Rayan Falouji is a 16-year-old photographer (yes, you read that correctly - 16 years old) who has grown up around the suburb of Deerfield his whole life. Diving into the world of photography when his older brother first gave him his old camera, the Deerfield High School student has been shooting for companies such as Prime Fortune and SocialWorks and has become a regular in the media pits for some of your favorite artists. He started off by sneaking his way into concerts and festivals to take pictures of some of the biggest names in music. Tweeting around 23,000 times in a short period to win a giveaway put out by Chance, Falouji expresses in his interview what has made him into the person he is today and why photography means so much to him.
How did you get into photography?
"In general, I’ve always just liked taking photos and my freshman year, like the middle of freshman year, my brother lives in San Fran and visited home. He’s between an amateur and professional; he shoots weddings and stuff. So, he gave me his old camera from around his freshman year of college. From there, I was shooting my vacations and school sports like basketball and football. Then last summer, I was looking for a photo internship so I had something to do. So, I started DM'ing and emailing like every single artist and magazine. Nobody responded. The only person to actually respond was Justin from SocialWorks; I was able to convince my middle school teacher to partner with SocialWorks for the annual school charity right after I finished middle school. We raised money for them; I started doing photo stuff for them a few years after they partnered. That's how I met Justin.
The first or second event for them I went to was an Open Mike and Cole Bennett showed up because it was the last Open Mike before the summer; he gave all the seniors free tickets to Summer Smash. We were talking to Cole and he mentioned that they were giving all the SocialWorks volunteers free tickets, so all the photographers were like, "could you get us media passes?" He said he’d work on it. So, it's like 2 days before the festival and I'm like, "this dude is definitely not giving us media passes."
So a day before the festival, like 3 AM the morning of, I searched up how to sneak into a music festival as media. A documentary comes up called No Cameras Allowed by James Marcus Haney.
I watched it and it showed him carrying a camera around acting like he knew where he was supposed to be. So, that's exactly what I did the next day. I went to the media entrance and told the lady there, "I was told by Taylor Bennett to pull up," and that he would meet me. The lady was like, "oh, Taylor just walked by; you should go meet him," so I walked through and I was just there. After it was over, I was like, "I don't know what to do now."
Now Pitchfork is coming around, and my friend gave me a free ticket because he had an extra one. I used that to get into the media pit and then I shot those pictures of Pusha T.
Lolla came around and I wanted to go, but I didn’t want to spend $400. So, 2 out of the 4 days I snuck in with my friend. That was probably the hardest one to sneak into. That one, I got into the media pit for Yung Gravy. I met Yung Gravy and he put me in some video, but he never posted it. Between Pitchfork and Lolla, I sent a bunch of my pictures to publications and finally Tyler from Prime Fortune DM'ed me one night like, "these are tight, I’m gonna post them," and ever since then I’ve been shooting for Prime Fortune. Justin from SocialWorks is the homie, both of them actually are really genuine guys; both of them believed in me. Justin was always hyping me up, when I was at Chance shows I'd send him my pictures that I took on my phone and he’d be like, "these are fire, keep going." Tyler believed in me as soon as I sent him the pictures, he said I can shoot for them; I got to shout them out."
What inspires you about photography?
"I think specifically music photography. I've always loved going to concerts but whenever I would go to concerts, especially Chance concerts, I would try to get a really good picture of him with my phone, and I did. I posted it and I got this reaction like, "did you take this on a camera???". "No, this was my phone." It gave me such a joyous feeling, so when I started shooting concerts for artists, I was doing 2 of my favorite things - seeing them live and shooting their show. It was crazy, I got to relive the show afterwards when I was editing the pictures, seeing those moments in time."
Goals for yourself?
"I kind of want to go into the music business in general, I don’t know whether it's being a manager or working for a record label. But right now I'm helping my homie, Will Armstrong, out with his music. We dropped our first song on Monday. He had 2 monthly listeners; I woke up the next day and checked his Spotify and it had 205 monthly listeners. I would also love to go on tour with an artist."
What do you like or dislike about deerfield?
"I don't like Deerfield that much. It's just not my vibe; I’m kind of the only person with a little darker skin, so it's not that fun being the only minority. Everybody is so bubbly; they don't know what real life is like and they don't have street smarts. I feel like sometimes I don't fit in with the kids; everyone grew up together and went to the same synagogue and I'm just this weird brown kid. It's just hard to find the right crowd of people to fit in with.
Being the son of first-generation immigrants, you have to work 10x harder than other people to be successful. There is nobody who can empathize with me growing up around here; there is a lot of subtle racism and micro-aggressions and whenever I try to explaining that to my friends who are white, they won’t understand or won’t really care. It's gotten to the point where there are so few minorities and so little support for them that at my school, there's a support group for minorities and they are like the only people I can talk about it with. It just made me realize more that I do not fit in with the people at Deerfield - everyone is white, Jewish, and rich and I'm not any of that.
We are always going to butt heads on small things and we will always have different perspectives. I also just haven’t really met anybody with a drive my age at Deerfield because they don’t need to have a drive. One of my main inspirations is my cousin - she moved here from Iraq five years ago, so she’s 21 now. She moved here when she was 16. She came here, she finished her junior and senior year, then she went to community college for a little bit and now she’s at UIC to be a doctor and she has a huge drive to be successful."
One person you want to shoot?
"That recently kind of already happened for me - it was that Chance show that he had at the United Center. Because the first concert pictures I ever took were at a Chance show, it kind of inspired me to get into music photography. After that happened I was like "what now," you know? Definitely Chance; he’s like the only person I’ve taken pictures of that I’ve sung every word of their songs while I'm taking the pictures. He’s like one of the only rappers who plays with a live band and I waited eight hours for that Lolla show. I also would really like to shoot with Ghetto Sage."
What do you think is your best picture?
"It’s definitely got to be one of these pictures from the Chance show, I want to say it's this one. I also really like the pictures of Chance and Kanye. My phone background for years was this picture of Chance and Kanye from MCD that I got from the internet, then I took this picture that was really similar to the other one. Probably the one of Chance and Kanye, but I’m not sure. It’s in-between one of these. Chance actually liked this picture."
What has been your worst photography experience?
"When I went to Summer Smash, I forgot my film camera and that was the worst because I was in the artist lounge and I couldn’t get any film portraits.
Tyler, the Creator's recent show in September, I couldn’t get media credentials; I just couldn’t get in touch with him or his team, so I brought my film camera and waited in the front row and I took like two or three rolls of film and they all came out super bad. I shot with ISO 200 and I didn’t realize it; the film speed is really slow for low light and they all came out super messed up. That's probably my worst experience so far. I was pissed because Tyler is probably one of my top five favorites and watching his shows are incredible - he’s super fun to see live. His set up for the tour and the lighting and actions made for the most perfect shots I’ve seen aesthetically. When I got the film developed I was so excited and when I got it back, it was super unfortunate."
Film or Digital?
"I definitely like film more. As far as aesthetically, I feel like before I take a picture on film I kind of envision in my head how it would turn out on film. I feel like film requires a little more skill, because with digital you can take like 500 shots and a few will come out good just because you’re spraying and praying.
With film, you have 24 or 36 opportunities to get good pictures and if you’re getting 20 good shots on film, that's a lot more impressive than 20 good shots on digital. It’s also just a tougher medium to work with, but the results for film are just much more satisfying. If you go on vacation, for example, and then get the film developed it's like you relive your vacation again. Also, I just love everything about film, like you got to load in the film and you don’t know what it's going to look like. It’s a little anxious and exciting."
When editing a photo, how do you know that's the one?
"I feel like as soon as I see a picture, I’m just like, "that's it, that's the one," Pretty much every photo I’ve taken besides one, if I don't like it then other people won’t like it because I hold myself to very high standards. The only picture I’ve taken but didn’t like, but everyone else was like, "wow, that's so cool," was that picture of Saba and IDK I posted.
When I first saw it I was like, "oh, this isn’t that great," but then everyone really liked it. I posted it and Saba liked that picture; it kind of grew on me. If I see a picture and don’t like it, then there is no way someone else is going to like it."
On his 23.5K tweets:
"It says I have 23K tweets. I was in the 8th grade and Chance dropped that song with DJ Khaled "I'm the One". I don't like it at all, it's pop. When he dropped that song, he posted that he's giving away his Gucci belt, his unreleased 3 hat and his jacket from the video. He's giving those away to 3 lucky fans who tweet to go listen to "I'm the One" to certain radio stations. For a few weeks, I was waking up at like 2am with my dad, my dad has insomnia; we would control c, control v, control c, control v, for like an hour. Then, we would hit the tweet limit, go to bed; 3 hours later it would clear up and we’d start tweeting again.
I tweeted 23k times; part of the contest was if you were in Chicago and you won, he would hand deliver it to you. I was like, "dude, I have to tweet this," because Chance is one of my biggest inspirations. We were in like 2nd or 3rd place the whole time and literally the last few minutes we were in 3rd and this girl in 4th's tweets just start going up, we thought she dropped out or something. She ended up beating us by like 50 tweets; I came in 4th and I was super pissed. The top guy had like 25-26K tweets."
Call of Duty or Battlefield?
"I grew up with MW2. Me, my brother, and cousins used to always play that when we visited them in Jordan. I got to say OG Call of Duty games for sure."
Most influential rapper out of Chicago?
"Dude, that is a really tough question. I just want to say Kanye; I think that's like a really basic answer, but it’s got to be Kanye. Or, Chief Keef maybe. They’ve had every new generation of artists say that they draw inspiration from those two."
Lebron or MJ?
"That’s a tough one. I want to say MJ because I'm from Chicago and I don't want to get flamed, so MJ."
Only 1 food for the rest of your life?
"Shawarma sandwiches 100%; there is no other food that gives me more joy."
Explain what it is?
"I’m Middle Eastern so I should know this, but I don't. All I know is it spins around on a heater thing and they shave it off and they put it on pita bread and you put pickles on it and radish and tahini sauce and dude, it's just so good. It’s like a gyro."
Was the dress blue and black or white and gold?
"I always thought it was white and gold for sure, but I think a few years ago I looked it up again and I saw blue and black. But, I'm gonna go with white and gold because that's the original color of the dress."
Lil Xan or Blueface in a rap battle, who you taking?
"Man, I don't like Lil Xan at all. I met Blueface at Summer Smash and he was super funny; I got to go with Blueface."
Best fast food chain?
"Meatheads. It's mostly in Illinois, but they may have some locations in Indiana. Meatheads for sure, that is the spot."
"The few people who have really supported me - Tyler, Justin, Amir Abbassy- he works at a record label called EMPIRE. I always reach out to him for advice because he is really wise and knowledgeable and we’ve both had similar upbringings because we are both Middle Eastern. If you’re Middle Eastern you’re expected to be a doctor or lawyer; he always has good words of wisdom and advice. Also, my older brother got me started with photography and he’s always gassed me up to his friends and all that."
"When I first started listening to Chance, I don't think I was using iTunes to put music on my phone. I was using DatPiff to put it on my phone before he dropped his album and put all his stuff on streaming services, so it was just a simpler time"
"So, that was when the alligator was found in Humboldt Park. My boss from work, who’s also like one of my brother's homies, were talking about this one day at work. Stuff like this has happened before with snakes and things like that; people will raise them and they will get too big, so they will let them go."
"I think I was talking to this girl and she was pretty cool, but as soon as she told me she liked country music, something just threw me off. If I meet a girl they have to be listening to good music; they could have the best personality in the world but if she’s not listening to good music, it doesn’t matter. Kind of a narrow-minded way of thinking, but I haven't met anyone who has changed that perception yet."
"I started using Tik Tok not too long ago and I got addicted to it. There is this one part of Tik Tok where all these white kids just throw up slattt, and I'm like, "do you know if you throw that up somewhere you’re not supposed to you’re going to get beat up?" It was so cringe."
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