Courtesy of Mark Hunter
- Mark Hunter is a celebrity photographer who started uploading nightlife-photos to his blog in 2003.
- Paparazzi used to offer him money for photos of Paris Hilton and Lindsay Lohan, but he’d decline.
- Hunter considers himself a hipster philanthropist shaping the culture with his candid photographs.
This as-told-to essay is based on a conversation with Mark Hunter, also known as Cobrasnake, a 37-year-old celebrity photographer who lives between Los Angeles and New York City. It’s been edited for length and clarity.
When everyone was obsessed with Paris Hilton and Lindsay Lohan, I was getting candid photos of them enjoying the nightlife. My approach to nightlife photography was very forward thinking. People realized, “Hey, we’re throwing this cool party and we need it documented,” and that’s where I came in.
I started putting my photographs online in 2003, and it was a new frontier. Some people made fun of me and said there was no way I could make a living shooting party photos, but my photos started to spread through the internet and I established myself as a nightlife guru.
I was first introduced to photography in high school in Santa Monica, California, during the early 2000s. My school had a dark room where I learned traditional film photography, but I realized film wasn’t practical for my nightlife approach, so I learned digital photography. Eventually, publicists started hiring me to work with superstar DJs like Steve Aoki and Diplo, and pop stars like Katy Perry when they were first emerging.
In the beginning, I was never hired by magazines to take photos — I used a guerilla approach
I snuck through backstage security and never had proper access. One time, I was outside of a concert venue, and somebody who was working there left early. I watched them take the pass off their shirt and throw it in the trash. I ran and took it out of the trash, put it on, and then went into the venue like I belonged there.
At concerts, I’d buy a ticket like anybody else and wait in line. Sometimes, I’d put the camera in my pants so security wouldn’t see it. Again, I didn’t have the proper credentials, so I’d sneak to the front, take a few photos, and hide the camera.
After every party I’d post the photos on my blog. The idea of building this novel website and posting photos on it was still a new thought in 2003, but my blog helped my career and my photos ended up on lots of message boards.
For example, when The Yeah Yeah Yeahs had their first tour in Los Angeles, I brought my camera with me to the concert. Not only did I shoot the band, but I shot the crowd as well.
When I posted the photos to my blog the next morning, one of the fans must’ve discovered them and posted them on a message board — this was before social media. Either the band or their manager checked the message board and contacted me directly.
I feel really lucky and blessed that I was in the right place for a lot of these opportunities. A lot of people never took me seriously, and some still don’t, but I think a lot of my success comes from confidence.
I’ve always tried to celebrate the nightlife and not exploit it
I always loved the idea of having access to these parties in the time of paparazzi culture when everyone was obsessed with Paris Hilton and Lindsay Lohan. I was on the inside of a lot of these events getting candid photos of them. Most nights the paparazzi would try to pay me for my memory card, but I never sold it to them — that was never my intent. Still, at times, some photos of mine were used without permission.
I just capture the true energy of the night. Whenever I’m shooting a party, I ask myself if I’d want this photo of me on the internet, but sometimes I’ll be thrown into situations where I don’t know the context of everyone at the event. I’ll snap a photo of somebody making out with someone, and they’ll email me the next day saying, “Hey, that’s not my girlfriend. You need to take that down.” It’s quite rare to get requests to remove images, but when I get them I have no problem removing them.
I feel like I’m a hipster philanthropist, and I’m really trying to form what this next decade is going to look like through the images I capture
I don’t go so much where the money is, I go where the culture is — I never was dictated by money. I think photography, and especially looking at photos, should help you feel like you can be part of the indie space.
Even though things have changed because everyone wants to curate and control their image, there’s been a resurgence with social media. Social media has made everyone a photographer in some way, and it’s a great opportunity — especially for young people — to showcase their work and build an audience.
I’ve learned nightlife photography is all about your reputation, working hard, and networking
I feel like I’m just as in demand now, if not more than I was back in the day. I recently shot Anna Delvey and Charli XCX. I also get double-bookings in LA and New York, and have to turn down jobs.
In the beginning, I got wrapped up with promoters who talked a big game about parties, but then the parties were not very good. You want to be tapped in with the right people because those are the ones throwing the parties you want to shoot. Also, treat your photography career like a full-time job, if you can.
You should be shooting all the time, and when you’re not shooting you should be updating your portfolio and reaching out to clients and people to shoot with. If you want to be a band photographer, start shooting at a local venue in your town, just to build a portfolio — they usually should give you free access to most shows.
Becoming a nightlife photographer is going to be challenging because there’s no formula like at a corporate job. You have to be self-motivated and have fun. It should always be an experience, so say “yes” to new things.