Soul Is: Phillip Van Zandt

At We Are Memphis, we’re all inspiring others to bring and share their souls with the city. Whether you’re an entrepreneur looking to start a new local business, a musician who’s ready to rock out with some of the best artists in the world, or a creative with an eye for capturing your unique perspective, we’re here to inspire you to be your most authentic self. Memphis’ Soul can’t be defined with just a few words. Soul is change, innovation, ingenuity, creativity, and so much more.

If you’ve seen our latest billboards around town, you’ll see photos from some of Memphis’ photographers. From families and couples to artists and activists, all of these moments embody that iconic Memphis Soul.

Want to learn more about the creative behind the lens? Keep reading!

What inspired you to be a photographer?

I started to enjoy taking photos in middle school somehow while on summer trips and in high school I did photography club a couple of years, then turned into a hobby in college. When thinking about what I really wanted to do after graduating, my mind kept going to photography. I got my first real camera and took a beginner class that had just started on campus. I know my friends were probably annoyed how often I’d capture random photos of them and never liked posed shots. I was always bouncing around with different types of photos and trying different things. I feel like it took a while for me to really get my business going after graduating, but once it finally started getting momentum, it allowed me to dive into it fully.

I enjoy all kinds of photography and think it’s why I’ve never liked being boxed into just one or two genres of photography myself. It helps me be even more creative to shoot multiple types of things from weddings, families, seniors, events, pets, and cityscapes, to name a few. Photography has been something I’ve enjoyed doing as a way of self-expression, artistry, and sharing with others. Being able to provide something that others enjoy seeing and can make them feel good about themselves is very rewarding to me. It’s also relaxing to go explore Memphis and get cityscapes of downtown by myself. It allows me to do what I want and capture Memphis the way I see it.

What inspires you to capture Memphis and Memphians the way you do?

To say Memphians are passionate about their city is an understatement. I was born and raised in Memphis and grew up hearing the negatives. I grew to find the positives and now know, more than ever, how much Memphis is very much its own identity and location. It’s a crossroads while also having a very deep, individual history. Having explored and taken cityscapes downtown for close to a decade now, I’ve seen how much has changed and developed, yet there is still a lot of work to be done socially. I love to capture Memphis, whether in cityscapes for print or when families and individuals want to capture their city as a backdrop with them in it. It’s a way to share being proud of our city.

How do you put your soul into your work? What do you hope others take away from it?

I’ve always tried to do my best when it comes to expressing my style and how I see things. Sometimes taking risks is necessary to grow and learn. I’ve made mistakes along the way and can only learn from those instances. Photography is all that I have and all I can give as an artistic expression that helps capture the people and soul of Memphis. I put my heart into it so others can see themselves in a way that uplifts and encourages. I hope to create images people are proud to have in the same way I’m proud to capture these memories for them. In essence, photos are a way for me to express my soul because it’s an expression of what I see and how I feel, just like different artforms express in other ways.

Share your favorite moment during the shoot that resulted in the picture we’re sharing

The family in the photo, if I remember correctly, knows the artist who painted the mural. As a black family, it reflects a time in Memphis history that was very negative that then helped promote positive change through taking action. The Civil Rights Acts of 1964 and 1968 have helped black families push up and this photo is a reminder of how far things have come, but there is still work to be done in society today with recent events.

How has Memphis allowed you to come into your own as an artist? What advice do you have for other up-and-coming artists?

I feel like the local photo community has grown a ton just in the last five years. I remember when I started capturing photos of downtown, there weren’t really many other similar styles to mine (that I could find) and now that’s exploded with how much is shared on social media. There’s so much more accessible now with camera gear, editing styles, education, and the overall community. The community being one of the key things to help people connect, educate, and build each other up. It took me a few years after college to really start capturing what I wanted to and feel with how much it’s exploded these last few years, it’s easier for newer artists to tap in and get going faster. Memphis is such a little, big town and word-of-mouth is huge here. Everyone knows everyone and it helps to stay connected because people will find a way to support you.

The main advice I have for up-and-coming artists is to find some local artists you look up to and just reach out. Connect on social media, follow others, go out and capture what you enjoy, and just find joy in it. It never hurts to ask others for help or ask questions. If anyone wants to learn about aspects of photography, feel free to contact me!

You might also be interested in: Top Ways Women Are Thriving in Memphis

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