Interview by Uriah Young
QFTD: Tell us a little about yourself. Who is Keith Cephus?
Keith: Honestly, I’m just an inner-city kid from Yonkers, New York, who had the deck stacked against him, but I always dreamed. Growing up, I never stopped dreaming. At some point, I knew the sun would shine. My parents divorced when I was three, and by age 12, I started working. I didn’t have a choice either because the money I made helped pay the bills. Having to be a man at a very young age was tough, but I think it instilled a strong work ethic in me, that to this day, keeps me on my grind, 24 hours a day.
QFTD: Judging by your career, it looks like that determination still pushes you.
Keith: Yeah man. Throughout life, I’ve had a burning desire to keep my foot on the pedal. Listen, if you want to compete with me, you better get up early because I am going to outhustle and outwork you. I thrive because of my impeccable work ethic. Everyone in my house knows this about me, especially my son who broke the 800M track record at his school. I think my family recognizes how hard I work, and that's very important to me.
QFTD: What else would you say molded your personality, enabling you to become one of the most successful photographers around?
Keith: I’d say that wrestling taught me to go hard. The sport gave me the competitive fire and zest to compete. It made me work hard and inspired me to be the best I could be. What else molded me? I’d say spending 20 years in the Navy had something to do with my personality development, too. I learned how to become a leader and take calculated risks. You see, when people trust you, they will follow you. In photography, when I work with people, I direct them and orchestrate, taking them out of their comfort zone to get amazing shots. To be a photographer, you just can’t press a button on a camera; you have to have the personality, and skills, to do the job right.
QFTD: How did you get started as a photographer?
Keith: It actually started when I was in the Navy. In 1987, I was in Japan when I bought my first camera. As a 22-year-old, I felt like I had to tell my story of being in the Navy. So, what better way to do that than taking pictures? Nothing came natural though. I had no idea what I was doing (laughing). I didn’t want to take the time to read the manual. But anyway, shooting the Orient was amazing! People from there had no idea how infatuated I was with their culture. Initially, I just loved taking pictures of flowers and birds. Then, I would look around and be like, “Man! I’m in Japan! And I am from Yonkers!” I would take my camera on the train, and Japanese people would look at me like I was crazy. It was fun though. It was fun.
QFTD: When did you know that being a professional photographer was what you truly wanted to do in life?
Keith: I knew I wanted to be a photographer after entering a contest in Japan. I got an honorable mention for a flower shot I submitted. Before I knew it, my ship left for Africa, and the world just opened up. While my buddies went out drinking in their spare time, I went all throughout Kenya, taking pictures. Uriah, I took pics of rhinos, giraffes, you name it. I captured images of Mount Kilimanjaro and even took pics of tribesmen. After I wrote an article about my experience, it was published in the Navy Times. That put me on the map. To this day, shooting in Africa was the most powerful experience.
QFTD: How does it rank in comparison to other spectacular photography sessions you’ve had over the years?
Keith: To be honest, I’ve taken shots of President Obama, went to Hawaii to shoot Michael Vick’s engagement pics, and even clicked the lens at the Pro Bowl. None of those compared to my experience in Africa.
QFTD: I saw your recent work with Gabby Douglas. How did that opportunity open up for you? What was it like having such a celebrated Olympian on set and in front of your camera?
Keith: When Gabby took the world by storm, I put a message on Facebook saying, “Gabby, on behalf of Keith Cephus Photography, I want to give you a complimentary photo shoot.” I had no idea the opportunity would present itself the way it did. I was able to conduct a photo shoot with Gabby after meeting her mom, first. Natalie Hawkins, Gabby’s mom, was in need of headshots, so an NBA referee friend of mine helped make the acquaintance. Once Natalie was given the five star treatment by my hair stylists and make up artists, I think the seed was planted. I told her about my Facebook message to her daughter, and Natalie gave a subtle response. It was my way of letting her know, “I’m here.” Next thing I know, Gabby’s publicist calls me out the blue and asked if I could take pictures of Gabby while getting interviewed by WAVY News 10. I said, “Sure.” While shooting, though I couldn’t believe I was in the room with this phenomenal athlete, I stayed humble and practiced proper etiquette. The next day, I was asked to take Gabby’s pictures as she would receive the key to the city of VA Beach. Two weeks later, I was called again. Gabby’s mom said, “Gabby is going to the state capital building in Richmond. Can you take her pictures? You are like her personal photographer, Keith. Can you also take pictures of Gabby with her two dogs?” Ultimately, I ended up doing the marketing campaign shoot for Gabby Douglas.
QFTD: You were making history with the shots you took of Gabby Douglas! 200 years from now, people are going to be looking at your pics! It pays to be humble and confident, doesn’t it?
Keith: You know it, bruh. I have another story for you though. A few years ago, Dr. Harvey, President of Hampton University, reached out to me and told me, “You are going to take pictures of President Obama.” I was given the chance to be one of only two photographers inside President Harvey’s house taking pictures of the commander-in-chief! Peter Souza, the White House photographer, was the only other photographer in the room where dozens of pictures were taken.
QFTD: Were you a little star struck?
Keith: A little, but I remained composed. It was exciting, yet I had to keep it humble and professional. It’s what I always do, bruh. Bottom line: when people call your number, you better be ready.
QFTD: What brings you joy whenever you capture images with your camera lens?
Keith: I just love to touch other people with my craft. For example, when you shoot somebody’s wedding, it is a very sacred affair. There’s no room for error. You get one chance to do it right. The couple has such respect for you and the confidence to place their special day in your hands. I love that challenge. I love inspiring people with my craft. If I can do it, anybody can do it. As an African-American guy, who came from humble beginnings, I love giving people hope. That’s all people need, a little hope. You can achieve anything if you put your mind to it.
QFTD: When your photography career sets with the sun and eventually convinces your arms to raise the camera one last time for that final flicker, what do you want your legacy to reflect?
Keith: I just want to be remembered as a guy who was a good man, a good father, a good husband, and a good leader, not just a photographer. That’s just a fraction of who I am as a person. One day, I want to be a teacher, but that won’t happen until I don’t have anymore more gas in the tank. An offer from the Art Institute of VA Beach is still on the table, but I still have a lot of memorable images to capture.
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