Sheck Wes is hunched over the handlebars of a blue Citi Bike, riding up the West Side Highway in Manhattan. He’s with his boys G2 (who recently signed to 808 Mafia’s eponymous imprint), Ballo, Malle Ratty, and Yipsey. It’s a warm August evening, and they’re on their way to Playboi Carti’s Die Lit Tour stop at Terminal 5, where Sheck is performing tonight. Trailing behind them is Cian Moore, Sheck’s 20-year-old photographer, who’s leaning out the passenger-side window of a black Mercedes-Benz Sprinter and pointing his camera at Sheck and his friends. The van is driving slowly alongside Sheck, backing up traffic. But Moore doesn’t care; he’ll do just about anything to get the perfect shot.
Moore, a native of Queens, picked up a camera at 12 years old and began shooting amateur skate videos and later photos at New York City’s LES Skatepark. Eventually, he fell in love with photography and decided to devote his time to the craft. “Cian has this poster of a storefront in his room, and he has notes all over it of everything he’d improve if he shot it,” says Philip Mahony, his best friend.
Moore’s big break came in September 2016, when the NYU student met Sheck at a Michael J. Fox Foundation Nike Mag event in New York. He and the Harlem rapper clicked instantly, and that year they collaborated on a limited-edition photobook called Sheck Wes Version 1, comprised of archival photos of Sheck around the city and released in April 2017. Since then, Moore has photographed Sheck for campaigns for companies including Helmut Lang, Stüssy, and Footaction. He also shot the cover of the Sheck’s upcoming album MUDBOY.
“We’ve always talked about being there for each other,” says Moore. “Sheck was always like, ‘If I become a big rapper, you’ll be my photographer.’” He’s also expanded his résumé, shooting behind-the-scenes photos at Kanye West’s Yeezy Season 5 fashion show—an invite he received from WhiteTrashTyler—and lookbooks for Stüssy, Heron Preston, Nike, and Cactus Plant Flea Market.
In his first interview, Moore talks about what it’s been like photographing Sheck all these years, how he randomly ended up on the cover of Travis Scott’s ASTROWORLD, and the process behind some of his biggest shoots.
How did you get into photography?
Growing up, there would always be old cameras around the house, and I was just always into holding the camera. Then, when I was 13 or 14, I had a mini camcorder and I would make skate videos ‘cause I knew these kids who would skate at LES Skatepark. Eventually, I bought a Canon T3I, which was a very outdated model, but it did more than just videos, so I started taking photos of these kids skating. I fell in love with taking photos, but I wasn’t really taking it seriously.
The bio on your site says your goal is “to create work that identifies as neither fashion nor fine photography,” and I thought that was pretty telling of your work. Why take that approach?
I love the idea of creating an image that’s universal. If I’m creating an image that’s for a campaign, I want that image to be able to live outside of that campaign, whether it be a gallery or something you print and hang at home. That’s what I’m working towards. I really do like to treat it as an art form rather than just snapping photos. It’s the creation of a narrative.
How did the Helmut Lang campaign with Sheck come about?
VFiles allowed me to use their space for a personal project—the Haircut project, under [founder] Danielle Greco’s direction. During the time of the project, Danielle moved to London, so Chris James, their head designer, took over the project. When we finished, Chris showed my work to his friend Ava Nirui, digital media director of Helmut Lang, and told her she should work with me. Chris is such a great dude. Shout out to him and Ava. Two or three days later, Ava was like, “Can you come into the Helmut Lang office for a meeting today?” I went into the office and Ava said, “We want you to shoot the Fall/Winter 2018 digital media campaign for Helmut and we want to have Sheck be the model.”
We wanted to show Sheck as a model rather than a rapper, and we landed on this concept to put Sheck on the beach. The day we were supposed to shoot, we had to pick him up from LAX because he was in Toronto the night before, performing. But around 8 a.m. Ava texted me saying Sheck missed his flight from Toronto. He eventually caught the next flight out of Toronto, but we were concerned about sunlight. Luckily, when we got to Malibu, it was the golden hour. But as we were wrapping up, Kanye called Sheck and was like, “Yo, where you at?” It was the same night as the Kids See Ghosts listening party. So Sheck had to go. I was worried we didn’t get the shot we wanted. On the drive back, I was a little bummed because I was so excited to do this [shoot], but it felt rushed. But I got the photos back and I actually loved them. We all loved them. Thankfully, it turned out really well.
How did you end up shooting Sheck’s MUDBOY cover?
I was in L.A. because I was supposed to start interning for [photographer] Nick Walker. Sheck called me and was like, “Yo, let’s shoot my album cover tomorrow.” We hadn’t talked about it at all, so I was like, “What? OK, I’m down!”
What was the process like?
We work really well together because we’ve been shooting together for so long. About an hour into the shoot, Sheck started throwing mud onto the wall and it actually looked really cool. I think he liked the way it felt to throw it, too. Even talking about it now, I’m getting flustered because it was just such a special moment. We could not have planned or recreated that. It was super organic. He performs so well in the moment— he’s a star in that regard; he just knows what to do. It’s really all him. Like, the concept for the cover with the tub and the mud—that was his idea. I just took the photo and brought it to life. He’s such a special guy, a real artist.
What did Sheck say he wanted for the cover? What was his vision?
Over a year ago, maybe in April 2017, he was going to drop an EP called Nasty Times. This was way before any labels were hitting him up. The EP was gonna have the same narrative of how he came from nothing, which is 100 percent true. I’ve been to his one-bedroom apartment in Harlem. His house was so small, and he lived there with his sister, mom, and dad. Obviously they are way better off now, but he really came from nothing. That’s always been his goal, to tell this narrative of coming from nothing and not even becoming something, but just becoming a good person. It’s bigger than him becoming a superstar. He’s not in jail or dead or doing anything bad.
The [cover] actually came down to two photos that were kinda the same. In the end, Sheck was like, “Let’s do this one because my face looks more humble than aggressive.” In the cover you see, he’s looking up and looks like he’s letting himself go. I think he wanted it to be like, Here I am. Take me as I am.
How did you guys decide to use mud as the lettering for the title?
I decided to draw out [the title] and I was going to send it to Sheck so he could draw it in his handwriting. So I drew it out in pen and then I randomly decided to do it in mud. I ran outside with an empty coffee cup, scooped up dry dirt into it, and ran into the bathroom and put water in it. Then I drew “MUDBOY” with my fingers in a sketchbook, took a picture of it in the bathroom, put it in Photoshop, and then sent it to Sheck. I told Sheck, “You can put your fingerprint on it if you want.” But we ended up sticking with mine. He gave me a little more direction like, “Let’s make it warmer” and other small things because he’s someone who really knows exactly what he wants. I still have those two pieces of sketchbook paper, too. It was pretty spontaneous, but it all worked out.
You were actually on the ASTROWORLD cover as the janitor in the back. How did that happen?
I was in Nick Walker’s office and I overheard Corey [Whitted] and Nick talking about a David LaChapelle shoot. I’m a big LaChapelle fan, so I was like, “Wow, that’s sick. Have fun.” Corey turned to me and said, “You can come as my intern, if you want.” And I’m like, “Absolutely. What’s it for?” He was like, “I think it’s for Travis’ album, but I’m not really sure.” The next morning, we pulled up to the set, which was a huge open parking lot in the middle of downtown L.A. The set was so sick; the huge Travis head was, like, four stories high. At one point, David LaChapelle turned towards me and I thought he was about to yell at me or something. He looked at me up and down and says, “You could be a carny. Let’s get you to makeup.” I was like, “Uh, hey I’m Cian.” He just said, “I’m David. Let’s get you to makeup right now.”
So you weren’t originally supposed to be on the cover?
I basically made the cover because I just happened to look like a crazy David LaChapelle-esque character.
Did you learn anything from watching David LaChapelle in action?
Yeah. Mostly I would say just how specific and how on target everything was. He knew exactly what he wanted, and he knew how to direct everyone. Also, his work ethic. Like, he showed up at 11 a.m., when everyone else did. He didn’t show up at 4 p.m., when we started shooting. He was there from the beginning. I love his work and reference it all the time, so to see it happen in real time—like, he barely had to do anything to the photo, post-shoot, because when I was watching the tether come in, it looked exactly how it looks now.
Let’s talk about your commercial work. How did the Heron Preston NYC tourist editorial shoot come about?
Heron DM’d me on Instagram and was like, “Yo, let’s do something.” I was like, “Yeah, for sure. I actually have this idea.” So we met up for lunch one day and I told him I wanted to shoot something with a tourist theme. He looked at me and paused for 30 seconds and eventually was like, “Yes, yes, yes. I fucking love it. Let’s do it.” I don’t think he knows this, but I brought two cameras to that shoot because I always bring a backup camera, and the main camera I use broke right as we started shooting. I ended up used my lower-quality backup camera to do that. We shot 10 rolls of film and started in Queens and ended up in the most touristy place ever, Fifth Avenue and 59th Street.
How did you end up shooting the Cactus Plant Flea Market Fleeting-Floating Hooded Waffle Sweatshirt? Cynthia Lu is pretty low-key. How did you meet her?
I actually met Cynthia for the first time a couple of weeks ago. After I worked with Heron Preston, Cynthia asked Cody [Goodwin] if he knew me ‘cause she wanted me to shoot [a Cactus Plant Flea Market lookbook]. So I came up with this concept to have a fake suburban dream home and that was actually shot in my house in Queens.
Do your parents support/understand your career?
They’re super supportive. They don’t really understand what’s happening and how it’s all happening so fast, but they’re supportive. They also push me to be smart about it. If it wasn’t for them, I probably would’ve dropped out of school a long time ago. They’re really great people. They’ll do anything for me, within reason, of course. [Laughs.] My dad is also an inspiration. My dad has his own live production company, and my mom is the CFO, handling all the finances of the business. They work really well together. Really inspirational, great people.
What is your goal with photography? Do you want to explore other lanes?
I always say that I don’t think I’m always gonna be a photographer, but I will always be taking photos. I’d like to work for or have my own creative agency at some point or work as an image director, something along those lines. Maybe even get into video, too. I hope to be able to do a little bit of everything, but definitely doing something with images. It doesn’t matter if I’m taking them or not. Making them happen, in some capacity, is the goal.