It happens at almost every rock show.
You’re right down front, being elbowed and jostled. The band is roaring, the crowd is screaming, the lights are dancing across the stage, and suddenly it hits you. “This is magical,” you tell yourself. “If I could only bottle this and take it home.”
Erik Campos knows the feeling well. An award-winning photographer with a passion for jangly, overdriven guitars, he relishes being as close to the action as possible. He has a knack for recognizing those transcendent moments, those testaments to rock’s transformative power.
“I’ve always loved music,” he says, cradling a cup of coffee in his hands in a booth at a local coffee shop. “I get the storytelling part of it. I get the writing that conveys an emotion because that’s what I try to do with my photography. I get what’s happening. I totally dig it.”
His eyes gleam excitedly, like all this rock n’ roll talk has transported him back to the mosh pit at a Social Distortion show. It’s the same excitement he’s carried to assignments around the world, from the war in Iraq to Super Bowl XXXV.
Campos earned a reputation for being one of the finestphoto-journalists in South Carolina during his 14-year career at The State newspaper. But in 2010, during one of the newspaper’s downsizing sprees, the rug of daily journalism was yanked from beneath his feet. It was disorienting, but instead of plunging directly into a shrinking, cutthroat job market, Campos took a deep breath and stepped off the hamster wheel.
“I wanted to re-prioritize my life,” he says. “I wanted to spend time with friends and family and not worry about work and career. So I took some time to go visit folks.”
Campos made plans to hit the road, but an alternative agenda lurked behind his desire to re-connect with people … something to do with a certain Southern rock band and those aforementioned transformative powers of rock ’n’ roll. “The Drive-By Truckers …,” he says, his voice trailing off in reverence. “They’ve been a favorite of mine for so long.”
So Campos plotted his trip carefully, making sure that every time he rolled into a town to visit old friends, the Drive-By Truckers did the same. He saw the band four times over a two-month period, and when all was said and done, he’d been saved by the power of rock ’n’ roll.
“Hearing that music was my therapy,” he said. “Hearing the audience sing the songs back almost as loud as the band, that was my church. I needed that creative energy to rejuvenate my spirit and help me remember there’s a big world out there and you don’t have to serve the man.”
And, of course, he took photos at all the shows.
“Because I wanted a personal record of that frozen moment of the passion of rock that I could put on my wall, look at iteveryday, and remind myself, ‘Yes! Push forward!’ ”
Campos’ interest in both music and photography began while he was growing up in San Francisco. His dad was a doctor in the U.S. Army, and his family lived on the Presidio.
“I have this memory that is so burned into my life,” he says. “My dad smoked a pipe and he used to go to a tobacco shop that sold all sorts of exotic tobaccos from around the world. I remember the smell of those tobaccos, and also all the great music that was playing in that shop. The Doors. The Stones. Beatles. Eagles. My dad was a big classic rock fan, so it was the same songs I was hearing at home.”
Around that same time Campos’ mother began taking a photography class at a community college, and she would take her little boy on her field trips.
“I still have a photo of me, 8-years-old, taking pictures of my sister playing soccer, one of my mom’s hand-me-down cameras hanging around my neck by a big old fat hippie camera strap.”
Like many military families, the Campos clan called many places home. They migrated from San Francisco to Washington to Texas to North Dakota, and finally back to Washington where Erik attended high school in Tacoma. It was in the grunge-heavy Pacific Northwest that his passion for rock music and photography began to intersect.
“My friends and I used to literally scrape together whatever money we could find to put gas in the car to drive up to Seattle and try to sneak into a show,” Campos says. “I remember one time trying to get into a club to see Alice in Chains. We were young; we all had fake IDs, standing around the door trying to get in.”
At the same time, Campos was taking photos for his high school newspaper, and entertaining the notion of maybe someday becoming a professional photographer. The idea took hold on the day he rode with a photographer from the Tacoma News-Tribune on his daily rounds.
“It was a crazy day,” he says. “He had two or three assignments, and the last assignment was a memorial service for soldiers from Fort Lewis who had died in the (1989) invasion of Panama. That really opened my eyes.”
At the end of the day, the News-Tribune photographer tried to deflect young Campos away from the photo-journalism trade. You don’t want to do this, he told Erik. The pay’s bad. The hours are worse. Don’t get into it.
Campos wasn’t having it. He was hooked and eventually landed at Ohio State University, where he studied in one of the best photo-journalism programs in the country. He graduated in 1996 and ended up in Memphis, another musical hotbed, where he served a summer internship with the Commercial-Appeal. The newspaper was impressed with Campos’ work and asked him to stay on in the fall. A few months later, however, an opening appeared in The State’s photo department, and Campos applied for the job. He found himself on the road again, this time to South Carolina.
“The photo department here had such good people,” he says. “Those were the days of Peggy Peattie, Pam Royal, and Jamie Francis. All the photographers were really supportive, especially to a young photographer like me. We shared knowledge and tried to build each other up in the craft. You won’t find that in many work environments.”
Campos began to sharpen his eye and develop a style. His work took on a bold intimacy, whether it was a ballet performance, Gamecock touchdown, or Bruce Springsteen concert. In 1997, he was named clip photographer of the year by the South Carolina News Photographers Association. He was the association’s photographer of the year in 1998, and runner up in 1999. In 2001, he won a first place Green Eyeshade Award for print photography, a competition that includes photographers from across the Southeast.
All the while, Campos followed a credo made famous by the noted World War II photographer Robert Capa, who said, “If your pictures aren’t good enough, you’re not close enough.”
“That’s always been true with me, and I think it’s very true when it comes to shooting rock shows,” Campos says. “You’ve got to be up in the front.”
But it takes more than being close to the action to truly capture the transcendent quality seen in Campos’ photographs. If that were the case, everyone with a cell phone would be staging an exhibition.
For Campos, it’s a matter of being in the right spot, being patient, and having a sixth sense that tells you something special is about to happen.
“First off, I’m just really in the moment,” he says. “I’m there, enjoying the music and not looking for a certain shot. I’m looking to get myself in a position where I think things might come together with the lights, the stage, and how people are moving.”
Campos admits that he has no musical talent of his own, but he considers photography to be his music. It’s his way of giving back to the art form that’s seen him through some tough times.
“Rock ’n’ roll photography is great for me,” he says. “It has its own aesthetics beyond just the documentation of some dude playing guitar. I’m always looking for something that’s accurate and represents what the band is trying to say, but is also visually arresting and conveys that sense of energy and passion.”
Keith Richards might have said that rock ’n’ roll is “music for the neck downwards,” but for Campos and other photographers who like to be right up front, it’s a feast for the eyes as well.