"I want people to know that no matter where you are, no matter what town you're in, if you feel helpless where you are, there's beauty there."
Rap collective Awful Records contains the art freaks of Atlanta's rap scene. Compared to other collectives like Lil Yachty's Sailing Team or the Dungeon Family, Awful is like Atlanta's acid-laced, red-headed punk stepchild. The Awful aesthetic is bolstered by its in-house photographer, Brandon McClain, a.k.a. Eat Humans—though McClain has become notorious for his raw portraits of underground rappers, his sinister and crude art photography is what originally got him noticed by Awful. We talked to the photographer about the difference between pretty and beautiful, the mundanity of small-town America, and how to celebrate disillusionment.
This interview has been been edited for length and clarity.
VICE: So tell me about what it is you like to photograph and why.
Brandon McClain: It's gone through stages. At first, it was just that I hated where I lived, in Acworth, Georgia, and I just needed something to keep me sane. I was just working at Kohl's, and I'd go the same route every day and notice everything I'd drive by. I never really stopped—it was just daydreaming kind of stuff. But when I got a camera, everything got interesting. I remember I would see this basketball hoop every day, and it was just slowly growing into a tree. That's one of my favorite things I've ever photographed. I started seeing the beauty in [Acworth] and seeing the beauty of everything in it.
Then I started to add a human element to it. At first, I wouldn't do faces. I just wanted to have a human presence in it, so I would have them put on a mask or just have a limb in it. I wanted to be more conceptual with it. Then I grew more comfortable with shooting people as themselves. All my friends are rappers, so that's just who I shot. Then everyone got interested. Especially when I moved to Atlanta, because everyone wants to know what's going on here with Atlanta rappers.
So what clicks between your work and Awful?
I met Awful through [Awful founder] Father's girlfriend. I started hanging out with them just as friends. I didn't even know they made music. The thing about Awful is that we're a bunch of outcasts really. I never feel like a weird person with them. We were the kids who were just creative, and that's kind of all we have. Like think about Slug or Rich Po. What else would we do but create? I don't know what else I would do. Taking photos is really the only thing that's made sense to me ever. They're some of the weirdest people I know. And we're pretty much all black, too. We all have that in common. Father is just the glue that keeps us all together.
What drives the anger, or even violence, that we see in these photos?
It's not so much anger, but it's more about feeling misunderstood and being hurt. I can see how that comes across, though. It's about wanting to be understood really. I feel like a defender of beauty that's not considered pretty. There's definitely a dark side to my photos, though. When I started shooting people, I really wanted to show that side of them. I want that to translate.
How do you separate your music photography from your art photography, if you do?
That's the hard part. I'm really trying to combine them, actually. At first, when I started taking pictures, I didn't want to take photos of people themselves. So taking pictures of Awful in the beginning wasn't that easy. Like I said, I don't really like having faces in my photographs. That's hard when you shoot people who have their own brand. It's hard to find that happy medium of having my aesthetic with them as the subject. They want their face in it, because artists will want the photo to be about them, and to me, it's more about the photograph itself.
What do you want people to see in your photographs that aren't of rappers?
I really only take photos of rappers for a couple of reasons. The main being that I want to be involved in the black community as much as I can. I just want to be around and be involved with black creators. Most of my friends just happen to be rappers. But, as for my art personally, I just want to show people that everything is beautiful. I want people to know that no matter where you are, no matter what town you're in, if you feel helpless where you are, there's beauty there. There's art to be made. I make it a point to shoot in very remote places. It's crazy that so many people just fly by these small moments that look like nasty, disgusting shit, but it's so beautiful. It's just everywhere.
All photographs by Brandon McClain. You can follow his work here.