Culture

Exclusive Interview with Karim Tabar about his iconic photography at Burning Man and more

By Tiziana des Pallieres

Photographer and filmmaker Karim Tabar has captured some of Burning Man’s most iconic images and films the past decade. His work has been viewed and shared by millions including the famous music video he serendipitously shot when Burning Man video was virtually non-existent pre instagram days. His beautiful work has included celebrities Paris Hilton, Karlie Kloss, P. Diddy, Karolína Kurková, and several other Victoria Secret models.

His continued dedication to the annual event attracted big name publications such as Harper’sBazaar where his mega work was published for consecutive years in an epic series of artful editorial fashion spreads. His images were then exhibited at the Hearst Tower in New York City, the same city where he began his career shooting polaroid’s, celebrities, and a directorial film debut. His work has been published across numerous channels including W, Vogue, Forbes, MTV, Harper’s Bazaar, Billboard, and Dazed.

In an exclusive interview, we pin down globetrotting Karim Tabar who has been based out of Paris this summer traveling around Europe with questions about his creative journey and upcoming artistry.

Tiziana des Pallieres: How, when, why did you get into the industry?

At a very early age my father’s 1980’s Pentax film camera caught my eye. Dad would take me out around the city or backyard gardens where I grew up in Montreal and shoot black and white film. He would take the camera everywhere we went. I became fascinated with the machine. He taught me about exposures, shutter speed, aperture, which type of film rolls to buy, and how to frame. I owe a lot to him for the early introduction in life, but it’s not until I became a working adult where I started to take it seriously. 

The first professional photos I had taken was with a top model agency I interned for in Soho, New York. I had just moved to the big apple a year earlier and the city was beaming. Fresh faced and eager to learn I was asked to take pictures of the new face models coming to town with a Polaroid camera. I’d curate their model books and comp cards and the agents would send them to castings. At the end of the day, I would mop the floor and call it a day riding my BMX bike back to my East Village flat and go out all night in the Lower East Side until 3AM where I would meet every clown in town. I did this for a glamorous summer, and am grateful for that experience. 

Shortly after that gig I had been offered a role at Conde Nast Publications where I produced for online Vogue, GQ, Style.com and other brands under the parent company. The experience taught me how to run a creative agency. Deep down, I was more about the creative – so after work I signed up to film and photo courses and began taking pictures of people, I found interesting on the streets of NYC, miraculously my first ever student film project was a music video which got broadcasted on MTV videos. From that point on I just kept shooting photos, films, projects that interested me.

TdP: How would you sum up your aesthetic?

I love people, capturing faces, fashion, music in movement. When I look back at my work, I see a lot of these elements in my visuals. Music has really inspired me and has been a major catalyst in my work. It is often mentioned to me that my film work is strong, but my heart is half full without the other, so I do both film and photo. 

TdP: How did you become one of the most iconic photographers of Burning Man?

Everything just happens at Burning Man, there are no controlled sets or schedules, it’s a magical sequence of surprises. I never set out to become a top photographer there, it was just the persistence of doing it year after year with an eye for fashion and people that separated me from the crowd. There are numerous artists who attend every year doing top level work on all types of artistry such as art creators, musicians, and photographers such as myself. My journey there was an organic path, one thing led to another after a dear friend in Hong Kong told me he booked acts for his music camp Robot Heart and invited me so I came and shot the hell out of it for almost 10 years. During that decade I felt drawn to capture every moment possible as I felt this was history in the making and that Burning Man may abruptly end.  

TdP: What makes a good picture in your point of view

A camera, a subject, and your third eye.

TdP: What keeps you motivated and did you have any role models?

The one ingredient that separates those who are massively successful apart from those who aren’t… is hunger. You’ve got to find a way to have a winning mindset and surround yourself with friends who share that philosophy. Every day I wake up with a sense of urgency, the day I lose that feeling I may as well retire. As for role models, I often think back about this period in my life when I was trying to break into the industry and luckily for me, I was dating a talented photographer whom I admired, she was my role model and that was a major motivator. Find your inspiration from someone who is successful and model after them. Their success and passion will fuel you

TdP: What’s the best piece of advice that you’ve been given when it comes to handling the industry? 

The most difficult part about being a public artist is not everyone is going to be a fan of your work. Critics and politics are part of the business. I realized that not everyone is going like your style, but at least you’ve got one so just keep working at it, and experiment until the light bulb goes off. It’s also critical to get along with people, it’s a very social industry and most of my commercial work came from meeting them in person or some type of referral through a person who knew me. Ultimately focus on what drives you. Solid work ethic, professionalism and never stop shooting if you want to be taken very seriously. This is a long game

TdP: Current / future projects ?

Just wrapped up a few commercial film projects in Europe with some notable clients, it’s been a European summer and without a doubt a very memorable one. With summer ending, this is when I dive into electric brainstorm sessions on personal direction all while I am in a constant flow with client bookings and traveling the world.

Follow Karim on Instagram