Traveling the world photographing the biggest stars in music
When Ivan Berrios was studying criminal justice and supporting himself by working in the mall, he had little idea that within a few years his life would do a complete 180. Now, his days consist of travelling the world documenting some of pop culture’s biggest stars. Micha Frazer-Carroll meets Ivan to hear how it all started with some YouTube tutorials and a little bit of hustle.
If you take a cursory snoop through Ivan Berrios’ Instagram page, you’ll spot candid photographs of Beyoncé, Jay-Z, Drake, J-Lo and DJ Khaled. As you flick through the captions, a sobering realization will dawn on you: these crisp close-ups aren’t reposts, but taken first-hand. It is safe to say the 28-year-old videographer has been in a lot of important rooms with a lot of very important people.
Our current era of celebrity is characterized not only by press releases and paparazzi, but also the kind of behind-the-scenes media that has now firmly secured a place on our timelines. Fans are, as ever, captivated by stars’ most polished selves, but we also want to see what they do in their downtime: who they hang out with, what content they consume, what their kitchens look like. Ivan has earned his place in the room by being very good at capturing both sides of celebrity life.
During quarantine, Ivan has been taking some downtime himself, playing Call of Duty, but also going through old hard drives and reflecting on his career so far. “When you're working on the road, everything moves fast. You're shooting, you're dumping all the footage into folders on a drive, you’re releasing things and then moving on. But recently I've been here just looking at all my stuff and I'm just like, ‘wow, this is crazy.’”
And it is sort of crazy – most of his subjects are mega-celebrities. He was only an early 20-something when he took on the role of DJ Khaled’s right hand man, and alongside the musician, he’s shot a long list of household names.
Ivan’s entry into the industry wasn’t about having the “right” friends, nor was it a product of the “right” schooling – he made his way in as a club photographer with his best friend Edgar Esteves while at college in 2010. “I was going to school for criminal justice, and I was also working at a shoe store at the mall. And then on the side I was taking photos at clubs and networking and meeting people.” Starting out with small music video shoots for Miami-based artists, Ivan self-taught, and began to make a name for himself. “I would go on YouTube and just look at a bunch of videos – there's thousands of videos about filmmaking and photography and tutorials and all this type of stuff. So I thought, why would I go to school for photography or filmmaking when I could just apply it now? It was a lot of trial and error, but the best experience.”
From there Ivan started working his way up: “I worked with one of DJ Khaled’s artists for about two years. We travelled everywhere – London, Switzerland, Dubai, Germany. I thought it was so cool – cool enough that I decided to quit my job at the mall.” Eventually, he caught the eye of Khaled himself, who proposed something that would change his life forever. “Khaled sat me down and said: ‘Hey man, I want you to start shooting for me.’ And I'm like, ‘let's do it.’”
Khaled, who only travelled via tour buses due to a long-time phobia of flying, wanted Ivan to document an entire trip, and wanted to leave the following week. “I thought: ‘Should I do this?’ And then I was just like: ‘you know what? I'm going to just go for it.’ I stopped going to school. I didn't even call, I just didn't go.” The gamble paid off, Ivan has been with Khaled ever since.
The videographer’s style is both cinematic and dramatic; it’s easy to see why an artist like Khaled – whose aesthetic drips with glamour and decadence – would be drawn to his work. “I use sound effects, wide screens, shadows and color correction in a way I don’t think he was normally used to seeing. I'm a big movie guy, so I always try to make my visuals look similar to Hollywood blockbusters,” he says.
He also uses items, symbols and props that inject the same glamour; a packed out stadium in monochrome, a gleaming turquoise infinity pool, a jet ski chopping white rings in the ocean. Champagne, cars and cigars make frequent appearances, all presented in the same blockbuster style. I wonder if this is an objective representation of celebrity lives – is Ivan more a documentarian, or a movie director telling a story? He chooses the latter. “My inspiration is people like Michael Bay, Martin Scorsese, Ridley Scott, Christopher Nolan – those are the type of guys I love. You could show me a movie of theirs that I’ve never even seen and I will know exactly which one of them made it by the lenses, the color correction, the style and the angles. These guys are kind of like my teachers.”
As he discusses their respective styles, parallels between his work and theirs become clear: Bay’s fast cuts, angles and cars, Nolan’s anamorphic lenses, Scorsese’s bursts of neon in the dark.
“When you watch a movie, by the end of it you understand what it was about, right? Not me. I‘m always trying to figure out which lens they use and how they lit up, so I have to watch a movie two or three times to actually understand what was going on.”
Reflecting on the luxury lifestyles portrayed in much of Ivan’s work, one begins to wonder about the relationship this has to the increasingly prevalent mantra of “living your best life.” “They're human beings,” he says. “Yes, they have all these nice things, which they work hard for, but they're just like us. There is the glamour, but also the process behind the scenes.”
The flip side of Berrios’ work taps into just this – exploring people’s curiosity surrounding what goes on off stage, outside of commercials and music videos. Berrios shoots behind-the-scenes footage for Khaled’s Instagram, which is more intimate a process; a style of direction that involves being near-invisible.
“When I shoot these people, I try to also capture them doing normal stuff, like normal human beings. I have these photos of Jay where he’s reading a magazine or he's looking at a laptop. And I think in little moments like that, he kinda levels up with people…like oh, he's playing with his kids or he's in the pool, or he's on the phone, or he’s eating a beef patty, you know, stuff like that.”
As well as capturing their downtime, this behind-the-scenes footage shows the hidden aspects of artists’ work. “Khaled always wants me next to him,” Ivan says. “We might go to Jay’s house, or just in our studio sessions and he’ll say: ‘okay, I want just me and Ivan and that's it.’ Or maybe the engineer sometimes. I'm kind of just a fly on a wall capturing all these legendary moments…and um…” he pauses, hesitates, his voice almost breaking into a laugh. “…It’s pretty unreal.”
It’s easy to see his conundrum here – how do you talk about hanging out with Jay-Z? Is it possible to discuss that casually? I wonder if those feelings of awe or disbelief ever enter the tour bus or the studio, but Ivan says any overwhelm almost always falls away when he comes face to face with stars. “Yeah, from a distance have that aura…but when you're close to them, it’s just like a regular conversation with a normal person and all that other stuff just goes away.”
“In 2016 we did the Beyoncé Formation tour. I remember at the end of the tour, we were in the green room backstage and Beyoncé was there and she was like: ‘hey, how are you doing? My name's Bey.’ I’m just thinking to myself like, I know who you are…we’ve done 30, 40 shows with you and you’re the biggest in the game. But yeah. My name's Ivan.”
Despite being at the top of his field and rubbing shoulders with Beyoncé, Ivan continually returns to the idea of wanting to work harder. This seems reminiscent of Khaled himself, who says he was born with “relentless hustle,” having grown up helping his parents sell clothes out of the trunk of their car.
“Khaled – that man’s work ethic is unbelievable. There are so many moments where I’m like, ‘man, how does this guy do it?’ And I’m with him every day.”
“But I also get an opportunity to witness something that people can't really pay for. I'm blessed enough to be in a position like that to see their energy, see how they are, and how they talk about their work. I try to bring that mentality home with me, to my own projects.”
When I ask where he is aiming to get to with all his hard work, Ivan points to Denzel Washington, Lady Gaga and Eminem as people he’d love to work with in the future. “I work with so many artists that it’s started to be like, ‘man, I’ve got to scratch these people off my list.’” It seems that he’s made pretty good headway so far.
And as a pearl of wisdom for those who are just starting out, Ivan emphasizes the importance of genuine curiosity, and learning in whatever way makes sense for you. “The internet has made learning so much more accessible. Even to this day, even these past couple of weeks, I'm still looking at stuff on YouTube.”
“I’m still taking notes, still a student of the game. Little by little, I’m still learning.”