Sydney Sweeney, Lizzo, Conan Gray, Machine Gun Kelly and Megan Fox all pose for the camera. There is a frank familiarity that emanates from each image, as if they had been taken in the moment by a friend. And this is what makes the novelty of the images of photographer Orion Bustamante. The 23-year-old New Yorker is delighting the internet with his casual shots of celebrities on his Instagram account, Shot by Orion, which features grainy movie stills and retro Polaroids.
“I want to capture people’s favorite musicians or artists in a light they’ve never seen before,” Bustamante said. PopPhoto. “Something that catches them completely off guard and having [those images be people’s favorites].”
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A pandemic surprise
The height of a global pandemic isn’t exactly when you’d expect a photography side project to take off, but it did. Bustamante originally created his Instagram account, Shot by Orion, as a repository for film stills he accumulated while covering events around New York City.
“It was really a photo dump account where I just posted a movie. I wanted it to be a movie story,” he explains. “I started this Instagram account from scratch, zero followers, probably end of 2019. I filled two rolls [of film] then I started posting them.
A big break came right after Vice ID published an article about his work – at the time, Bustamante estimated he had around 200 subscribers. The publication quickly added thousands, but he ran into a conundrum. Suddenly, eyes fell on him. But, due to the pandemic, he had no new images to share.
“I was so confused about what happened because they didn’t tell me the article was out,” he recalled. “After that, it was just crazy. I wanted to continue this momentum, but because [of] confinement I lacked movie posts. There were no more events to go to, to photograph anyone.
That’s when he started doing FaceTime photo shoots. At first it started as a way to interact with subscribers, but soon Bustamante had celebrities on board. The series, Stars taken from home, saw him photograph Jason Genao and Sierra McCormick, along with other former Disney and Nickelodeon stars. Eventually, the virtual sessions turned into real-life photoshoots in Los Angeles.
Not a paparazzi
Amid star power, Bustamante is adamant that he’s not a paparazzo, which he equates to an invasion of privacy. Every image he shares was taken with the explicit permission of the subject.
“That’s always been my approach,” he explains. “I think it makes the picture more interesting. [The Internet is] oversaturated with photos of someone walking down the street. It’s more appealing when they’re your subject and also when you’re into it. It’s as if you were there, capturing that fleeting moment, bringing it to life and eternizing it.
So how do you engage with fame? It turns out that Bustamante’s approach is simple but often overlooked.
“You meet them on a professional level; you have to separate yourself from that in a sense. Most of the time when I work with people, I don’t even mention their work or that I’m a fan of them. I just found a different middle ground that we relate to and stuff like that. I think it really helps too because you’re not creating this annoying power thing, where they’re above you.
But aside from dynamics, it’s also a common courtesy. Although his snaps give the impression that he is photographing a longtime friend, the case is usually more true that they just met. When asked how he gets strangers to warm to the idea, it all comes down to acknowledging that the person is, first and foremost, human.
“Sometimes I feel like people when they see a celebrity skip a few steps. They don’t even say hello to them. They don’t even say ‘hi, how are you, how’s your day going’ or ‘ Nice to meet you”. [The celebrity is] suddenly not even a person, they are just an object. It would rub me the wrong way. A casual conversation leads to, ‘Do you mind if I take your picture?’ »
On her favorite celebrity to photograph
Bustamante has been doing the big event rounds – this year he even went to Coachella and Fashion Week. Asked about his favorite subject, the answer was twofold, what he called the obvious and the non-obvious.
“The obvious answer [would] to be probably [Timothée Chalamet]. He’s just a really great guy and everyone loves him; he is so talented. It’s someone I [often] see at events. I don’t even need to ask him about the project anymore. He’s so interested in it that he thinks, ‘Where’s the Polaroid? Let’s do it now, let’s go. He’s so excited about it; he wants to be part of it. He wants to take pictures, he likes them. So that’s really cool.
Bustamante’s “non-obvious” answer would also apply to Chalamet. “I just like people who are willing to step back, not take themselves too seriously, and really create something dope.”
Peeling off the veneer of fame
There’s a certain air of superficiality that comes with celebrity status. When asked if that was true, Bustamante’s response was thoughtful.
“I think that’s a valid thing to think about because you only see so many people,” he begins. “I think the problem is that people tend to think they know everything about [the celebrity] when really you only see what they want you to see. I think a lot of them are people like us, they just have different jobs.
That’s where his images come in. With the click of a shutter (on a disposable, Polaroid, digital, or his “new” Contax G1), Bustamante hopes to peel away the veneer.
“I guess my motive would be to break through that superficiality and show them in a way they’ve never been seen before, whether it’s more vulnerable or emotional.”
Share some of the basics in your gear bag.
It would be the disposable [camera]some extra film (Kodak Portra 400), my Polaroid camera, of course, [and] camera cleaner. Also, I have this LED light that I use, it’s really cool, it takes on different colors. It’s my favorite at night. I also have some cool filters, a film filter – a dream filter as I call it – for my lens.
What’s the best photography advice you’ve ever received?
[A photographer once told me] not to think about it too much or not to take yourself too seriously. If you want to post something, don’t post it because you think others would like it, post it because you like it. He said he landed some of his biggest jobs from shoots he wasn’t even going to post. People saw it and liked it.
Share one of your greatest photographic disasters.
This was recent. I was traveling with my camera gear because I was shooting in Los Angeles. I took the little bus from the terminal and was on the phone with my friend. I was traveling heavy because I was there for a month, so I had two suitcases, a carry-on, and then my backpack. Suddenly, I say to myself, something is wrong, I feel lighter. I left my photo backpack at the airport. I was panicking. So I retraced my steps. I went back to the terminal buses and asked them to contact the other drivers to see if anyone had left the bag or found the bag. They said there was a backpack, but it wasn’t mine. So I thought to myself, oh my God. I returned to the first terminal where I was, huffing and huffing; Iran. I saw just where we all sat before, it was just sitting there, the bag. I was like, thank God.
Name your biggest pet peeve as a photographer.
My biggest pet peeve is when someone thinks, “Oh, you’re just clicking a button. If I had your camera, I could take it too. Or when some people would like to see the RAWs, I say “no”. Or they want the RAWs, I say “no”. [And] when they try to pay you [in] exposure.
What is your current and/or all-time favorite camera?
It must be the Contax I just received. I don’t know if it’s because I’m on my honeymoon phase with this, but I think this is the one.