Darnell Griffiths

“An open mind, two batteries, my favorite lens, and some photos from past sessions. This will help you remember that creating is no pressure. It’s about what you like. No one should be in your mind.” Darnell Griffiths

Darnell is an Austin-based poet and photographer, who uses his camera to document moments that reflect how he is feeling inside. To him, photography is an expression of being one in a space of many. Every time he looks through the viewfinder, he remembers the importance of slowing down, and appreciating the surrounding things and people.

His creative road has been long and varied, with an appreciation for creative imagery that stems back to childhood. As a boy, living in Brooklyn, Darnell saw a street artist in the midst of creation and was instantly intrigued by the process. Instead of asking the artist what was being created, Darnell watched on, overcome with curiosity. Understanding that visual art is open to interpretation made falling in love with photography a natural process.

The Kent State graduate began his image making journey when friend of five years and experienced videographer, Denzel Washington (not the legendary actor), asked for help with an upcoming client. Darnell took pictures for the first time, and it was the only push he needed to pursue the process further.

Darnell believes it’s important to keep creating, because you never know the impact you can have through your art. Creating images is an act larger than just one photographer.

Photo 2022 © Michael Bulbenko | FUJIFILM X-T4 camera and XF16-55mmF2.8 R LM WR, 1/380 sec at F2.8, ISO 6400

Fostering Reality

Found within the sweltering melting pot that is Austin, Texas, Darnell Griffiths is one of many artists working to keep the city vibrant, creative, and – as the locals fondly phrase it – weird. As a poet and photographer, he speaks not only with words, but images. With a strong, clear, and engaging voice, it’s surprising that Darnell has practiced image making introspectively, since leaving Ohio.

“Back home, I had a collective of people around me. When I came to Austin, I kind of self-isolated. I moved here in the middle of Covid, so that was part of it, but I didn’t really find myself trying to work with other people. Photography became an isolated pleasure, an outlet,” he muses.

“I found myself navigating towards subjects that had a somber, sad, emotional look and feel. It’s how I got into street photography. There’s a big, unhoused community here in Austin – and I admire how much they encapsulate the human spirit of survival. Even if we haven’t faced the same struggles, we can all relate to persisting in the face of life’s low points. Here, though, you’ll see them outside five-star restaurants and other affluent sites.

Photo 2022 © Michael Bulbenko | FUJIFILM X-T4 camera and XF16-55mmF2.8 R LM WR, 1/380 sec at F2.8, ISO 6400

Photo 2022 © Michael Bulbenko | FUJIFILM X-T4 camera and XF50-140mmF2.8 R LM OIS WR, 1/320 sec at F2.8, ISO 800

Photo 2022 © Michael Bulbenko | FUJIFILM X-T4 camera and XF50-140mmF2.8 R LM OIS WR, 1/320 sec at F2.8, ISO 800

“I was documenting subjects that reflected how I was feeling at this time in my life,” Darnell continues. “My main mission is to capture emotion, and moments that have a story behind them. I always felt you could evoke more reaction at first glance with a sad photo, rather than a happy one. With something that’s reflective or moody, it makes you slow down.”

But, in the Students of Storytelling experience, Darnell underwent a transformative revelation. The opportunity to photograph reggaeton icon Justin Quiles’ Artists Den performance reawakened something in the young image maker. He’s now striving to imbue a different kind of energy into his images – more in line with his own on-stage dynamism.

“Since the show, I’ve been trying to create happier moments, while retaining the impact of the emotion and story,” he explains. “I still like intense looks from a model or subject, but I’ve been playing with colors, lighting, and backgrounds with a real sense of life.”

Photo 2022 © Michael Bulbenko | FUJIFILM X-T4 camera and XF16-55mmF2.8 R LM WR, 1/60 sec at F3.6, ISO 200

Recalling the evening fondly, it’s easy to see how it was enough to stir a reaction from the impassioned creative.

“I had a good amount of time to prep,” Darnell says. “Justin and the band came out to rehearse – at which time Kevin and Michael, my mentors, were helping me figure out some good spots, the best lens choices, and ideal settings for the tricky lighting.

“By the time the concert started, the venue fixtures were creating incredible lens flares, we were poolside with a backdrop of palm trees, and he had his name in lights behind him. It all came together to complement Justin’s energy perfectly.

“He started off by saying most people don’t know what reggaeton music is: ‘You might not understand who I am or what I’m saying, but I know you’re going to feel the music when you hear it.’ And he was right!

“It was the exact opposite of what I was used to, in terms of specific subjects,” Darnell continues. “My initial approach was to frame him being as transparent as possible when he was singing certain parts of the songs. Catching those moments was imperative to me, just to get used to the process.

Photo 2022 © Michael Bulbenko | FUJIFILM X-T4 camera and XF16-55mmF2.8 R LM WR, 1/60 sec at F3.6, ISO 200

Photo 2022 © Michael Bulbenko | FUJIFILM X-T4 camera and XF16-55mmF2.8 R LM WR, 1/250 sec at F4, ISO 200

Photo 2022 © Michael Bulbenko | FUJIFILM X-T4 camera and XF16-55mmF2.8 R LM WR, 1/250 sec at F4, ISO 200

“Once he got into his third song, my main focus was not just trying to find emotion on his face, but engagement – between him, the audience, and musicians. The band were responding to his presence, playing louder, or going into a solo as he brought attention their way. With the crowd, he really broke down any wall between them, grabbing people to dance with – it felt like one big family. Everyone could see what an intimate performance he was giving.”

With a desire to reflect the electric mood clear in his mind, all that was left for Darnell was a cool execution. Kevin and Michael’s expertise was still ringing in his ears, as he began to create.

“I started out with the FUJINON XF33mmF1.4 R LM WR, for a tighter frame and more distinct bokeh. I didn’t want the background to take away from what he was communicating. I dropped down to a low angle, creating images of him looking larger than life.

“As he began to move around, I switched to the FUJINON XF16-55mmF2.8 R LM WR, used at the wider end – with an aperture around F4. I wanted to really take the audience and the band in, with Justin at the heart of the image.

Photo 2022 © Michael Bulbenko | FUJIFILM X-T4 camera and XF16-55mmF2.8 R LM WR, 1/250 sec at F4.5, ISO 200

“Color was also important. I underexposed slightly to avoid losing vibrancy against the bright sky and pool, then did a tiny amount to bring out greens and blues during the edit, but most of what you see is directly out of camera. The clarity of X-T4 and XF33mmF1.4 were incredible, and so crucial to the aesthetic.”

As a performer himself, when the camera is down and the flowing spoken word comes out, watching Justin couldn’t have been more personal for Darnell.

“All I can give an audience is my voice and expression,” he effuses. “Being able to speak your message beyond the choice of words is how I view pure creativity. I’m so proud to have pictured Justin in that moment. I feel you can really hear his music in the images, which is exactly what I was hoping for.”

Photo 2022 © Michael Bulbenko | FUJIFILM X-T4 camera and XF16-55mmF2.8 R LM WR, 1/250 sec at F4.5, ISO 200

Photo 2022 © Darnell Griffiths for Artists Den Entertainment | FUJIFILM X-T4 camera and XF16-55mmF2.8 R LM WR, 1/100 sec at F5.6, ISO 160

Photo 2022 © Darnell Griffiths for Artists Den Entertainment | FUJIFILM X-T4 camera and XF33mmF1.4 R LM WR, 1/1150 sec at F1.8, ISO 160

Photo 2022 © Evan Rodriguez | FUJIFILM X-T4 camera and XF16-55mmF2.8 R LM WR, 1/125 sec at F3.6, ISO 1600

Photo 2022 © Evan Rodriguez | FUJIFILM X-T4 camera and XF16-55mmF2.8 R LM WR, 1/125 sec at F3.6, ISO 1600

As the conversation draws to a close, Darnell takes a few moments to reflect, then look ahead with a reimagined vision.

“I thought I knew a lot when I got to Florida, but I met so many intelligent people, who understood the camera system in ways I didn’t. That technical advice has changed the way I view the camera and its versatility.

“My go-to style, subjects, and mood – it’s all flipped on its head. I can now add so much life to a photo, without it being black & white, or very contrasty, or dramatically closed in on the person’s face.

“I’ve also grown so much. As awkward as being a subject of the film was at first, it made me feel I can’t be uncomfortable being seen as a photographer anymore. In Florida, I was working with maybe a dozen people. I know photography cannot be a one-person mission. There’s no way I can learn how to make different photos, without communicating with other creatives. I’m beginning to rebuild that community of artists I had in Ohio, right here in Texas.”