I’m working on this project, taking portraits of guys.’ And most of them said ‘Yes’ straight off.”

She arranged to come around to their houses, instructing them to wear any outfit they wanted. “I said, ‘This is going to be like a day in the life of you.’” She made no wardrobe or styling suggestions. 

“With every single guy, it was a conversation,” she says. We talked about everything, from the way they were raised, to what they expected to happen in life, to what girls they were hooking up with.” Sometimes she spent all day, other times just a few hours, shooting with available light and on-camera flash.

“I got genuine moments out of these guys,” she says. “I learned through shooting this project that people are going to give you what you want when you ease them in: conversing, sharing stuff about myself, having a good time.”

In 2010, when Jarvis was more than two years into the project, a friend encouraged her to “do something with it.” Around that time, she attended a photo exhibition at the Londonewcastle Project Space, and decided to exhibit her own work there. “My friends said, ‘You’re dreaming.’”

But Jarvis sent in a proposal, “and the guys in charge said, ‘OK, you have the space for two weeks.’” Without money or expertise to mount an exhibition, she started calling friends for help. One helped her curate the show. Others with PR expertise and media connections helped her promote it. Still others helped her frame the prints and design the show catalogue.

The exhibition opened in May 2011, and 500 people attended. She mailed copies of the show’s catalogue “all over the place—to random agencies, to editorial people.” She also got several stores to sell the catalogue, including Colette, the Paris boutique; Union in Los Angles; and Dashwood Books in New York City. 

Within a few months, calls for assignments started coming. The Standard hotel in Los Angeles wanted to exhibit prints from “This Charming Man” in its lobby. Jarvis instead proposed a project called “This Charming Guest,” featuring portraits of musicians, stylists, designers and directors who styled themselves, all photographed in the hotel.

The images were exhibited in the hotel lobby in late 2011, and The Standard purchased several prints for permanent display in a meeting room. Jarvis also created a newsprint ‘zine of the images for distribution to hotel guests.

In early 2012, when UK-based online fashion retailer ASOS started selling Vans shoes, Jarvis was hired to shoot an advertorial for the ASOS website. “I found five guys who wore Vans and photographed them in their homes,” Jarvis says. The shoot was a success for both companies, and marked the start of Jarvis’s ongoing relationship with ASOS.

Another assignment that led to repeat business came from ad agency Exposure, which hired Jarvis to shoot portraits for Foot Locker promoting an exclusive line of footwear designed by Converse in collaboration with Undefeated, a boutique streetwear brand. Jarvis used social media to cast “real” guys, then she selected locations and styled the shoots herself. Foot Locker used the images for in-store displays, and also distributed ‘zines featuring the photographs to customers.

Meanwhile, Stüssy hired Jarvis for the first time in 2013 for a men’s wear campaign. “They give photographers a box of clothes and a check,” she says, explaining that photographers are left to make creative decisions on their own.

Jarvis was given a box full of summer clothes in the middle of winter. “So I decided to take two guys to Africa to model the stuff. I picked the guys based on the fact that they could style themselves,” she says. They went to Morocco and checked into a hotel, where Jarvis photographed them as if they were “friends on holiday, rather than [on the set of] some stuffy advertising job.”

That project was a success, and led to the Stüssy x Looney Tunes assignment. For that, Jarvis says, “I used kids I knew.”

The assignments are challenging, Jarvis says, because she has  to do all the location scouting, talent scouting and styling herself. “It’s definitely a little tricky, but that freedom allows you to do a little more.”

Lately she’s been working to expand her range of clients beyond shoe and apparel brands. “I would love it if a luxury client wanted to hire me to shoot in this same way,” she says. Jarvis is targeting a wish list with the help of Riad Represents, which signed her last year. Meanwhile, she’s starting work on another personal project, about older African-American women.


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