I first discovered the work of Cannabis Photographer Kristen Angelo when the Seattle Times did a profile of her for their series highlighting “cool jobs” in the region. Her work stood out as something fresh, new, and real.
Unlike the high-contrast, psychedelic images I was used to seeing, Angelo’s images showed different side of the culture of cannabis: sun-drenched, cultivated by passionate farmers in the rural Pacific Northwest. I caught up with Angelo to ask her about how she got into the field of cannabis photography, and how she developed her business as a freelance photographer.
Her passion for cannabis photography stems from a personal connection: growing up on Vashon Island, Angelo’s father grew pot on their small family farm, something which would send him to prison when she was just 18 years old. She wouldn’t return to cannabis until much later, after Washington State voted to legalize it. Her boyfriend found a job in the industry, and he encouraged Angelo to bring her camera along to some of the farms. She says it was an “instant connection.” She’d already been shooting professionally for several years, focusing on portraiture and some weddings. After visiting and photographing the first cannabis farm, she began researching cannabis photography to see who else was out there. “There were a few people out there [doing cannabis photography] but they weren’t marketing themselves as cannabis photographers.,” she said. “A lot of them were marketing themselves as macro photographers, and nobody was documenting farms.”
Seeing an opportunity, Angelo pounced. She began building a portfolio, putting her work out steadily on Instagram, and then connecting with farms, businesses, and other photographers. “At that time, there was so much Internet real estate available… to market yourself you needed to consume that real estate.” Seeing cannabis photography as a genre just like any other, Angelo said, “There’s plenty of room for all kinds of styles.” She positions herself as “an editorial and reportage photographer” within the broader genre of cannabis photography.
At this point in her career, Angelo spends the majority of her time photographing outside the studio. “Right now, it’s prime outdoor season. May through October, I spend the majority of my time in the field. I spend about 75 percent of my time outside. In the winter, it slows down a bit, but I never turn down a shoot in the field!” Working outside, on farms, she has to stay mobile; Angelo prefers to keep her gear setup as simple as possible: “I’m not gear-oriented. Honestly, I could shoot with a smartphone and be happy! I like to commit to one lens over time; it helps build the look of a cohesive body of work.” While she prefers to work with natural light, Angelo will occasionally use a small LED white box and a macro lens to shoot close-ups.
I asked Angelo what she thought about the evolution of the way cannabis is perceived, particularly as someone who is responsible for helping create the visual language around cannabis. “I live in a very liberal state so a lot of the ill-conceived expectations, I don’t experience,” she said. “I’m actually more shocked by the day-to-day encounters with people who are so open and accepting. I was at the bank the other day, and the two tellers were talking about CBD tinctures… A fellow family photographer, a devout Christian woman, posted on Facebook about how CBD oil had changed her life!”
The cannabis business is fast-growing, particularly on the west coast with Washington, Oregon, and California all legalizing cannabis or moving in that direction. While she doesn’t want to give away her “secret sauce,” Angelo says there’s “room for everyone” in the cannabis photography genre, as long as they are truly passionate.
“Be into it because you really enjoy shooting it, not just because it’s on-trend. Really do what you love, in photography and in everything else in life.” Angelo said her success “comes down to access; take the initiative to ask for access… There’s not a time when I meet a grower that I don’t give them my card, or ask to come out to their farm and photograph. I’m always actively seeking new content to shoot, introducing myself to people, asking to bring my camera along.”
In addition to taking the initiative, Angelo had some other advice: “Every photographer should read David Hearn’s ‘On Being a Photographer.’ That, and consume other people’s work as little as possible. It distracts you from moving forward.”