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Interview with Jeff Lombardo, Ne-Yo’s Personal Photographer

Jeff Lombardo is the personal photographer and videographer for Ne-Yo. Visit his website here, his Facebook page here, and his Instagram account here.

PetaPixel: Can you tell us a little about yourself and your background?

Jeff Lombardo: For the past 16 years I’ve been working as an independent contractor in the entertainment industry as a digital artist. During those 16 years I’ve worked at many of the top ad agencies, motion picture studios and television studios in Hollywood such as, NBC, Universal Studios, MGM, FOX, Disney, and Warner Brothers.

My job titles varied from Graphic Designer, Production Artist, Web Designer, Web Producer and Art Director. I worked on The Dark Knight, Twilight, New Moon, WATCHMEN, SAW IV, X-MEN Wolverine, Yogi Bear 3D, Gangster Squad, and the Valkyrie campaigns, along with and many others.

Official Photoshop Master File for the Dark Knight

My responsibilities consisted of creating key art, theatrical movie posters, outdoor ads, billboards, websites, home entertainment, DVD packaging and digital marketing campaign ad’s for media buys.

I also provided my creative services to the Video Game Industry (EA Games), Music Industry (Def Jam and Jive Records), Adult Industry (Hustler and Penthouse) and the Nightclub and Bar Industry. I recently picked up photography as my new medium and began to use digital photography in conjunction with my digital art background to create cinematic visuals.

Yogi Bear 3D in Progress

PP: How did you first get into photography?

JL: After designing and working in the studios on and off for several years, I needed a change. When you work on movies or TV shows, your work becomes dated. Not in style, but in time.

You only appear as good as the last project you worked on. Having worked on The Dark Knight was great, until Dark Knight Rises came out. Having worked on Twilight and New Moon was great, until Eclipse came out.

I had this idea stuck in my head that I would always need to chase the next big project in order to stay relevant in my career. I knew going in that I had to give up my intellectual property rights – and I was ok with that (at the time). But when you start to see the movie(s) skyrocket at the box office and in popularity, you feel like the low man on the totem poll, left having to convince others that you are the one who created all the artwork and marketing materials.

It may seem far fetched to an outsider because they can’t wrap their head around it since they’ve never met or heard of anyone who does that kind of work. You never hear about them. Some of the best creatives in the world work inside agencies and studios and they just show up, do their work, take their lunch break, do more work, and go home. They go unnoticed.

After awhile I lost my passion for it. I decided to put everything I own in a storage unit in Los Angeles, put my top 3 clients on retainer and began traveling. I lived out of a suitcase for 2 1/2 years while freelancing from my laptop and traveling the world.

It may sound like I had it all figured out, but I didn’t. Not even close.

But I knew once you overthink a situation you tend to talk yourself out of it – so I didn’t think about it, I just did it. I knew it was what I wanted to do and I lived in that moment. You gotta have balls to do what you want in life. I vowed to figure it out as I went.

How can I plan something I never did before, anyway? It’s trial and error at that point. When you force yourself to figure it out, survival mode kicks in – and trust me, you figure it out. My wild idea turned into 62 flights in just 10 months. I did alright. It’s certainly not for everyone, if it were, more people would be doing it.

Lombardo’s travel itinerary after 90 days

Map of Lombardo’s Foursquare Check-ins

PP: How did you get your job as Ne-Yo’s personal photographer?

JL: In year 2 of my travels there was a new social media giant on the horizon called Instagram, and Instagram allowed me to take photos and share them instantly with the world. It wasn’t just Instagram that caught my attention as much as the photography apps that were being developed.

Now I had Photoshop (my bread and butter) in the palm of my hand. I could still have the element of ‘design’ while traveling, without having to be in front of my computer. It wasn’t just a picture from a camera phone anymore, now I was creating art. I discovered a new passion for taking pictures and combined it with my 16 year career that I could now hold in my hand.

During it’s early stages I followed a guy by the name of Lenny S. (aka @kodaklens on Instagram). The next morning I woke up and I saw he had liked a bunch of my photos and followed me. Little did I know he would become the backbone of my photography career.

I knew of Lenny through his work and through some mutual friends but had never actually met him or talked to him. Lenny S. is a music industry executive; Senior Vice President of A&R at Def Jam Records and recently made a transition over to RocNation. Lenny S. also happens to shoot for JAY-Z and Beyonce, personally.

After we connected on Instagram he invited me up to Def Jam for a meeting. We shared a mutual respect for one another’s work, accomplishments and history. I admired his legacy and his access and he admired my talent.

In short, the conversation went something like this:

Lenny: “Talk to me, how can we help each other? What’s goin on?”
Me: “Well you know my history with design and the internet but as of right now now I’m just following my passion of traveling and taking pictures.”
Lenny: “Internet…design…traveling…taking pictures. Ok, I have an idea. NE-YO was recently out in Dubai and a sheik sent over $ 250,000 worth of champagne and it was pouring out of the walls as Star Wars was playing…and no one is capturing that! Someone needs to capture that! Is that something you would want to do?

As he’s saying this, I’m sitting in his office looking around at the gold and platinum plaques decorating his walls from Biggie, JAY-Z, Kanye West, Diddy and others – thinking to myself…Really…who IS this guy???

Me: “Lenny…why wouldn’t I want to do that!?”
Lenny: “Haha. ok! DONE!”

Lenny S.’s Def Jam office

3 weeks later I received a text.

Lenny: “Do you want to go to Haiti with NE-YO? I need to know in 5 minutes.”
Me: “Yea.”
Lenny: “I’ll have someone from the label contact you to arrange your travel.”

Funny part of the story is I didn’t have a passport yet. I received his text on Tuesday at 5PM and I had to leave on Thursday. I ended up rushing my passport and getting it the next day, 2 minutes before they closed at 5:00PM – exactly 11 hours before I had to leave to catch my flight.

Lenny arranged a driver to pick me up in Brooklyn and I met him at 5AM while on my way to the airport in Newark, NJ, where he handed me his Canon 5D Mark II, 2 lenses – no bag.

Up until this point I haven’t shot with anything other than an iPhone 4S or a point and shoot. What got me this far was passion, creativity, post-production skills, networking, mutual respect, and someone who believed in me and was willing to give me a chance.

I received a 5 minute crash course on how to use a 5D Mark II while standing in a parking lot in the middle of winter in New York – and off to Haiti I went.

I arrived at the airport and met with the crew and boarded my first International flight, ever! I had Lenny’s borrowed camera equipment to take care of, a 5D Mark II to figure out on the way, an A-list artist by the name of NE-YO to document, and a record label counting on me to capture great photos and video. Things went from 0-60, quickly. Nah…no pressure at all.

Lombardo, NE-YO and the President of Haiti, Michel Martelly, at the National Palace (Haiti’s White House)

NE-YO signing his hat before exchanging hats with a child at an orphanage in Haiti

PP: What is it like to work as NE-YO’s personal photographer and travel from place to place?

JL: Speaking on my experiences to people who don’t know my personality or my history is tough because a lot of my experiences are unrelatable to everyday people and it can rub them the wrong way. I say that because I’m still an everyday person who happens to enjoy keeping one foot on both sides of the fence. I never want to forget where I came from, but I don’t necessarily want to stay there either.

Shot during the R.E.D. UK Tour

In a literal sense, for those who get thrills from fancy things, yea, we’re walking through underground tunnels in airports, flying in private jets, riding in a fleet of Rolls Royce’s, meeting with Presidents and getting driven through third world countries in bullet proof unmarked police cars with sirens blaring at 2AM.

Other days we’re performing with other recording artists at concerts, doing LIVE radio interviews, performing at TV and award shows while having access to just about everything and traveling in double decker luxury tour buses equipped with the latest technology while on tour in the UK.

When we’re not sleeping on tour buses, we’re sleeping in 5-diamond hotels and eating at 5 star restaurants. There’s no shortage of luxury.

GoPro mounted to the Rolls Royce in London

NE-YO and Tim McGraw at soundcheck in Nashville, TN

NE-YO and 50 Cent posing with CNN Heroes

Again, that’s speaking in the literal sense. Perception is reality and my reality is humbled by it. I’m not only grateful for the opportunity and the chance to experience life in this way, but I’m also thankful for the people involved that have given me a chance to experience life in this way.

I understand and recognize it’s an honor and a privilege to be where I am. It’s not a job position you find online. NE-YO is a Multi-Grammy Award Winning Artist and Songwriter and is arguable one of the best songwriters of our generation who has worked with Beyonce, Rihanna and Michael Jackson just to name a few.

But it’s not all glitz and glam. That trip to Haiti for NE-YO’s Compound Foundation was a life changing moment for me. We met with children in orphanages after the earthquake and handed out toys for Christmas. I remember reading writings on the wall and being emotionally moved by all the messages to keep smiling and keep hope alive.

This was the first time I ever left the country and that was my experience. I was taken back by it all. I’m grateful that what I do entails documenting experiences because I’ll have these memories forever.

NE-YO in a writing session

PP: What are your days like outside of photography?

JL: I don’t really have any days ‘outside’ of photography. I got into photography as a hobby and it turned it into a career. So even when I’m not ‘working’, I’m still enjoying photography as a hobby.

When we have off days on the road I’m still out shooting the city in my free time and soaking up as much as I can. NE-YO is one of the most humble and genuine people that I’ve ever met, and seeing him interact with fans around the world night in and night out, right in front of me, and to witness the amount of work he puts in is admirable.

If it’s not soundchecks, it’s dance rehearsals. If it’s not dance rehearsals, it’s appearances on radio, TV, or in a nightclub. If it’s not appearances, he’s in the studio. The energy, motivation and inspiration is contagious and it makes you want to become the best version of you possible, therefore I’m always working on something.

Dance rehearsal for The Voice

Shot during the R.E.D. UK Tour

Shot during the R.E.D. UK Tour

NE-YO in a Google Hangout before a concert in the UK

PP: What is a typical day like for you?

JL: Witnessing a concert come together is my favorite part of shooting a concert – aside from the energy and hysteria. If a show is at 7:30, we’ll usually arrive at 3 for soundcheck.

Walking around an empty arena or stadium out of state/country is very exciting. I often think about all of the history that happened before I was there. Some venue’s have an aura. All the photos of championships and memorable concerts backstage are awe-inspiring.

NE-YO on stage during soundcheck at Jingleball in Los Angeles

I usually walk around and try and grab photos and videos of just about everything, inside and outside. Most of the content will never be used, but it’s still great to look back on. I like to venture out before a show and get landscape and travel photos since that’s where I started.

I also get a kick out of watching a venue transform from completely empty to completely sold out. People with all different cultures, faces and styles fill the audience between countries and it’s hard not to grow as a person when you see that.

There’s a certain feeling you get when you are thousands of miles away from home, outside of your comfort zone, part of a team that consists of of dancers, a production crew, assistants and artists all working together to accomplish the same goal. It’s just you and a small team of people there to show up, show out, and tear the roof off the building – then move on to the next city (or party).

Shot during the R.E.D. UK Tour

PP: What is shooting a concert like?

Shooting a concert is different than shooting a tour. As much as I love being a concert photographer, being a tour photographer has it’s advantages. When the same show is performed night in and night out, you’re able to grab shots you missed the previous nights, shoot from different angles with different lenses, shoot the crowd and also learn when and where certain pyro and lights are going off.

For the most part, I overshoot. I never aim to shoot tomorrow what I can shoot today because something may change. The only time I’ll plan to re-shoot something is if I feel I can make it better.

Shot during the R.E.D. UK Tour

Shot during the R.E.D. UK Tour

PP: What have you learned about photographing concerts so far that other photographers can learn/benefit from?

JL: The single most important thing that I’ve learned is – access is everything. I wish there was a short answer on how to get access but there isn’t, it’s more of an art form.

Knowing someone will open a door for you but your talent is what will close the door behind you. Everybody had something they need, and everybody has something they can offer. It all comes down to your ability to hustle and connect the people in your contact list.

On stage at Jingleball in Los Angeles

Shot during the R.E.D. UK Tour

I can’t speak for everyone, I can only speak on what’s worked for me. Persistence and confidence are the two most important things I believe one should have in order to succeed. It all comes down to selling yourself. When you truly know what you can do, you’ll feel like people need you just as much as you need them.

Then it becomes a level playing field in your mind. When you speak with confidence you no longer have to focus on selling yourself because your confidence is what sells you. People will start to feel like they need you. And when you finally get to the point where you truly know the value of your work, let your work speak for itself and don’t interrupt. People will start searching for you instead of you having to search for them.

Hard work beats talent when talent doesn’t work hard. The difference between who you are and what you want to be, lies in what you do.
(R.E.D. UK Tour finale in London’s O2 Arena)

R.E.D. UK Tour finale in London’s O2 Arena

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