By Penn Hansa, PPA Intern
Jonathan Givens, CPP, isn't just a photographer.
For starters, he was a master carpenter for the Oprah Winfrey show who had never considered picking up a camera until Oprah herself suggested he take pictures of the sets he built for the show. Fast forward 11 years, and Givens is now a Certified Professional Photographer who has made a business out of taking pictures of the thing he loves - entertainment.
Givens grew up as an actor, dancer and singer. He first performed when he was five years old, and was 12 when he had his first paid gig. Theater life was consuming, but Givens didn't want it any other way. "I didn't go to my high school graduation because I was in technical rehearsals for a show," he said. "Theater was always there for me. It was the place where I got to be silly and jump around, and do all the crazy things I wanted to do."
He was doing what he loved - until injuries set him back. He shattered an ankle during a show, and then his voice was "destroyed" by the steroids that were prescribed to help his vocal cords. But Givens couldn't stay away from the stage, and instead, moved his talents behind the scenes to work as a technician in 2001. Taking jobs here and there, he eventually worked as a technical director at a youth theater in Phoenix, where he taught a child actor named Emma Stone how to build scenery.
He made the move to the Oprah Winfrey Show in 2003, and as the carpenter who built the set, was part of the team who won an Emmy the following year for Best Set Design on Oprah's Pop Star Challenge. the host's own version of American Idol. When he built a set for Destiny's Child's appearance on the show, complete with smoke rolling over a moving sidewalk for the singers to walk in time to the beat of "Lose My Breath," he knew he should take pictures of his work. "It was hours of preparation and $80,000 worth of work and materials for only 10 seconds of airtime," Givens said. "I needed some way to document what I was doing, so I wasn't just throwing the set away."
Other highlights of his career include working with Cirque du Soleil in 2006 as head carpenter of the show Alegria on their European tour. He also did rigging on major motion pictures like Iron Man 3 and Rock of Ages and at Univision Studios. In photographing the sets he was building, he began taking pictures of the entertainers he was working with and found that people were much more fun to take pictures of than set pieces. He started his own studio in Miami, Entertainment Photography Specialists, and joined PPA in 2012.
"I didn't want to be just another guy with a camera, which is why I joined and got certified. There are a thousand photographers out there, and tons of people who try to do the work that I do. PPA membership sets me apart from the rest," he said.
He attributes his success as an entertainment photographer to his background as an entertainer and technician, and notes that it's allowed him to capture some unique pictures. As a certified rigger, he was able to set an aerial dancer under a bridge in Portugal, with the 5:30 a.m. sunrise and a lighthouse in the background. "It's definitely different from being just a portrait photographer because I have to set up all the rigging," he said. "It's a logical challenge setting up the images."
What also helps are the emotions he recognizes in the performers, passions that he can empathize with having once had them himself. "I don't get my subjects posing - they are doing what they enjoy, and I take pictures of that. I can see the passion behind what the performer does, from the performer's point of view. When the dancer loses herself in the dance, I click the shutter.
"I photograph what I know - entertainment. I'm not only thinking about the lighting, the composition or all the other technical aspects of photography, but I'm also considering how the image will promote the subject's career, or gain attention for the production," he said. "And that's what's made all the difference."