Navigating the entertainment industry as a freelancer: Emmanuel Whajah tells all

Born in Hanover (Germany), while being of Ghanaian heritage gives creative director Emmanuel Whajah, a dual identity that he taps into through his intense passion for dance and photography. You may not have heard of him already. But, Emmanuel also known as EMZYPRODUCTIONFILMS has a portfolio of visual content that captures some of the world’s most sought after celebrities in moments of pure euphoria. The dark undertones, contrast and close-up shots visible in his well-documented catalogue, provide a visual experience of the fast-paced life of a musician, dancer or model eager to create a long-lasting legacy.

Not only does this 25-year-old photographer work alongside individuals in the music industry, but well-established companies like Puma, Highsnobiety, Live Nation and Universal Music Group. His presence extends to the dance industry in more ways than one. He has both an outsider and insider account, having danced since the age of 5 imitating his “idol Michael Jackson”. To date he has photographed Rita Ora, Keke Palmer, Les Twins, Eric Bellinger and more. But, how does he do it? How does he manage to acquire all these opportunities? What are the keys to forging strong industry relationships?

There is another side to Emmanuel’s career that his near 16,000 followers on Instagram may not have seen yet. That is –  his humble beginnings. In this conversation, Emmanuel tells me how he managed to overcome obstacles that freelancers in the entertainment industry face today. Also, how he’s managed to make a name for himself in what some may refer to as a saturated market.

How are you today?

Great so far.

A little bit stressed, as I need to get some stuff ready before I leave tomorrow morning.

Oh right, where are you off to?

 I’m going to Wireless Festival in Frankfurt, where artists like Cardi B, Migos and Travis Scott will perform. I’ll be taking photographs and my pictures will be released on Highsnobiety’s page.

That sounds exciting. How did you make the connections that have paved the way for the opportunities you have now?

That question is so hard. I don’t know, I think it’s a blessing. I’ve always been humbled with my work, when I remember back in the day when I started. Since I got in this industry it has been like a game. I work with one artist then I was passed to another. I don’t even know how things happen so quickly. I live Germany. Everybody who was on tour with an artist would connect with me and would tell me “Yo Emzy, do you wanna shoot that person? They need a tour video…they need a shoot”. That’s how things went so far for me.

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Travis Scott by Emmanuel Whajah

Is it difficult to manage your time effectively?

You have to be very disciplined with your time. I just have to plan my month very precisely. If I know I have a tour or a gig in two weeks, then I know I can’t do anything else around that time. Everything I do, I have to plan very well. Even when I finish the shoot and then edit, because the editing process also takes more time off my schedule. So, the way I do it is always plan, maybe a month before the next month. Because I am my own boss, I can choose when I want to have my free time. I just have to try not to do so much. In the past, I worked a lot and didn’t sleep. When on tour, I don’t even sleep. I could be awake two weeks just editing after we have a show. If I don’t be careful, I will go to the hospital, because I push my body too much. That’s a thing creative people have to be careful with. You get excited to do stuff with clients, but you have to check your health. That’s very important.

True. How do you maintain these industry friendships, as you have done with Les Twins and many others?

You just have to know how to talk to artists. Even when you’re working with them, treat them like human beings so they give you enough space to get to a friendship. Talk about different things that are going on in our lives and the world around us. You just have to be humble and do your thing.

What advice would you give to freelancers in terms of knowing your worth and negotiating payment on a project?

I would advise for freelancers or upcoming freelancers that they should know how much they put into their work. Every freelancer has a feeling about how much money they can get from their work. Even if you’re scared to say it, just write it down. Tell the person or client.

I started doing a lot of stuff for free back in the day. After doing more than 15, 20 or even 30 projects, you get that feeling. Because you get more of an idea of how much time you invest in projects. Nobody should be scared to say how much they are worth.

A lot of freelancer’s text me and ask me how much their budget should be for different shoots. You can’t tell everybody the same thing. It depends on the experience they have, how long they’ve been doing it and how much reference they’ve got. Every work you do, try to do your best work. Somebody will recognise and give you the money even when you didn’t expect it. Make a list of what you can do, the skills, graphics or photography even. Then write down the hours you’ll need to spend on it. Then you can calculate how much time you can spend on different projects and go from there.

Chloe Kitembo by Emmanuel Whajah

You’re always on the go it seems. Let’s go back to where it all started.

I started dancing around 5 or 4. My dream was always to be a dancer, to dance like my idol Michael Jackson. From around 5 to 10 is when I started doing more competitions. I won a lot of championships, so after that I started to combine my dance with hip-hop. I tried to mix my dance with moves from Michael, James Brown or Chris Brown at that time. I was dancing professionally till I was 21 or 22, I think.

Left to right: Ne-Yo and Eric Bellinger by Emmanuel Whajah

How did you make that transition from dancing to photography?

I was often on television with my dance crew (Mufume Crew), I always wondered how it is standing behind the camera. I was excited about the camera’s they used to do our interviews at the time. How they used their techniques to shoot the videos. Yeah, that was the transition. That’s why I even started doing more in the media area.

What’s the meaning behind the name Mufume?

Mufume is the name of one of my dancer crew members. He passed away several years ago. He had the group already with his little brother. It became the four of us when me and my other friend joined the group. They always called us The Jackson 5, even though we were just four. We still dance. Not like back in the day, because we’ve all grown. Everyone wants to build their families now. It’s just one of our dance crew members called Felix Sievers who still does it. He’s a choreographer and still teaches kids in a big dance school in Hanover. Sometimes I go there, join them and teach the kids when I have time. Because that’s the best part of it – to teach others.  

And what do you think the perception is in West African countries like Ghana who see traditional dance and music becoming more mainstream in countries across Europe and America?

I think it’s positive. If I got to Ghana now, the kids are watching people who are from America or Europe. Artists are putting West African dance moves in their videos. Even in the music industry people are now doing more songs with African artists. If you play African music somewhere your body is shaking, because you wanna dance! It’s like feeling the summer vibes. I don’t know why the people are now waking up. I don’t know why they’re now seeing Africa as important. But, the kids in Ghana – this gets them excited. Because they feel like they know where the dances moves come from. They feel popular and appreciated. If you take somebody like Chris Brown for instance who comes from the era when I was dancing in. He takes dance moves which come from Africa. People in the town and in the village are going to celebrate it, because they know who Chris Brown is.

Why is having a degree so important to you, despite already being an established photographer?

I’m doing my Bachelor of Arts in Motion Design at the moment, I’m almost done. A lot of people say I don’t need to do my Bachelor’s. I think its important just to have something, to be able to say you studied something. To show people that you don’t just do different freelance stuff, that you learn something too. You may have taught yourself everything on the internet, but I still think it’s very important for the future that everybody should study whatever they want to study. You’ll always learn something new, that you didn’t know or refresh something that you forgot. For me it’s important to have the degree to be able to say to my kids, “Your dad did something”. To be able to say I did things self-taught, I worked and learned at university.

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Keke Palmer by Emmanuel Whajah

Will you be travelling to Ghana anytime soon for photography work?

It’s funny that you ask me this, because I’ll be going to Ghana to visit my family around November. At the same time, I want to see what’s in the media industry. In Ghana, not only in Ghana, but in other parts of Africa the media industry has changed. They’ve picked a lot of stuff up from Europe and America. The music videos, the moves…everything has changed. The quality has changed. Everything is better now. It’s crazy to see that, because back in the day it wasn’t like that. If I was born in Ghana, I would’ve gone to Europe to study film. But, now they’ve picked things up quickly. The same stuff you can do in Germany; you can still do it there.

You make it known that Michael Jackson is your biggest inspiration. How does he maintain the role of being your biggest inspiration, despite the scrutiny and allegations that have been levied against him?

Hmm, that’s a good question. Over the last few months, people have been asking me the same thing.

Oh right. What do you say in those moments?

Since I’ve been a Michael Jackson fan, I’ve always been confronted with negative questions. If you are in a position to judge somebody you don’t know, it’s easy to say something negative about that person. Because you just see the stuff which the media shows us. We don’t see the behind the scenes, we don’t see what goes on behind closed doors. For me, I always separate the person from the art. That’s one thing.

Another thing is, I’ve been in this music industry now for almost 7 or 8 years. I work with other artists who are also always in the media. People try and talk negative about them. I know them very well. I’ve been working with them face to face. It’s different to hear negative stuff from outside, because I know how the people are when you meet them and if you work with them for a long time. First of all, the Michael Jackson situation for me was like, they might be lying, nobody knows. They didn’t have any evidence against him now and even back in the day he was pled not guilty. I don’t know why people believe claims from people who might be trying to get some money from this situation. If people say the allegations were true, the whole thing that happened twenty years ago would mean the police or the FBI didn’t do their work properly.

How would you respond to people who say that life experiences form the very basis of the art people produce?

When I combine this with Michael, I would say if you studied him like I did you would know that everything he said in his music is true. Everything in his music has always been true. The message he brings talking about the world, about the children. There’s nothing negative about it. If you compare it to the R Kelly situation, that’s different. With the R Kelly situation, you’ve got a lot of evidence. If you listen to his music now, it’s different. I don’t feel very comfortable listening to his music. Because I know now what was going on behind closed doors. Because, they have evidence of it and it’s now weird to listen to his music. You hear different things in his lyrics.

If Michael Jackson was still alive today, would you want to collaborate with him as a dancer or videographer?

I would say videographer.

 Why is that?

The reason I’m saying this is because, as a videographer you can put all your creativity in the mind of the artist and in your work. So, everything Michael would say to me, I would have to bring to the table and bring it to my visual art. Everything we work on in the video from the beginning to the end will be a message. If the message touches hundreds or thousands of people it would make me feel better, because I’ll know I did something positive for the world. As a dancer, you’ll be in the shadow of him. He’s the great icon. So, as a dancer you can’t provide that much energy, as you can bring to something visually on screen.

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Taken by Emmanuel Whajah

Tell us about your new visual project: Divine Beauty.

I had a shoot 2 or 3 years ago with a model, which was very spontaneous. The shoot was in a hotel or something and was with lingerie. It was a little bit more sexy, but in a classy way. That video popped on Instagram. It had over 40,000 views or something. I was thinking, I know a lot of people and I know a lot of models who are doing more music videos. I know how people think of models who are working on music videos and stuff. They don’t really get recognized and there are a lot of them. So, I was thinking to do something special for the models. For the women who are working in the industry, but don’t have that kind of experience, of standing in front of a camera just by themselves. I wanted to do something classy where women or girls can be comfortable in their own skin. The whole project is about presenting women in a better way, than how the industry presents them.

Ella Mai by Emmanuel Whajah

Interesting. Your photographs in general vary from colour to black and white. Which do you prefer and why?

Black and white. I love Black and white photographs. They are timeless. It’s left to your imagination what the original picture looks like. You can put your imagination together to make it look colourful, if you want to. And that’s the whole secret.

What would you say has been your best experience so far?

The best experience I have had over the years is being with and working with people who believe in my work.

Where do you see yourself in five years?

I would like to see myself where God has positioned me. I don’t know where I see myself in the next five years, but I know God is working. So, everything I’m doing is just a step towards that goal.