Before dabbing was an automatic response to having a cell phone camera pointed at you (or a regular occurrence on Ellen ) and Atlanta was becoming more frequently referred to as Donald Glover’s ‘Atlanta’ elsewhere, Anthony Hilliard moved to the city looking for nothing more than a way out of his hometown New York. But after picking up a camera and humbly beginning to shoot streetwear, the photographer was pulled into Atlanta’s trap scene through a series of encounters so unbelievably fortuitous they should probably be turned into a treatment for another TV series pilot.
“It was a totally new world I was brought into” Hilliard languidly explains over the phone as he’s looking for parking. “There’s a streetwear brand called Cease & Desist based out of Atlanta. They pretty much gave me my first break, and that was the brand that Future was backing heavy.” When Future’s team liked what they saw in Hilliard’s merch photos they asked him to join Future on his first tour. “Future is heavy on clothing—he loves new shit, he loves the finer shit. That he saw I was able to capture fashion made it easier to transition working for him.”
It was this experience that set the stage for Hilliard becoming Future’s lead photographer, all after only having just started taking photos three years ago. But despite his initial familiarity with trap music, Hilliard’s eyes were opened to a larger scene behind the music and he still finds himself bewildered by the lifestyle of the rapper. It’s this genuine fascination and curiosity for what motivates the looks, the excess and wants of trap stars that can be glimpsed in any one of his patiently composed images. Assembled together, these photos create a small visual documentary of life in the 'Hustler’s Hollywood' of Atlanta.
We asked the photographer to take us through his work and tell some stories from his time navigating the most characterful scene in music today.
“This photo was taken in Blue Flames in Atlanta. I'm not going to say you can tell Future was born there, but man he does this every day, it's nothing to him. Being around that was fascinating. Somebody throw tens of thousands of dollars, that's my college tuition right there. Future is the event. He brings everybody out in Atlanta, it's crazy, people absolutely love him and look up to him. Everything was a moment, everything was a memory there. It's something to see, it really is.”
“Listen, these strippers are athletes. They have to be working out all the time because she was up there for at least three minutes. It's a free for all when Future's throwing money. If you're next to him you are going to get maybe ten thousand dollars. I feel like when you come from nothing you want to show that you have something, and there's no better way of showing that than at the strip club. You can't see behind me but there was like maybe thirty people behind me and I just blend in, I don't always try to be right in front of Future because that's not always the best shot. I want to capture the whole scene versus a whole bunch of portraits of the artists and stuff. They're representing their hood, everybody that they're putting on, I want to be able to capture that. Future is not the type of person that likes photos of only himself. He loves when I capture all the people, those are his favourite photos.”
“This was the first time I'd ever seen a million dollars in cash and Future brought it to the studio just for the vibe. Just so he could say on the track he recorded that he has ‘a million dollars in the studio.’ He showed up with a duffel bag full of money and what you're seeing right there isn't a full million, there was money put together in ways I'd never seen. I honestly have no clue how he got that million dollars in cash. I know that would be a task to take it out of the bank, you can't just go and say ‘let me take a million dollars in cash.’ I don't think it works like that.“
“This photo was actually taken on tour. I had just met that lady for the first time but [Future and her] been cool for quite some time. He actually flew her out to do his hair. Future doesn't just let anybody around him and he doesn't let people capture him getting his hair done. That's an intimate moment man, especially with his locks, that's his crown. So for me to be taking a photo of him getting his crown retwisted, that's a big thing. Not everybody has access to get photos like that. Future is also a very hard person to read so sometimes I feel like maybe I shouldn't be taking this photo but then I'll take it and send it to him later that day and he's like 'oh yeah that's hard'."
“I captured this moment because I felt like it showed what the strip club is about; it's about the money and the way the bills are crumpled in her hand, it shows chaos. It shows the hustle they have to take to get this money. When I speak to my peers about going to the strip club they're in there throwing two hundred, three hundred dollars but I remember seeing [Future] literally throwing up like thirty thousand dollars in one night. So that's a definitive experience. I can never go to the strip club with one of my friends now, it's just boring.”
“These are all people I was on the [Future] tour with just kickin’ it. We were gambling on a jump shot—Future's jump shot is money by the way. But yeah, they love to gamble whether its NBA 2K, big money, it’s just another example of showing their money. There's nothing like being in that circle and having ten stacks in your hand and looking at you like “I want that. I'm trying to take your money.”
“This was a lookbook type thing, a lot of these rappers do like to be photographed in an editorial way that's becoming the thing now. Before rappers could care less about that type of stuff, but it's definitely becoming the norm for these rappers to be photographed in a very different kind of light. They do like to be photographed in a nice setting. This right here doesn't show that cause he has that gun on his shoulder. In reality, that gun wasn't even for the shoot it was just for protection, but that's just one of my favourite photos from behind the scenes of that shoot. I don't like to think about what could happen but honestly, I've never felt uncomfortable in any situation. I notice if I'm around they make a point to make me feel comfortable in these areas and they want me to be able to produce the best work that I can.”
“A lot of the dudes that are rapping that's their release, when they go on that bike it’s a whole other world. This is from a video shoot but it’s an everyday thing, it's a community out there, they stick together, they're not out there to cause trouble. They're just out there trying to ride their bikes. The cops see it as them causing trouble and shit but that's not the case, these people aren't hurting anybody riding these motorcycles. The cops are just being dickheads. The bike life in New York is thirty times more [crazy] than Atlanta honestly, but Atlanta holds their own. In New York, it's different cause it's all street. In Atlanta, they get on the highways and that was a shock watching people do all those tricks on the highway at the speeds they were going.”
“That's in Kirkwood, which is where Future is from. Future was shooting a documentary so we were going to where he was from, just capturing the people around him in his life. Those photos show how people look up to him. He made it out of there and made something of himself. What I love about that photo is the contrast in lifestyle. Look at how the person he's standing in front of is on a small bike while he's standing right next to the Lamborghini.”
The interview has been condensed and edited for clarity
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