For our first NEST Eats Out installment outside of LA, we met up with the talented New York-based photographer Alex Abaunza at one of his favorite pho joints, Saigon Shack. After a long and cold walk (it was 20 degrees out), we arrived at the restaurant and started chatting. During this wonderfully warm celebration of beef broth and Hoisin sauce, Alex told us a bit about being a young professional, taking time off to go back to school, and building friendships over contacts.
Dani: Let’s go way, way back. Let’s start at the origin of your photography, and how you got into music, touring and eventually how you ended up shooting for Halsey and all these people.
Alex: So pretty much, the main story of how I got into photography was I looked up to someone in high school and I admired how people reacted to him taking photos. So I went about my freshman year of high school taking photos of my friends, sports, doing portraits here and there, and then sophomore year I met this guy Will. Every interview I have I will mention him because he was a very critical part in my upbringing in music. I saw he was shooting a bunch of shows and I messaged him like, “Yo man, how’d you get into shooting all these shows?” He never told me how to get into shows but he told me how to write a good email, and from there I learned to pitch so I could get access to these shows.
So I pitched a bunch of people and eventually someone got back to me. I shot Hoodie Allen on March 22nd, 2013 at the Regency Ballroom. I met the owner of a blog, 15 Minute Media, and worked with them for a little bit and after I decided I wanted to start freelancing and making some money. So eventually I worked up my way up and just shot anyone I could.
Then I met Peter Rugo. I sent him a cold email, I think EDC 2015, to shoot for Dr. Fresch. He ended up liking my photos a lot and I started working with him. There were a couple artists that I really liked and saw potential in – Andrew Luce was one of them. He was my roommate in LA for about a year and I’ve seen so much potential in him for a long time. He’s a brother to me and I wanted to put him on. Peter was looking for new young talent so I mentioned Andrew. They ended up signing him and a couple months later I met Ekali. I was a super big fan of Ekali and wanted to really schmooze him up a little bit. I told him what I could do for him and he was like alright let’s see what you got. So I booked him a photographer for every stop he had on his Asia tour and then from there he said I could be his creative director. From there he said he needed a manger so I texted Peter. They met and they signed and Nathan has been killing it.
Dani: His records he’s done for OWSLA have been smashing.
Alex: Yeah, he has a Skrillex remix now! I never thought in February of 2016 we would be going from selling out Babies Alright to playing at Coachella. That’s insane to me. He just did a full bus tour.
When it comes to music I want to really expand past just being a photographer. I like being able to do everything and anything that I can. Just whatever it takes for me to get my vision out and put on people that I think have the potential to do well.
Neal: What makes you believe that someone has potential? What do you see in them?
Alex: A lot of it is hustle. I grew up with my dad working two jobs. He works 18 hours a day, six days a week. The second I can see someone’s eyes light up when they talk about their passion, that’s when you know. It’s literally just waking up and knowing what you want to do every day, doing it really well, and doing whatever it takes to get what you want. There’s also an indescribable quality about things that you are attracted to.
Dani: How has it been doing school through all of this?
Alex: I’ve been in school through this entire time. I’m a junior at NYU in the Department of Photography and Imagery. It’s been a good experience. Some of my professors have been very supportive, some not so much, but at the end of the day I’m trying my best. The one time I had a little struggle with school was when I was touring. I would have class Tuesday through Thursday, Tuesday 8 a.m. to 10 p.m., Wednesday 2 p.m. to 6 p.m., and Thursday 8 a.m. to 6 p.m. I would bring my bags to my last class, fly out somewhere Thursday, shoot a show, go somewhere Friday, shoot a show, go somewhere Saturday, Sunday, and on Mondays fly to LA for meetings. I’d then take a red-eye Monday night, land Tuesday morning at 5 a.m. and go to class 8 a.m. to 10 a.m. and do it all over again for a whole year straight.
The funny part about being young is I’ve always expected it to kind of hurt me in the workplace. I really expected people to look down at me for being so young, but the reaction I normally get is really positive. People always assume I’m 25 and I take it both as a compliment and as an insult because they see me as a mature person but they don’t question me being 25 looks wise. It makes me feel like I look kind of old.
Being young and in school, I’ve been able to use these four years to kind of fuck around. Even though I take my work very seriously, I can afford to take a day off, I can enjoy myself. I can have time to just chill out because I’m a kid at the end of the day. I’m doing 18 credits at NYU and I’m still working between starting two companies, getting ahead in my personal photo career, and helping people build themselves. I thought at first people would take my age as a joke, but in fact everyone appreciates the hustle and appreciates what I’ve been able to accomplish up to this point. So, it’s really been a blessing that I got a head-start on most people.
Dani: What are your top five highs and lows of touring?
Alex: I can only think of three haha. One: getting to travel is really cool. Two: working with cool musicians that I genuinely like. Three: getting to document the party is always a good time, showing off what I consider dope aspects of the night life. I didn’t really like touring that much now that I think of it. That’s why I don’t tour that much anymore. What would you consider the highs of touring?
Dani: I haven’t been on too many tours but for me it’s always fun to travel and meet people. The lows are the way it fucks up my schedule. Not being able to eat, sleep, work out, and do whatever you need to do on your own schedule sucks.
Alex: Yeah, I think my favorite part was being able to go to Asia. I went to Asia three times last year; I went to Tokyo, Korea, Shanghai, and it was a really good time to experience.
Neal: Who did you go to Asia with?
Alex: I went with Andrew to Tokyo for his birthday and I went to Asia with Alison Wonderland over the summer. Getting to shop in other places is awesome. The first time I went to Tokyo I didn’t bring any clothes with me. I brought the outfit I was wearing and a brought an empty suitcase and bought everything there. I think it’s my favorite city.
Neal: So now you want to do some music stuff but you don’t wanna do just photography, you want to do some creative directing?
Alex: I really do see myself creative directing with bigger budgets. Like working with some artist that I really have a visual interpretation of what they could be doing and how I could help them. My ideal people to work with would be Travis Scott and Frank Ocean.
Dani: Amazing. And you were saying you are transitioning into real estate now?
Alex: Yeah, I don’t want to label myself as “doing real estate,” I want to be known as someone doing kind of everything. I did music, that was a part of my life but after touring for however many years I did, it just got exhausting. So it was time for me to be based a little bit more in New York. At the end of the day I just want to do everything, I want to be able to transcend categories. Photography is cool and it sucks to limit yourself to a niche. I like being able to say, “I do it all.”
Neal: So where did the real estate gig take you?
Alex: So, over the summer I felt that I needed to start stepping away from music, I needed to branch out and do something else. This guy reached out to me, who is now my manager, Joe Laresca. He is the most badass person I know. He reached out to me on Instagram and said he was a contributing writer at Huffington Post and that he wanted to do an article on me. We hopped on FaceTime and discussed what we wanted to do, and funny enough we still haven’t done the article yet. I got into New York and he said he needed photos for this guy Ryan. I looked up the guy and he had over a half million followers on Instagram so I said yeah sure why not? First day we end up shooting in an apartment that’s worth $7 million, and luckily the photos turned out really good. Ryan was super skeptical of working with me because he went on my website and saw that my photos were just music. I sent him the photos the same day and the next day he said, “Alex, these photos may have changed my life,” which is now a testimonial on my website and I find it hilarious!
He’s the only person I work with in real estate. I work with him and his team and just help them create content, keep socials together and what not. Most real estate photos look very fake, so I try to get the more natural aspect of them. After two months of working with Ryan I sat down with Joe for lunch, and asked him to be my manager. Since then he’s gotten me a billboard in Times Square, three features in People, and a bunch of other print magazine coverage. Joe and I are starting a company called NOISE, and we are starting another one with Ryan called Serhant Media Group or SMG. We just wanna make shit happen, build an empire. This all came from an Instagram DM.
Follow Alex Abaunza on Instagram here.