Jennifer Walkowiak ‘Big Apple Laughs’

Jennifer Walkowiak is a great example of the impact photographers can have on comedy. Comedians are making people laugh every night but who’s capturing these moments? For this spotlight, we briefly connected with the New York-based photographer to learn about her storytelling through pictures and the NYC comedy scene behind her lens.

Photo: @IAmJWPhotography

CHECK OUT MORE OF WALKOWIAK’S WORK ON INSTAGRAM: @IAMJWPHOTOGRAPHY

1. Tell us about yourself, where are you from? and when was the first time you picked up a camera professionally?

I grew up in Albuquerque, NM and studied musical theatre at the University of New Mexico (graduated 2011). My dad, a retired USAF officer and a super talented nature/wildlife photographer, let me borrow his DSLR when he was deployed in Iraq in 2009. I got my start shooting headshots for my friends in the theatre department and production stills for student shows and local
community theaters.

My senior year of college, I had developed a cyst on my vocal folds that required surgery. As a result, I couldn’t use my voice for an entire year. As you can imagine, this put a damper on my broadway dreams. I was able to stay connected to my community by using my camera and felt fulfilled artistically even though I couldn’t sing. I eventually recovered fully from surgery (and can still sing btw!) and moved to New York City. Upon my arrival, I realized that it was photography, and not musical theatre, that I wanted to focus my energies on. My first year in New York City I primarily shot live music and underground hip hop parties. One band liked my live shots so much they asked me to shoot their album cover in 2014.

2. Did you originally set out to take pictures of so many comedians? How did your journey end up in the world of comedy?

I had no intention of ever shooting comedy shows, no! Growing up in Albuquerque I was heavily involved in the local music scene, and I was convinced that live music photography was my destiny. Three years ago, I met my boyfriend, comedian Lucas Connolly, and he told me I’d be great at comedy photography because it’s so similar to live music.

I discovered quickly that comedy LOVES photographers, and as soon as I started turning out pictures of comedy shows, I started getting asked more and more to come out.

I’ve always been a comedy fan, so I have just as much fun shooting comedy as I do shooting live music. The main difference would be that typically when I shoot comedy I’m the only photographer there. I never really was on board with the competitive aspect to live music photography. I’d rather work on a team with a common goal, then have to “fight” for my shot.

3. How would you describe the NYC comedy scene from your perspective? What stands out about the comedy community there?

At first I was really intimidated. The comedy scene here is like a giant family and there’s a bunch of little pockets of very close friend groups within that. I was fortunate enough to have a little bit of an “in” as a comedian’s girlfriend, but after a while I started getting booked for shows by people who had no idea he and I were even dating. It feels good to be recognized for my own abilities rather than just who I’m dating (even though he is seriously awesome).

Almost every single person I’ve met has been warm, kind, and professional. Every now and then you’ll find someone who doesn’t seem to like photographers much, but I’m not there to necessarily make friends.. so long as I’m doing my job and being respectful. That’s not to say I haven’t made any friends! I’ve made SO many friends, and I feel very fortunate for the relationships I’ve made.

4. What’s the main difference you’ve noticed between taking pictures of comedians vs. everyday people?

To be honest, comedians are everyday people. You’re either comfortable or uncomfortable in front of the camera. Someone like Sydnee or Marie (The Unofficial Expert podcast), are very comfortable in front of the camera. Whenever I shoot one of their shows, they put me to work as soon as I arrive- they pose their faces off and give me lots of great stuff to work with. Other people tend to sort of clam up and say things like “I don’t look good in pictures” or “you have to tell me what to do”. Regardless of what kind of person I’m working with, it’s my job to put the client at ease and capture fun, great looking pictures of them.

When I started taking photos of comedians, I expected them to all be super confident with a camera on them. But it’s just not true. You can have tons of charisma and energy on stage and as soon as a camera goes up, that energy could drop. Camera shy-ness is real. Whenever that happens I always try to chat with them, reassure them that I’ll delete any pictures they
don’t feel good about and encourage them to play around with me, be goofy, dance, anything to get the shot that shows off the kind of presence they bring to the stage.

5. What story are you trying to capture with your work on the comedians you shoot?

My photography background is deeply rooted in theatre and music. My goal is and always has been, to make comics look like rockstars. When I’m shooting the show, I want the comics to look like their crushing. If the room is packed, I want to make sure to get lots of images where you can see the comic and the crowd (it’s even better if the comic is doing an act-out and the audience is cracking up). When I’m doing flash portraits one-on-one, like I said before, I want to show off their personalities and make them look like the best versions of themselves.

CHECK OUT MORE OF WALKOWIAK’S WORK ON INSTAGRAM: @IAMJWPHOTOGRAPHY