You may not realize it, but you already know Jonathan Mannion. The New York photographer and video director is the creative mind behind some of the most iconic, omnipresent imagery in hip hop and pop culture. For almost two decades, as a photographer he’s captured moments where time stood still, whether it’s the Notorious B.I.G. tearing down the Palladium in 1995, Eminem cross-armed in front of a wall of his lyrics (each handwritten on random slips of paper), DMX standing inside a blood-filled bathtub, Jay Z’s illustrious ‘Fade To Black’ image, or the immortal cover for Aaliyah’s ‘I Care 4 U.'
This rings loudest in his latest directorial creation, the music video for rapper Trinidad Jame$’ new single, ‘Females Welcomed.’ Mannion decided to pull Trinidad Jame$ out of the ATL in his uber-viral ‘All Gold Everything’ video - and dropped him straight in the colorful, riotous streets of his birthplace: Port of Spain, Trinidad during Carnival. The result is a visceral adventure into the world of Carnival, and undoubtedly the most fitting way to watch Jame$ recite the song’s hook: “Now my side bitch, my main bitch / ‘Cause my main ho, ain't feeling me no mo, no mo.” Mannion took some time out to give some insight into meeting Jame$, what happened behind the lens, and his dedication to the game, nearly 20 years on.
How did you first come across Trinidad Jame$’ music?
Through J Dirrt, who’s been a good friend for a long time at East Village Radio. We did a cool little collaboration where I let EVR rip through all the archives for the Ball Review show that they do. It’s all Down South, Dirty South - from Lil Boosie to Outkast, Luda etc. We posted photos through Twitter and Instagram and then put a song. Like, ‘Yo the next post is a pic I took for Quebo Gold, and here’s the tune that we picked for EVR.’ J Dirrty was the first person to play me Trinidad’s music. I took his word for it because Dirrt is ingrained in the culture. Plus the whole Trinidad name - I’m definitely a supporter of Caribbean culture, period. Many of my vacations have been spent there - probably 15 trips to Trinidad, 15 trips to Jamaica and a handful to Barbados. So I was curious to see what elements of Trinidad he represented. Plus he was from Atlanta - you know, two worlds that I love. I was fascinated.
When did you first meet?
I told Dirrt to have Trinidad come by my studio. I met him, he knew my work. We ended up shooting some pictures - you know, kinda two outfits maybe, just as a humble thing. He was incredible. I remember there was a funny moment - DJ Clark Kent walked into my studio like, ‘You must’ve had a hard day - dude’s crazy! Look at the socks and the hair.’ I was like, ‘It was one of the greatest day’s shooting in my life, what are you talking about?!’ It’s a photographer’s dream, to have somebody so animated yet with such a foundation of who he is, even at that moment. This is just the new generation, and we get to tap in and really see what’s going on.
Did you two click?
Definitely. In more ways than one. When I asked Trinidad who his favorite was, he said Slick Rick. That solidified it for me. He’s also one of my favorites, I’ve shot Rick many times so I gave Trinidad a print and signed it immediately: “soon you will possess all of the gold.”
How did you come on board for ‘Females Welcomed’?
It was actually the tune that I loved the most off his mixtape, especially because of the transition into that drum & bassy feel at the end. When I heard that, I was like, ‘This is MAJOR.’ I get Atlanta so much, so I understand that underbelly of what becomes anthemic in Atlanta and how it applies. I’m an ATLien from day one even though I’m a resident of New York and born and raised in Cleveland.
What was your idea for the video?
I told Trinidad, ‘Look, I really really know Trinidad, and have soldiers there, ready to march. We’re protected anywhere we want to go - to the roughest hoods. Wherever you wanna go, we can go.’ We ended up in this crazy hood by Nelson Street, which is just real as it comes. People don’t get to walk as comfortably as we did. So we went down and I was like - let’s do it, let’s execute.
We spent a lot of time marinading on it, wanting it to be really special, you know, for him. I probably wrote a 12 page treatment of all visuals, versus a one-pager. Bringing up traditional Carnival elements and characters - the blue devils, the outfits, the sexy girls. It was a way to weave in a moment of time that I’ve experienced; this year was my 9th Carnival in a row. I think it was great for us both to explore. It brought that real substance to it. It’s not just some fluffy, throw-it-together situation.
Carnival to me is really the definition of freedom. I wanted to bring the frenzy, the build. The song builds so beautifully and it’s sort of how Carnival builds - just when you think it can’t get better, it gets better. This is a highlight reel with real reverence - with sexiness, but never losing sight that the thread that links it all together was Trinidad Jame$ and his experience. The fact that we got to share it is cool. These are the dream situations that photographers are rarely afforded in their careers: real access, real dedication to the process and craft. There was nothing that I asked of him that he didn’t achieve.
What was your favorite part of the process?
We tried to do so much. It’s exciting to have one under our belt, so he now knows - if nothing else - how I give of myself to a project. I’m there sweating, hanging off the side of a truck if it means we get the shot. I’ll grab the camera if someone's not translating it immediately. It was good for him to see my dedication to my process, even after 18-20 years in the game. I still live it. I signed up for this and it’s afforded me the life I lead. And it’s pretty incredible! The video really built from nothing - from the outset to where we are now was just constantly...it was all like turning up the volume switches. We’re turnt up now! Now we’re ready to give it to the kids.