Athena Burton is a concert photographer from Phoenix, Arizona who has found her own unique style while working with bands like Hate Drugs and Fashion Jackson. I had the chance to talk with her about her story as a photographer, how she met Fashion Jackson, and finding that feeling of home.
When did you start getting into photography?
My mom is a photographer. I call her the Kodak portrait photographer of the family—she’s very family-portrait oriented. So I grew up having a camera in my hands, I had a disposable camera when I was four and I’d carry it around with me. When I was 13, I took a digital art class and started getting more into [photography] and I started taking it seriously as far as bands go when I was a junior in high school. It was one of the best decisions I’ve ever made. I’ve carried photography with me for the past five years but I started taking it more seriously after I got out of high school.
That’s good, that’s when you get more freedom.
Yeah! That’s also when I got my first photojournalist gig for music when I was a freshman in college and I thought “wow, I can actually do this.”
What was your first camera?
The first real camera I had was a Canon Rebel T3i. The reason why I got that camera was because I was starting a YouTube channel and then I used it for photography, but since then I’ve switched to Nikon.
When did you know you wanted to pursue concert photography?
When I was a freshman in college, a friend of mine asked me if I wanted to cover a festival we have out here called Lost Lake Festival for his dad who works for Glide magazine. Going to a festival is one thing but working one is another—like having a two-hour turnaround for every single set was really hard. But I realized if I can do this, I can do anything.
What were some of your favorite bands or artists growing up?
One Direction, I love them. In high school, I started getting into Cage the Elephant and the Strokes and then I got into rap music. Growing up I listened to the Beatles and all that jazz. I was just a fangirl, that was me growing up from the age of 13.
How is the music scene in Arizona different from the scene here in Southern California?
I entered the Phoenix music scene when I was 18 and when I was 20 I found my best friends to this day and we run a house venue in Tempe. Arizona is very pop punk based while Tempe has Breakup Shoes and this band that’s starting out called Fear of Making Out. They are very shoegaze-y so it’s a mixture of those.
I was talking to Spencer from Carpool Tunnel about bands like Buddha Trixie, Fashion Jackson, and Ignant Benches and I realized that I don’t know what genre I would put them under. I’ll never forget when Spencer looked at me and said “We’re soft boy rock, we’re all just soft boys trying to rock out.” I love the consistency of Southern California and how even though each band is different, they all blend together well and I think that’s really cool.
You recently moved to San Diego from Arizona, what prompted such a big move?
I’m 21 and I’ve moved 19 times in the past 21 years. I’ve never been comfortable in a place, I’ve lived in Los Angeles, Phoenix, Tempe, and San Francisco. I went to San Diego to see my friend in college and I didn’t know anyone in the music scene. Long story short, I found Fashion Jackson and started working with them and went out to the Shelter Island show. I started going there every month to see the Fashion Jackson guys and started feeling really at home, which is weird because I had never really felt that way. Whenever I would go out to San Diego, I would tell my friends that I was going “home” to San Diego, and it was really natural for me to say that.
Right after I went on the Hate Drugs, Bay Faction, and Fashion Jackson run, I thought that I can’t be in Arizona anymore and that I needed to be somewhere I can grow as a person and that will challenge me. That’s when I decided to move to San Diego and it was kind of one of those things where I said “fuck it, I’m gonna do it.” I finally found a place that I was comfortable in and that would challenge me at the same time, and that’s something I think is super beautiful about San Diego.
How did you meet Fashion Jackson and start getting involved on their team?
Breakup Shoes played the Che Bad show at the Che Cafe and my friends and I drove out to that show to see them and Fashion Jackson was playing there. So I was sitting by the merch table and I heard them playing and thought “wow, this is really good.” When I went back home I was listening to them and I saw that they posted about the Shelter Island show. I posted on my story to see what the chances were of anyone driving out to this and Sterling responded, not knowing who I am, and said I should definitely drive out. So I drove out to San Diego with my friend and I was sitting alone at the show when Sterling came up to me and said “hey, you’re the girl who drove from Arizona right?” I was like “Yeah that’s me,” and he said “Thank you, it means alot!” It was such a genuine thank you from somebody and I was really touched by that because he didn’t know who I was and I didn’t know who he was.
I had my film camera with me that day so during their set I took a few photos of them, got them developed, posted them and Eddy responded and said they were really sick. We crossed paths again during the Bay Faction tour so while I was taking photos for Hate Drugs I was taking photos of Fashion Jackson too. We became closer on that tour and when I went home to Arizona I would drive out for every single Fashion Jackson show to take photos of them. Then I sorta became their photographer! They’ve given me a lot of opportunities and I love them.
What equipment do you use to shoot and edit your photos?
I use Lightroom to edit. I use my Nikon D810 for my body and I have a 35mm lens that I use mostly for portraits and a 18-125mm Sigma lens that I use for shows. I use my external flash a lot because I love flash photography so I have a Speedlight that I use.
What are some challenges you have faced in trying to pursue photography?
Believing in myself was a big one, like actually thinking that I can do it. A big thing for me was finding a band to work with that actually cares. When I was a sophomore in college I loved Brit O’Brien’s work, who’s Hippo Campus’ photographer and I wanted to be like her. I wanted that relationship with a band where that was my band and I was their photographer. So I searched and worked with bands in high school looking for that band that gets you on a creative level but also on a personal level. I feel like I’ve achieved that with Fashion Jackson because we all have the same vision and look. To this day I think it’s finding bands and creatives that appreciate the art as much as you do or make you want to appreciate your own art as much as they do, if that makes sense.
Being a woman photographer too is a huge thing, being a handicapped woman photographer is even worse. I would step in a room and people would be like “you take photos?” It’s an insecurity thing, everyone has their own insecurities, mine is just a bit louder than others. Being that voice for handicapped people is really cool and being able to be like hey, I can do this as a handicapped woman and that there’s not really a limit to what I can do. Having photography as that outlet and also as a challenge at the same time was something that was really challenging to me. No matter what situation I’m in, it’ll still be in the back of my head.
How do you get over creative blocks?
I watch a lot of tour documentaries, like Brockhampton and Hippo Campus have a lot. I love being on the road and I love touring, so those give me inspiration and drive to keep going. I also have a book by Gunner Stahl, he’s one of my biggest inspirations as a photographer. He does a lot of film and flash work so I have a book of his portraits that I’ll flip through. I love Patti Smith and her books too.
Any advice for aspiring concert photographers?
Learn from presets, don’t use them. That’s something I had to learn myself, I remember using presets but I wanted my work to be more unique. I would download presets and I took it more as a learning base than a preset to find my own look as a photographer. Be yourself and have a backbone, don’t let people take advantage of you because you’re a photographer. Don’t sell yourself short for your talents.
What is your favorite part of being a concert photographer?
Being able to capture sound waves in a visual form. Like being able to see a photo and know what that show was like even if you couldn’t be there. Being able to capture those moments is really tight, it’s like a part of history in a sense. I look at photos and I can hear or feel that photo. That’s a beautiful thing about concert photography no matter who the photographer is.