Sienna Brown: Thanks so much for taking some time out to talk with us. Let’s get started! So, when did you start with photography?
Sam Muller: I was 15 and my family went on a safari to South Africa and Botswana that year. My dad is a lawyer but he’s always had cameras around. I remember while we were there, I kept asking him for his camera every three minutes so I could take photos of different things. That ended up happening for the whole vacation. When we got back home, he gave me one of his super old cameras from the 70s, a Canon AE-1, and I just started fucking around with it from there. My dad was finally like, Look, you need to get yourself a camera. So, I did. And that’s how it all started.
SB: That’s awesome. So you do a ton of skateboard photography, how did you get into that? Do you skateboard yourself?
SM: Yeah I do. I started skating when I was 10, way before I started taking pictures. I was into skate videos but I was never really good enough to be sponsored or anything. That shit is really hard. Photography just made more sense to me. I remember I had filmed something once and someone had given me the advice, “Maybe you should stop smoking crack before you film.” So I was like alright, maybe I should consider photos instead. It kinda hurt but, whatever.
SB: At what point did you realize that photography is what you wanted to be doing as a career instead of just as a hobby?
SM: When I learned that you could actually make a career out of it. There was this guy, Scott Pommier, who wrote an article for the magazine that I actually work for now, Transworld Media. The article was called “How to Steal My Job” and he was this amazing skate photographer. I think when I read that article, that was actually when I decided that I wanted to be a photographer.
It basically said, look you can have an awesome life doing this, you can get paid and have a great time... this is how you do it. I read that shit so many times and would bring that magazine with me everywhere. That led me to starting up with skate photography. I’ve been doing that for a while, going to school [for photography] because my parents wanted me to and then there was a point when I was like oh shit, there is other stuff you can shoot besides skate and it’s equally as awesome!
SB: Wow! Well that’s crazy that now you’re a senior photographer at Transworld Media, the place where you were first inspired to start your career. Tell me a little about that. How does it feel to have that position at 23?
SM: Yeah, it's still super weird to me! I don't know how I got here, it's crazy. Around 2006, I randomly met one of the other senior photographers of Transworld at a camera store in LA, a guy that I had looked up to since I started shooting skateboarding. He was like Hey, if you ever want to help out, I could always use the assistance. So I helped him out for a while and then he asked me if I wanted to intern at the magazine. And I said...hell yeah! That eventually turned into what I do now and it just feels really crazy to be equal, in some people's eyes, to all of these guys that I really looked up to and learned a lot from as a kid. To shooting the cover of the magazine that was my first skateboarding magazine when I was 11 years old...it's crazy!
SB: Do you feel like you have a lot freedom there with what you get to shoot now that you’re established in a sense?
SM: Definitely! That’s the great thing about skating, the culture is so mellow. Inside the skate world I could probably call up anyone I wanted to saying I’d love to work on something with them and they’d be like, alright sure! Another aspect that I really love is that Transworld encourages me to shoot stuff outside of skating, which is really rad. It keeps skating fresh and they figure that if later on down the line if I don’t wanna be doing just skate photography, I’ll have other experience too. It’s really a win-win across the board.
SB: So besides skating, what really draws you in?
SM: I really like shooting people, portraits mostly.
Lately, I’ve been shooting a lot of ballet with the American Contemporary Ballet. A family friend is in the ballet world and they asked me to shoot a couple of things for them. I was like yeah why not, it’s different. With time, I slowly realized how similar ballet was to skateboarding. It’s really fun photographing something that is kind of on the same learning curve of skating but in a totally new area. Completely different politics, different people, different locations, different everything... but it feels the same.
SB: Who or what inspires you in photography and life in general?
SM: I look at a lot of photographers and I feel as if each one does it in a different way. In terms of artists, I’ve been looking at a lot of Edvard Munch paintings. He’s a Norwegian painter that did The Scream painting (1893). I think his paintings are amazing. It’s super clichéd to say everything, but every day you never know where inspiration is going to come from. For example, earlier today I was listening to the stories on “This American Life” and every one of them was inspiring in a different way. There was one story... a guy who had previously worked for U.S. aid in Iraq came back, had PTSD and slept walked out of a two story window and completely fucked his life up... broke his face, wrist, went broke and wasn’t in shape to return to Iraq. He went from living in his aunt’s basement to fighting to bring Iraqis to the states. These guys had worked for the United States but were now getting death threats from Al Qaeda because they helped the U.S. out. He assisted in bringing like 5,000 people to the United States and that’s fucking awesome.
That’s what inspires me... people who care about what they’re doing. I like photographing people who really care about what they’re doing and have real stories to tell. I wanna cover more issues that people might not know so much about, almost like photojournalism but not in such an obvious way. I had originally wanted to shoot celebrities and portraits and all that kind of stuff like for Vanity Fair and Rolling Stone, which would be cool, but I feel like there is a better use of photography, for me at least.
SB: What’s something that you feel like you’ve learned most about yourself through photography?
SM: I’ve certainly learned that I like to explore a lot and growing up I was always kind of shy, well I’m still kind of shy. The idea of travelling was somewhat weird for me. I’ve gotten to do it a lot but I don’t know. I really love seeing every part of the world and seeing how different everything is and I guess I didn’t really know that before. I would go on vacations with my parents, they are pretty wealthy people and we would go to see these places but we never really got to see them. Now I’ve really learned that I like to see how other people live and obviously you can’t blend in fully, especially if you’re a white Jewish dude going to China [laughs]. But there are so many different kinds of people and all of the differences are awesome for the most part. That’s something that I discovered.
SB: Where do you think are the coolest places that you’ve gotten to travel to have been? Top 3 maybe?
SM: Ooh, that’s hard...top 3? Australia is definitely up there. Sydney, Bondi Beach. That place is insane. It’s so beautiful, so much to do and there are really friendly people there. I went to China for a month earlier this year and it was a crazy experience just being someplace totally different. And then Venice, Italy, definitely! I got to go to Venice straight from China and it was the biggest and the best culture shock in the world. I was like Oh God, this is beautiful and the food is delicious, this is great!
SB: What would you say right now would be one of your fantasy shoots?
SM: Shit, there are so many that I want to do. There is one that I’m actually doing on my own later this year. I’m going to go to Louisiana to photograph people who work and live in the bayou. It’s a place that is somewhat disappearing because of the rising ocean and I want to go there to see it and explore what makes them stay. It also seems as if it’s begging to be photographed. Obviously the people there have such a strong connection to the land because if they didn’t they would be like, fuck this, this shit is sinking, I’m out of here. Coming from LA everyone is always talking about moving west or moving to New York or moving somewhere. Everyone always wants to move away where they are from but so many people in the bayou still live and work there despite its condition. I wanna know why they choose to stay and what it means to them to live there. That’s something that I’ve been wanting to do for a little while so, I’m going to make it happen.
For an editorial assignment... man this is hard. I’d love to shoot a musician, someone for Fader. Something where I’d have complete control. I’d get to like hang out with them for a little while, no makeup, no hair, no stylists but to photograph what they actually do and what they’re actually like rather than what a photographer thinks they do. That’d be cool. Someone like Bob Dylan, that would be tight. I would like to meet that dude.
SB: Last question, How do you get your wild on?
SM: Oh man, I do that way too much. Skate trips, skate trips are always wild. When I’m in LA, go to the bar, hang out with my friends, and see where the night goes. Lots of Macallan 12 is involved, lots of whiskey. I’m Irish, what can I say?