Rock Photographer Turned BLM Photojournalist: Chris Tuite
To hear the audio version of this interview with Chris & Derek visit AusformMag.com, where you will regularly hear new interviews with one of the wonderful personalities that make the Bay Area such a unique and magical place.
Chris Tuite is an EastBay photographer who you have probably seen in front of the barricade at any number of the concert halls in and around SF. He is a regular shooter for Live Nation at The Concord Pavilion and Shoreline Amphitheater, but most recently he has been capturing the isolation created by COVID-19, and the BLM protests that erupted as a result of the murder of George Floyd Jr. You can find more of his protest and concert photos on his IG at Christuitephoto
This interview was originally conducted before George Floyd Jr’s murder and a lot has changed since then. We’ll let Chris tell you a little about what he has been working on since then:
Since May 29th, I’ve been out documenting the Black Lives Matter protests sparked by the murder of George Floyd in Minnesota. I feel that it’s imperative to provide the public with factual coverage and images that tell the stories of those fighting for justice and the reform of our current police system. The narrative is being altered by many around the country to portray the peaceful protestors as looters who are causing destruction and violence but that has not been the case in my experience. The protesters have very strong voices and are fighting for a better country. It has been so inspiring to be alongside them and to help their message be seen. I am very thankful for the trust they put in me to allow me to photograph the movement.
On May 29th, I covered the first protest in San Jose. There was a lot of anger and frustration over the injustices of the death of Floyd. The protest started at City Hall and eventually moved to Highway 101, where the protestors shut it down in both directions. This was the start of many protests around the Bay and it resulted with police resistance with use of tear gas, looting and burning structures in Oakland and throughout the country. I covered Oakland extensively in the coming days after that first protest and the message was really strong.
A lot of art started to pop up in cities on the boards that were covering the closed businesses and windows. It was amazing to see the community come together in a time of unrest. I was on the Golden Gate Bridge when protestors hopped the rails and took their demonstration into traffic, and saw how everyone cleared the way as a lady was in labor and had to get to the hospital. I was in the car caravan when the Bay Bridge was shut down and saw the way CHP violently handled the situation. I visited Palmdale to photograph where Robert Fuller was found hanging and then up to Seattle with my friend Ashley (who is filming a documentary) to cover CHOP.
Being at CHOP felt like I was in another world and in a lot of ways it was. They set up an occupied protest at the Seattle PD East Precinct, barricading themselves in with roadblocks and structures for protection. They had their own security, medics, garden and a system that hundreds of people called home, while still demanding the reduction of Seattle PD’s budget by 50%. They demanded to distribute the money into black communities and the freeing of all protestors. Unfortunately, violence broke out inside the walls and multiple murders happened and the original message was lost. Seattle PD, with help of the FBI eventually took back the area. We also covered a Women of Color led march which protested nightly in Seattle. Unfortunately, that was the same group that was targeted by violence and had a car run through their barricades and killing Summer Taylor and badly injuring Diaz Love. The revolution that is happening right now is not coming without cost. It is amazing to see how much power the people really do have, as real change has happened around the country. This has been an eye-opening experience for me and I’m very grateful to be able to put in this much time documenting it.
Ausform: Let’s just go ahead and talk through where you grew up, and how you were raised.
Chris: I was born at Stanford and when I was two and a half, I moved to Humboldt and I went to school up there and college up at Humboldt state. I got a degree in journalism with an emphasis on photojournalism. I moved back down here in summer of 2013 so I’ve been down here for seven years this summer.
Ausform: When you were growing up, did you know that you always wanted to be a photographer or how did that kind of come up?
Chris: I always had a passion for it for sure. My mom used to take photos. She did more floral stuff and some landscape photos. She used to sell postcards and prints in shops. I started taking photos with her camera when I was really young and I developed a love for it.
I kind of always knew that was something I wanted to pursue. I didn’t know if it was going to be my 100% income or profession, but I knew I always wanted to do it. I was definitely inspired by looking at a lot of those old iconic sixties and seventies rock photos. Just realizing how temporary that stuff was and being able to see it captured in time was pretty fascinating.
Ausform: Other than your mom taking photos when you were young and being focused on those iconic rock photographs. What were some of your other artistic influences?
Chris: I took a lot of art in school. I went to an elementary school that thought it was really important and we always had some type of art class. One teacher painted professionally and had a lot of really nice work. She was definitely an influence.
She taught us all kinds of different ways to paint and I guess seeing that perspective and ways to make your art different and make it stand out a little bit was influence. Having a school that saw importance in it and making sure everyone got time to express themselves differently helped pave my path
I appreciate a lot of types of photography, not just music stuff. It all comes down to the way you can freeze time with the click of a button. That’s the most fascinating thing to me.
Whether it’s shooting news stuff that’s happening right now, sports photography or photo like during the great depression era,I believe in the purity of photography. There’s a lot of stuff now that’s happening with all these filters and a lot of photoshop that’s not really what made me passionate about it. More of it is seeing something that’s a real and pure moment. And that’s what always keeps me interested in trying to capture that really special unique photo.
Ausform: What were some of your first jobs when you first got out of school?
Chris: I started shooting when I was almost 20, and I started by reaching out to local bands and they were getting me into shoot their shows and sometimes actually into bars to shoot when I wasn’t even 21.
They essentially put me on the list and kind of snuck me in the back door kind of thing. So taking photos and I probably wasn’t supposed to be, but that’s how I got started. And then I took those photos and then made some contacts with local papers and started freelancing for them and then pushed that as far as I could.
I found a way to get into Coachella when I started shooting in 2008 and I took that and I got a Rolling Stone internship back in New York. And then from there I started freelancing for different places and started making contacts and pushed as far as I can.
Ausform: Do you remember the first band that actually paid you to shoot them?
Chris: I haven’t done too much working with bands. Most of my income has been editorial stuff, so Magazines and newspapers have been the majority of my work as well as shooting house gigs for venues. I did some promo work for some bands at Humboldt around like 2009, 2010. The first one was probably a band called Strix Vega, they had me do some promo shots for their press kit and stuff. So he essentially just went around Humboldt and had some fun while shooting.
I want to actually get more into that. I really enjoy that portraiture aspect. I did a lot of shooting weddings and stuff too so I have experience with lighting and concepts and I want to get more into doing album art and promo shots.
Ausform: Obviously working as an editorial photographer and doing weddings, these are all event-based jobs, but currently events aren’t really happening. How have you been maintaining yourself? And keeping your business alive during this coronavirus time?
Chris: Well, it’s 100% on hold right now. None of us really know what’s going to happen at all. I’m assuming that we’re going to be affected as much as anyone else because our industry will be probably the last to open up. The event stuff here as phase two starts and as phase three starts, that’s not going to include us.
You know because the events are going to be of large amounts of people in big crowds and the risk is too high that it’s not going to be allowed especially in our state that’s being very careful with what’s going on. So right now, I was lucky enough to qualify for unemployment at the time. Which is the first time that self-employed individuals have ever been allowed to do that. So right now, I’m able to supplement my income with the unemployment and I’ll be doing a coronavirus project, going around the Bay area and taking shots of the experience and the isolation of what the virus has caused.
And that’s kept me busy and given me some inspiration to keep shooting and help the time pass better cause it’s hard when you don’t have anything on your calendar or anything really to look forward to specifically. This has given me an outlet for some creativity.
But it’s definitely a scary time for all of us because we just don’t know. We’re at the whim of what people make in legislature and what they decide is best safety wise. Our industry is definitely going to be seeing the effects of this for quite a while.
Ausform: There’s been lots of talks about how concerts will look once venues opened up again. people wearing masks, people needing to get their temperature taken before they go in. Do you think that people will actually abide by these guidelines? Can you actually see a group of people going to a concert wearing a mask the whole time?
Chris: We’re already seeing that problem now in public. There’s an unfortunate discord here. Our country is extremely divided on where they get information and there’s a lot of information that I don’t agree with that are saying you shouldn’t wear masks. And I don’t really understand it because it’s really there to protect people around you and protect you from having it spread. But they’re seeing it as their rights are being taken away. So, all they can really do is require someone to wear a mask when they go in there. If they’re properly distanced out, I think they’d be able to enforce it.
I can’t say people aren’t going to fight it because people do fight authority all the time. Unfortunately, the hardest thing I think is keeping people distanced. Because if you know a band you really like you’d love to go up to the rail and to get close. So, I mean you can give people seats that are spread out but being able to enforce that is probably going to be a very difficult task and it’s tough to even put that on people that work at a venue. They’re risking everything being out there around people
I do feel that at this time, the artists are going to have a pretty big influence though. Have you ever seen videos of artists that stopped shows because there’s a fight in the crowd or someone bullying someone else in the mosh pit?
So, I would hope that the artists on stage without getting political or anything, would be like, Hey, I want to keep playing for you. Can you put your mask on? Hopefully that will be something that will be pushed.
Ausform: They just drew those social distancing circles out, at Dolores park. Do you think you could foresee these social distancing circles expanding into the festival scene?
Chris: I think they could try but it depends on the amount of people. At festivals like Coachella or Bonnaroo or Outside Lands you can’t really control a crowd of that size.
So, you can do one thing, but the second that people start running up to the rail, everyone’s going to follow them. Then the people that are following rules are going to get pushed to the back. I really don’t know how they’re going to enforce that at festivals.
I was out of Dolores park the first day they put in the circles and people were doing pretty good with it actually. They were doing yoga, boxing, working out, juggling, playing with family, but they were staying in the circle pretty well. That’s just an outside, kicking back and relaxing environment, a little different than being at a big festival.
I’m not optimistic that people would be following circles at a festival. Especially something that you paid a lot of money to get into. I feel that there are people that will feel they can do whatever they want when they paid 300 400 500 $600 to get in. That’s a different aspect and something that’s going to be a really impossible to enforce, in my opinion.
Ausform: I’m worried that the venues are going to need to reduce capacity, and if you reduce capacity, in order to sustain the business, you have to raise prices. If you reduce capacity by 75% then ticket sales go up 4X, and then you basically have this unattainable concert system that the majority of the people can’t actually afford.
Chris: That’s a good point. Also, I do feel that contracts are going to have to change. I do feel that the door rates are going to have to change because they need to get back to work. I mean, these musicians aren’t getting paid right now. Obviously, they have some unemployment coming in, but that’s not what they usually make when they’re out touring.
They’re going to have to settle for smaller percentages and smaller amounts than when there are more fans. I do feel that it won’t skyrocket that much. I feel that they’re going to come to agreements with promoters to have shows safely rather than jack up to astronomical prices when people don’t have a lot of extra money right now.
I feel that the big promoters like Live Nation and Goldenvoice will be able to have an environment here where it’s not skyrocketing up, where people could actually afford to go to shows because if nobody is going to shows, then artists and production companies aren’t making any money.
Artists make money off touring and their merch sales, so if they can’t do that, then there’s no money coming in.
Ausform: So, let’s go back to your process in terms of photographing concerts. Do you have specific things that you do right off the bat, or shotlists that you have in your head?
Chris: No, not really at all. I mean, it depends who you’re shooting for too. If you’re shooting for editorial definitely shooting all the band members is very important and you usually get your three songs. Making sure you’re efficient with those three songs is really important. It’s tough sometimes with drummers because they have no light on them or they’re stuck behind a huge kit that you can barely see their face. You just do your best in to get a nice gallery that they can use to document the event.
But when you’re shooting for a venue or for an artist, you definitely want more unique and more reaching content because you have more access. If I’m shooting for a venue, you got to get your shots up in the front first while you can, and then you go around and you got to get fans. People having fun and kids and families and people with band shirts on and shots of the venue is key for content.
And you want some wide shots to show the whole atmosphere. If you’re shooting for an artist, you want some behind the scene shots and personality shots. You want the fan interaction. A lot of people forget about that, you know, cause the fans are as much about music as artists are. Without fans there are no shows.
Ausform: Concerts are very straightforward, and you don’t have a lot of control over them. Weddings are very controlled and everything has to be done at a certain time. How do you shift your mindset when you’re going between a concert and a wedding?
Chris: It really doesn’t change for me to be honest. I think you’re referring to the post portraits. A lot of a wedding photography is very similar to concerts and none of it’s controlled. You can control the getting ready photos and family portraits but still you’re dealing with the whole photojournalism aspect of it. You’re capturing the ceremony under trees that are full of dappled lighting with people walking in and out of shadows. There are hotspots all over the place so you’re really dealing with changing lighting and difficult shooting logistics. You can bring your own lights in obviously to control your environment during the reception, but still you’re documenting an event from a photojournalistic aspect.
The mind doesn’t change too much, other than the fact that you have to be in control and more vocal at times. You have to be a little pushy when you’re trying to get shots because you have a certain amount of time to do things. You’re either losing your daylight or the ceremony has to start and you have to be efficient with time.
I would say that’s the only difference. But you’re still documenting whether you’re out shooting wildlife, people on the street or a sports game. You’re still like a fly on the wall taking photos and documenting what’s happening.
Ausform: Lets wrap things up with some quick-fire questions. What’s your go to style of comfort food?
Chris: Comfort food. Oh, man. I’d say mashed potatoes are probably my favorite comfort food. I like potatoes in general too. So even just some fried potatoes or baked potatoes, stuff you can make at home is good.
Ausform: Three favorite Hangouts. Non venue related.
Chris: I like to go like kayaking with my dad when I’m up in Humboldt. He has pedal kayaks, so outdoors stuff is good. It’s kind of interesting too because my work is also kind of my passion and what I do for fun. I’m very lucky that I can go do something that I enjoy and make a living out of it. Honestly, I spend a lot of my time at shows, photographing shows, enjoying shows as a fan. I’m also an avid record collector, so I do like going to record stores and flipping through bins and I buy stuff online now due to Corona which is unfortunate, but, yeah, going to record stores and poking around is a lot of fun for me. I also like to go see my sports teams play. I can’t do it all the time though cause it’s really expensive.
But, Giants games, 49ers games and Warriors games are definitely an outlet for me. I’ve been fans of the teams since I was like a little kid so that’s definitely important in my life and something I can do with my dad and friends. You know, with no sports right now or concerts, photography is the only thing I have so being able to go out and document this has been really important to me. I’d be kicking myself if I wasn’t out taking photos of what’s happening now because hopefully we won’t have a pandemic like this again in our lifetime.
Ausform: What are your two favorite record shops?
That’s a tough one because I have a lot of friends that own record shops. I really like the Rasputin’s chain. That’s a really good local record shop. Some are going out of business, unfortunately, but the Berkeley shop is a really good one. And then there’s a shop called Needle to the Groove. There’s one in Niles, which is kind of near Fremont. And then one in San Jose. They’re a really good chain too. They really care about the condition of records. They don’t even buy stuff that’s not super clean, so you can definitely trust to go in there and find stuff that you want that’s in the condition that you want to buy them in. And they’re really great people too. I’ll go in there and hang out and chat for a couple hours about music and records. That’s important to me, having a record shop with people that I like and people that I get along with and can talk about records and music and life. Because it’s not just about grabbing records, it’s about sharing experience with friends and finding new bands and things you enjoy.
Ausform: What are your top three favorite events that you’ve shot?
Chris: Well Coachella was a big part of my life for a long time. The first round was 2007 and that was kind of a big deal for me. That was the Rage Against the Machine reunion show. That was probably the best lineup to date of any modern ever, in my opinion. It was a Rage Against the Machine, Bjork and Willie Nelson and The Red Hot Chili Peppers, The Black Keys, Kings of Leon, Arctic Monkeys, Jesus and Mary chain, and LCD Soundsystem among others. There were a lot of bands that were kind of middle tier up and commers, that ended up having a ton of success. I think like six or seven of those bands actually ended up headlining the festival afterwards so that was just a really special year. I drove down 16 hours to go to that festival with some friends. It was my first big festival and I got the festival bug.
Being able to experience the big crowds of people and seeing all those bands in one place at one time. And that’s definitely changed a lot. It used to be more of a rock festival and indie rock. And now it’s more of a pop and top 40 and Hip Hop fest now. They kind of exhausted all of the rock headliners. That was the 20th year, and they had all the big rock acts that could headline play, except for Bowie and The Smiths. They had to kind of morph and change style and demographics, so it’s become a younger festival.
Another one that is really important to me is BottleRock. I’ve been photographing that one since 2014 and it’s a super unique and special festival.
I also shoot LA Pride every year. That’s another really cool event. It’s nice to see people in their element. They’re not afraid to be themselves there. It’s a place where they can be around other people that share common goals and lifestyles to them and it’s about celebrating equality and how far we have come as a society.
Ausform: And then three favorite venues that you like to see shows at?
Chris: A place I would go to specifically because I love the atmosphere of the venue, I would say The Fillmore and the Greek Theater in Berkeley. The Fillmore has such rich history and the Greek has incredible atmosphere and and a gorgeous backdrop. I love being able to walk to the top and getting nice views of Berkeley and the sunsets.
The Fox is really nice too in Oakland, too. I put it right there with Shoreline as my favorite venues to photograph. The Bridge School Benefit that they had for so long really sticks out in my memories. Sitting up on the lawn watching Neil young and Metallica and a lot of those bands that don’t do acoustic very often was really special. I remember once specifically seeing the Temple of the Dog reunion. Soundgarden played then Pearl jam hit the stage. Chris Cornell came in and sat in with Pearl Jam to do the Hunger Strikes, and that was actually the last time they ever performed together. It just gives me chills thinking about that one. That was just absolutely incredible to see. I have a lot of great memories there and at the Fox. The people at the Fox are really great. I love the architecture inside the building and it’s a very comfortable place to go see a show.
Ausform: Anything else that you want to promote for yourself or any other organizations?
Chris: I don’t think so. I just think it’s important for everyone to try to stay busy right now, in the safest way possible to maintain mental health. Staying home all the time is not a healthy thing. I mean obviously you should be wearing a mask and keeping distance, but I think getting outside and getting some fresh air and exercise is important. Get outside and enjoy the sun a bit and if you have no work, coming up with a personal project is something that’s a good thing to do. Do something you’ve been meaning to do for a long time you’ve been putting off because you had work or other responsibilities got in the way. It definitely keeps everyone happier and healthier having something to work on and look forward to. So definitely keeping my attitude positive and finding something to do is a good thing and has helped me immensely.
Ausform: And then how can people get in touch with you and check out your work?
Chris: Instagram is definitely the best way to keep in touch with the project I’m doing on the virus and how it’s isolating people and changing their normal outlooks and views on life.