INTERVIEW: John Canon, 21 Savage's personal photographer, tells us why he loves working with the oft-misunderstood Zone 6 upstart. In his first HNHH interview, Canon talks about seeing hip-hop on the runway at New York Fashion Week, being mentored by Cam Kirk, and why 21 wants true love just like everyone else.
21 Savage was presented to the world as a supervillain, with creaky raps about everyday murder to match his look. The 24-year-old Atlanta rapper has remained guarded in interviews and vicious in the booth -- though his latest project, Issa Album, shed light on certain softer sides of the man who, as of this summer, is knee-deep in a celebrity romance with Amber Rose. Though the knife on his forehead remains just as menacing, the "one that the streets chose" is becoming a superstar before our eyes.
21 knows it. His stock has continued to rise, from 2015's The Slaughter Tape to last summer's Savage Mode to the recent Issa Album, which includes the already platinum (self-produced) "Bank Account." These days, to maintain that trajectory for even a two-year stretch is impressive. And he's only going up. Just ask John Canon, the man tasked with capturing the most compelling moments of 21's unlikely ascent. 21 trusts that Canon will give the world honest portraits of his unimagined success.
"He's always on me, making sure everything looks good," says Canon, 21's full-time photographer, of the man he's made his career taking pictures of. "That's what I find interesting. I done worked with a lot of artists. I don't think any of 'em care about 'the look' like he does."
In front of Canon's lens, 21 is a fascinating, multifaceted subject. Canon has a knack for finding -- and enshrining -- those moments that speak volumes to the depth of 21's character. In one particularly striking portrait of 21 shielding himself from a downpour with a high-end umbrella, the rapper stares right into the camera with a gaze that's at once stoic and soul-piercing. The shot is a visual counterpart to a song like "Numb," on which 21 sees his success as a fleeting antidote for the undying pain of his past life.
Painful memories endure, as they do in all of us, but 21 is more than a product of his past suffering. "To me, that's kind of messed up -- to take what somebody been through, and say that's the only side of him," says Canon, whose mission is to portray the man outside of the music -- beyond the darkness that has been the distinguishing quality of his early catalog. "That's why I just try to capture the moments of him enjoying himself. That's my main focus."
HNHH: Where are you right now? What have you and 21 been up to for the past week or so?
John Canon: Right now I’m in LA. Just been havin’ some stuff to do out here with 21. We were at Fashion Week for a couple of days, in New York. That was cool.
How often are you on the road with 21? Are you with him just for the big events, or is it a full-time job?
I pretty much go everywhere.
Let’s talk about Fashion Week, ‘cause that seemed like a career milestone for you. I’ve seen a few of your photos -- 21 on the runway with a double cup, the iconic shots of Teyana Taylor -- all over social media. Talk about the experience.
Fashion Week was different this year. This one -- the Philipp Plein one -- was one of the best shows I’ve been do. Last year it was just like a concert-style thing, where he  was just performing. But actually seeing him go down the runway was different. And with Teyana Taylor, that was cool, ‘cause I had never seen her live. Just shooting live with somebody with that kind of talent. That was my first time shooting a runway. And I was able to do it well.
How long have you been working so closely with 21?
Probably a little bit over a year. I met some people on his team last March, but I wasn’t his photographer at that point. I had just met them. I had worked my way into a concert, and he came out. They saw the photos that way. Ever since then it’s been pretty smooth.
Obviously, within that past year a lot has changed, with 21 now on the verge of being a real superstar. Describe the evolution you’ve seen -- from him first starting out to now, when he’s walking down the runway.
I think he’s getting more comfortable with being around cameras. When I first came around, there’s a lot of stuff I don’t think he would’ve did. He might’ve done a runway then, I don’t know. I can’t really speak for him. But judging off of what I’ve seen, I don’t think that he would’ve. But I think that’s been his main growth. He’s getting comfortable with the lifestyle of being a rapper. It’s just understanding that his life has changed. You don’t have to do the same stuff anymore. And he’s about business.
You understand your responsibility in shaping his public image. What is it that you find most interesting about 21 as a subject?
I think it’s the fact that he’s a perfectionist. An artist like that -- you wouldn’t really expect to care so much about photos. Like he’s always on me, making sure everything looks good, know what I’m sayin’? That’s what I find interesting. I done worked with a lot of artists. I don’t think any of ‘em really care about “the look” like he does. And he makes me better as a photographer. ‘Cause he’ll let you know if he don’t like somethin’. So I’ll know what to look for next time. I know what to do better next time.
Interesting, ‘cause I was gonna ask if he’s going over every photo with you.
Yeah. Well he don’t sit with me and edit. But he’ll definitely let me know, like, “change this” or “do this.” He wants his pictures to look a certain way, and that’s when I follow his lead.
As you’ve watched 21 become such a big star while you've been working together, how has the new spotlight challenged you? How have you been able to embrace that bigger stage?
I mean, with his bigger spotlight now, we’re not at the same kinds of events, we’re not doing the same things we was when I first started working with him. So it’s like, even if I messed up before, I really can’t now. Just ‘cause the stage is a lot higher. A lot of stuff might be a one-time thing. There’s no, “Oh, we’ll just do it again next week.” I just gotta be on point at all times.
What’s it like at one of 21’s concerts, trying to get pictures while the show is going crazy?
I kind of just try to stay in my own lil' zone, ‘cause I know it’s easy to get distracted by being at a concert. It might be a real good concert, so you getting trapped in the moment with everybody else. But I don’t know, I just keep doin’ what I’m doin’ at the show. Like I might see stuff, but I’ll just catch it on my camera, and enjoy the moment that way.
So you’re in work mode for the whole show?
I treat that like it’s my job. It comes before anything.
You said 21's life is different now, and so is the public’s opinion of him -- especially recently, with his relationship with Amber Rose. I think people may have seen it as a gimmick at first. You’ve had the rare perspective to see what it’s really like.
It’s a real, genuine relationship. I see a lot of people on social media judging her. It’s all wrong. She’s a real down-to-earth person. She’s not what everybody else try to portray her as. It’s just like any other relationship. You find somebody you love, you wit’ em, y’all enjoy each other’s company. That’s really it. Other than the fact that they celebrities and they got money, it be like everybody else.
He seemed to be such a closed-off guy when he first came out, so I think people are surprised to see him in such a highly publicized relationship.
People listen to an artist’s music too heavy. You can’t just listen to a man’s music and think that he not gon’ want love at all, or he’s not gonna have feelings for a girl.
Do you see your job, then, as portraying the man outside of the music?
Right. And that’s what I try to do. He’s a regular person just like everybody else. Because everybody just portray him as a dark person, you not gon’ get that. That’s why, when I’m doing stuff with him, I just try to give people that side that they don’t see. To me, it’s kind of messed up -- to take what somebody been through, and say that’s the only side to them. That don’t mean he don’t love women or have respect for women ‘cause he done been through certain stuff. That’s why I try to just capture the moments of him enjoying himself. That’s my main focus.
I heard you started out doing film stuff. Talk about why you moved to photography and why that’s become your chosen art form.
When I was in high school, I was doing a lot of video stuff. Just in my school, working with the sports teams, the daily announcements. I was doing stuff like that. Then, I think it was maybe two years after high school -- I was in college, and the school I was at, they couldn’t afford my major anymore. In that process I had kind of learned that I didn’t really want to do film anymore anyway, ‘cause I had worked on a short film, and I ain’t like it at all. That’s the reason I got this -- at the time I had a Canon T3i, and I was just like, I’ma figure something out. I knew I wanted to go to Atlanta, and I just started taking pictures.
But before that, while I was living in Chicago, I had went to a Travis Scott and Young Thug concert. Cam Kirk gave me a pass. That was around the time when I was just doing video. I had an old MacBook, and it was just one of them computers that would freeze every time you doing something. So it was freezing on the video footage, and it looked like photos. So I just started screen-shotting ‘em, and people thought they was real photos. So when I got the reaction from people, I just started teaching myself how to take pictures. It was like, “They like this more than they did my videos,” and they thought they was real photos. Only close people to me knew that I was screen-shotting. If you go all the way down my page, you might still see ‘em. That one small opportunity just turned into where I’m at now, really.
You mentioned Cam Kirk. Was he a mentor to you getting started?
Yeah, and I mean, he still is. I look to him as a big brother. He’s always somebody who’s open for advice, and I’ll always respect him for that. When I met him, he didn’t know me. I didn’t have a camera on me at the time -- I’m not even the one who asked him for the pass. We was at the pop-up shop. Travis had done a collab with RSVP in Chicago, and I went with a couple of my friends, and one of them actually went to Cam and was like, "Yo, he [John] do video. Y’all should link, whatever."
So you didn’t know him before this at all?
I was familiar with his work, but I didn’t know him. I just respect him ‘cause there’s not a lot of people who’ll do that for you. Not a lot of people just gonna give you a chance to do something that you really wanna do. And at the time, I had never even shot a concert before. That was my first concert I ever shot. For somebody to do something like that, I got mad respect for him, ‘cause he was humble enough to give somebody a chance to do something. And it turned into something.
It looks like you’ll be 21’s guy for the foreseeable future, but you’ve got a lot more going on. I’ve been seeing all the big artists on your page recently. What else can we look out for in the coming months that we might not expect?
I want to have a gallery in Atlanta, and in Indianapolis, which is my hometown. That’s my main focus right now -- to have a gallery in either my hometown or Atlanta, or both if I can. But I’m just working as I go, really. I just take everything as it comes.
Have you shown any of your work, in galleries or other spaces, or are you trying to break into that scene right now?
On one of the tours, Savage had a pop up in LA, and I had some work on the wall there, but I feel like it could’ve been done better. I just wanna do it my way and put all my energy into it and try to make it something special.
One last question, to sign off: When people see the name John Canon, what do want them to think?
When people see my name I want them to envision a hard worker, somebody with ambition, and somebody who’ll do whatever it takes to get the job done. That’s kind of what I was raised on. I do whatever I gotta do.