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NPR Music

Instant Photos Capture Tiny Desk Artists Offstage, 'Flaws, Dust Specks and All'

Left to right: Lalah Hathaway, Thundercat, Jorja Smith.
Left to right: Lalah Hathaway, Thundercat, Jorja Smith.

When musicians visit NPR to perform in our Tiny Desk concert series, we occasionally use the opportunity to have a little fun. Eslah Attar created this series of instant film portraits during her time working at NPR in 2018.


Creating a moment of connection is often the most difficult part of making a photograph: It has to happen in the instant the shutter clicks. Photographing performers can be even harder, since they naturally create personas as part of their work. So in photographing some of the musicians who have come to NPR to play Tiny Desk concerts, I wanted to find a way to capture them in a more natural state.

Maimouna Youssef aka Mumu Fresh.
Eslah Attar / NPR
Maimouna Youssef aka Mumu Fresh.

I find that using an instant film camera often disarms the people I photograph. It's familiar, nostalgic, almost a toy, so it doesn't intimidate in the same way a professional camera does — which helps break down some of the barriers that usually exist between photographers and their subjects. It is also limiting: For these portraits I took only one or two shots of each artist, leaving little time to warm up to the situation or try out different poses. The moment happens quickly, and the imperfections are part of the result.

Seeing these artists perform at the Tiny Desk before I photographed them helped me get a more intimate idea of who they were. The setting is so simple — no bright lights or huge crowds, just the artist and a few onlookers — and through it I was able to see more of their personalities: sometimes awkward, sometimes confident, sometimes quiet, sometimes very normal.

Behind the desk, Jorja Smith was reserved and thoughtful. In front of the camera she needed no direction, immediately tilting her head back and staring directly into the lens, confident and sophisticated. Khalid gave a gentle and soft-spoken performance at the desk, hands resting in his lap, sometimes chatting quietly with his guitarist. In his portrait he stands with his eyes closed, leaves from a nearby plant spilling gently over his shoulder.

Mac Miller.
Eslah Attar / NPR
Mac Miller.

Mac Miller, who visited the Tiny Desk just two months before his death on Sept. 7, 2018, had a playfulness to him that spread throughout the audience the minute his set began, and he filled the silence between songs with warm, self-deprecating chatter. He doesn't engage the camera here: Instead, he looks down with his hands on his head, showing his arms full of dark tattoos and a hat reading "Don't Trip."

As fans, we are often so familiar with an artist's public self that we sometimes forget there's a real person underneath. I hope these images — flaws, dust specks and all — help the viewer see those real people a little more clearly.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Left to right: Big K.R.I.T., DAWN, PJ Morton.
Eslah Attar / NPR
Left to right: Big K.R.I.T., DAWN, PJ Morton.

Corrected: January 29, 2019 at 12:00 AM EST
A previous version of this story referred to a Polaroid camera. The images were actually made with a Fuji instant film camera.
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