MadameNoire Featured Video

Kéla Walker is draped across a bed at the Tillary Hotel, with rich blue velvet encasing her shoulders. The clavicle she spent last summer slaying for is on full display.

She turns a quarter of an inch away from the oxblood hued gown she will be donning on the Met Gala’s red carpet in just a few hours. She parts her lips. She flexes her foot. A wisp of hair from her immaculate bob slips into just the right light.

Joe Chea’s shutter snaps.

This was a special occasion, as the Emmy nominated producer was preparing to cover what some call the Oscars of fashion, but for Chea the stakes of every frame of every shoot are just as high.

The popular photographer has turned his lens on celebrities like rappers Common, Jadakiss, and Cardi B. Chea has shot influencers like Courtney Danielle, Janae Raque and Africa Miranda. He’s photographed entrepreneurs like LIT Brooklyn’s Denequa Williams and The Lip Bar’s Melissa Butler as well as actresses like “Luke Cage’s” Simone Missick and on-air talent like Gia Peppers. Just to name a few.

Recently he worked with editorial manicurist Gracie J. on a conceptual shoot published in Madame Noire.

The two are frequent collaborators but while he loves creating with her he enjoys shooting her as well.

His voice perks up with appreciation when speaking about her. “She has so much charisma, so much personality, so much attitude, so much funk.”  

He speaks of all his subjects with similar affection unabashedly stating that he feels that Black women are “God in a physical form.”

He’s often surrounded by Black women routinely being hired by them to promote the companies that they are starting rapidly around the country, molding their visual identity with images that will ultimately become ad campaigns, headshots, and key components of electronic press kits.

The price of DSLR cameras are dropping prompting more and more people to get into the field but those who commit to learning the skills to set themselves apart are the ones who excel. “A $3000 camera, $5000 computer, thousands of dollars in software and nothing but time on your hands doesn’t make you a great photographer. Understanding the camera, understanding the intricacies that make up an amazing image, a well-exposed photo, understanding how to go into post-production and fix and tweak are what make an amazing photo.”

He says “The feeling of knowing one that you got it right and that the client is happy with it is the greatest feeling ever! It makes you feel like all the hours spent reading those books and watching those Youtube tutorials and looking over those magazines they didn’t go to waste. The sleepless nights and the long hours staring at a computer screen ‘til your eyes burn are panning out were worth it.”

He spent countless hours studying the pages of Elle and Vogue Italia seeing the publications as “tools for me to study lighting and figure out how other photographers that were getting thousands and thousands of dollar budgets were positioning their light.”

The research paid off but the aesthetic sensibilities of the publications didn’t affect his artistic point of view.

“I don’t subscribe to beauty norms or societal ideas of beauty. I don’t give a damn if you’re a size 0 or a size 20. You’re beautiful no matter what.” He says “that’s the photographer’s job to either capture your beauty for what it is or make you feel beautiful as they see you so no I don’t subscribe to their societal norms or beauty standards they were just about lighting to me.”

He seeks to use his work to “erase self-hate” and refuses to let his subjects judge themselves in his presence. “I’m not judging you. My assistant’s not judging you. You shouldn’t be judging you.”

Chea continues, “Your curl pattern ain’t as loose? Your shit is mad different textures in different parts of your head and you feel like that makes you less beautiful? Nah it doesn’t! Matter fact let me capture this picture of you in the sunset with your curls flowing in the wind all different textures and show everyone how beautiful you and your hair actually are.”

With apps like Instagram and Snapchat swiftly becoming business owners primary way of reaching their audience quality images matter more than ever. Chea thinks “It’s important for people to have great photographs because in the age of digital media without proper digital representation your personality or what the world knows of you can be misrepresented.”

Of his role in developing the image of businesses spearheaded by Black women he says, “I’m honored. I’m honored to be invited. And to have the opportunity to help, that people feel I should have a role in that. I’m honored to continue.” He’s been given the opportunities largely due to word of mouth. “I don’t think that the images themselves do enough. I don’t think that the images sell it. A lot of the times when I end up working with new influencers or new brands it’s directly related to what they have heard about me from someone else.” He recently shot with a brand CEO referred to him by Walker.

The New York native has come a long way from finessing his way behind the velvet ropes of the city he grew up in. “I started out with music photography and it was very strange. At the time I had just graduated college. I spent my last financial check on a DSLR camera and I didn’t know what the hell I was doing. One day I got wind of an event that Diddy was holding for Machine Gun Kelly, one of my boys was like ‘Yo come with me so I was like aight I’m gonna bring my camera.”

After that event he worked his way through the city’s nightlife. “I met up with a couple of people exchanged some emails and I would get invites to events but the invites were not specifically for me so when I would RSVP they would be like ‘nah you can’t come in’ so the early part of my music photography career I was sneaking into events with my camera and brushing shoulders getting my face known.”

One of the people who eventually recognized his familiar face was XXL’s Eric Diep. “We became really cool and that was where I got my first published works.”

Soon he was shooting concert footage of J.Cole, Nicki Minaj, Chris Brown, DJ Khaled and others and getting personal invitations to star-studded events including “Pharell’s Grammy Party.”

While he’s “expanded his parameters” into the beauty and lifestyle industries music is still an integral part of his creative process. He says on set “music is mandatory” and “If you catch me in the city without a pair of headphones in my pocket I’ll give you $20.”  

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