Photographer BJ Papas started out shooting the New York hardcore scene—bands like Agnostic Front, the Bad Brains and their audiences. A fan and friend of the bands, she started going to hardcore Sunday matinees at CBGB when she was in college, then hit Irving Plaza and The Ritz, where she became staff photographer. Despite the bumps, bruises and broken cameras, BJ shot from the heart of the crowd. Over the years, her images have appeared on album and magazine covers, in Spin, Guitar World and Thrasher. Sharon M. Hannon talked with BJ from her home in Los Angeles, where she has lived since 2001.
In the 1980s, photographer BJ Papas captured many of the iconic images that define New York hardcore—bands like Agnostic Front, Murphy’s Law, Cro-Mags and their audiences. Along with her countless live shots, she took photos of Bad Brains, Sick of it All, Warzone, and many others that were used on the covers of albums and 7-inch singles. A regular photographer for Guitar World, Spin, and Thrasher, Papas’s work has also appeared in Rolling Stone, Revolver, and other publications.
Over the ensuing years, Papas has photographed hundreds of musicians of all genres, from Aerosmith to Johnny Cash, Public Enemy to Metallica. Although she’s lived in Los Angeles since 2001, she is forever linked to New York hardcore, the soundtrack to her early years in the city, the bands she first started photographing, and the people and music she still loves.
PKM: Tell me a little about your background, where you grew up and how you got interested in photography.
BJ Papas: I grew up in Woodstock, New York, which is two hours from the city. It was suburbia. I liked photography in high school, and I particularly liked working in the darkroom, making prints. I would shoot things, I shot people too, but I didn’t shoot any bands at first. I shot my high school friend’s band for the talent show and that was technically the first band I ever shot.
When I graduated high school, I went to school for photography at FIT [Fashion Institute of Technology] in 1984 because I wanted to get out of Woodstock and wanted to be in New York City. FIT was only two years – I figured where else can you go for two years and get a degree? But I’m not really a school person. The only things I really liked at that time were skateboarding, music, and photography. So I went to school and hated it; I would pretty much skate all the time and go to shows.
PKM: When did you become aware of hardcore and what attracted you to it?
BJ Papas: Everyone always asks me how I got into this type of music and I honestly do not know. When I was in high school, I listened to different types of music but I felt I needed something harder. There was a record store called The Collector in Woodstock, so I would go in there and see records by the Dead Kennedys or the Sex Pistols and I would just buy them and keep going back in for more. I was definitely into that kind of punk.
I think the first show I went to at CB’s was a Suicidal Tendencies show and that’s how I started going to CB’s. I just loved everything about it. And then there was no question, no matter what band was playing, I had to be at CB’s hardcore Sunday matinees. I just lived for those shows.
Later on, I had a job and was required to work on Sundays. Luckily I worked with two other girls who were totally into hardcore. They didn’t have to work on Sundays and they said me, “Just go into work in the morning, stay for a couple of hours, and clock out at whatever time you’re supposed to work to. Come to the show, and on Monday we’ll work harder to cover up what you didn’t get done.” And that’s what I did every Sunday. I just knew I had to be at CBs by 3:00, so I’d work maybe 10 to 2 instead of a full day. But no matter what, we always got the work done and they [the bosses] never knew I did that.
No question, no matter what band was playing, I had to be at CB’s hardcore Sunday matinees. I just lived for those shows.
PKM: Did you begin photographing bands when you first started going to punk shows?
BJ Papas: When I was going to college, my sister told me I should shoot bands. And I was like, ‘I don’t want to mix business with pleasure. I don’t want to do that. I want to be a fashion photographer.’ But I went to fashion school and I hated it, I hated fashion photography. It was just so fake to me. So, one night, Black Flag was playing in Hoboken, New Jersey, and a friend from my class lent me her flash and I went there and shot it. The photos didn’t come out very good, but I liked it so I started shooting more regularly. But I was really going to shows for fun.
Then I met this boy at a show at Irving Plaza and I found out after we were dating that he was joining the army. I thought that was really stupid, so to show him how stupid it was that he was joining the army, I started to take pictures and send them to him to say ‘Oh, look what you missed today, look what you missed tonight.’
Back then I’d shoot negatives and when you got your film processed you could get two prints for the price of one. So I’d get two and send him a set and I’d give the band the other set. Then bands started asking me if I had any pictures. I’d give them some, and they’d use them on the record. So that’s how it started. The photos would go into fanzines or their 7 inches [singles]. Then Sick of It All asked me if I would shoot their record cover. This was when I was realizing that I should be shooting bands and not other things, merging my photography and my love for bands into one thing. I still wasn’t making money. I did it because they were my friends.
PKM: What was it like to try to photograph bands during a hardcore show?
BJ Papas: It was pretty rough. It was like being in the middle of a war zone because you never knew what was coming at you. My camera got broken a lot, it got banged around and I was getting my camera repaired regularly and that was a bummer because it cost a lot of money. But there were some security guards at CBs, a guy named Dennis, and he was always really aware of me. Sometimes I had a little chair off to the side so I could be a little higher up so I could see. People always kind of looked out for me. I mean, I don’t think I could do it now! (laughs) But back then it was OK. And sometimes I could shoot on the side of the stage but most of the time I liked to shoot from the crowd.
PKM: So you didn’t get seriously hurt?
BJ Papas: Out of all the shows there was only one show where I got hurt and it wasn’t hardcore, which was primarily what I shot. I was shooting a show at the Ritz from the pit where the security guards stand in front of the stage. It should have been super safe, right? Danzig was headlining and Cycle Sluts from Hell were opening. And during Cycle Sluts from Hell, I got kicked from behind in the head, near my eye, and I needed to get stitches. And that was weird because I wasn’t expecting that kind of crowd response for that band. So I rushed up to the hospital and got some stitches, and I asked the doctor if he could hurry up so I could make it back for Danzig. And he got me back in time – I made it back to shoot Danzig! But I would say more money was spent on the camera repairs than on me.
PKM: What kind of camera were you using at those shows?
BJ Papas: I shot with a Nikon FM2, my favorite. It was fully manual. And FE2 and F3 film cameras. I used to frequent Eddy Smalov’s camera repair and became good friends with one of his employees, Johnny, a guitar player in a ’90s hair band.
Later, my agency, Retna, made me switch to digital cameras. They didn’t want to wait all the time it took to process and edit film. So I switched to Canon. My present digital Canon camera is a Canon 5D mark III.
And during Cycle Sluts from Hell, I got kicked from behind in the head, near my eye, and I needed to get stitches. And that was weird because I wasn’t expecting that kind of crowd response for that band. So I rushed up to the hospital and got some stitches, and I asked the doctor if he could hurry up so I could make it back for Danzig.
PKM: When you were first beginning to photograph bands did you view yourself as a photographer?
BJ Papas: I always thought of myself as a photographer and had dreams of owning a studio and having my career build up over time. Music wasn’t my original dream but when it became focused on shooting bands, I wanted to be like Annie Leibovitz, you know, a huge photographer. But ultimately, Anton Corbijn was and still is one of my favorite photographers, so if I could be anyone, that’s who I would be like. His work is just amazing, and I was lucky enough to work with him, so that was even more amazing.
I considered myself a professional photographer, but I was shooting bands. And the type of bands that I shot, no one was taking me seriously. I mean people were going to the shows for fun so it was always hard to mix making money with that music. But it was never about money. It was just about the love.
PKM: Then you started doing photo shoots with the bands?
BJ Papas: When some of the smaller bands were getting signed to major labels, the bands were always really nice and loyal. They would say they wanted me to take their pictures for their records. But the record labels were never happy with that. I was friends with the band members, but people don’t really take you that seriously when you’re friends. They’re not going to be happy with a band bringing their “friend” to take pictures. No, the labels wanted a “professional” to take pictures, right? So the bands were requesting me because they liked me and my work, but it was really hard to go to a label and convince them that I was a professional photographer. I appreciated that the bands would stick up for me, but that was always a hard fight because the record companies all had their own people that they hired.
The type of bands that I shot, no one was taking me seriously. I mean people were going to the shows for fun so it was always hard to mix making money with that music. But it was never about money. It was just about the love.
I can’t tell you how many times the record company would win and someone else would shoot the band and then they would call me up and say ‘oh, the photographer’s pictures didn’t come out as good, could you give us something or reshoot it?’ It happened multiple times. I would say yes, but why didn’t they just hire me in the beginning and everyone would have been happy?
Then I tried to make a living by shooting other bands. That was the only way to do that because people [the bands] didn’t know me.
PKM: Which bands, from a photography standpoint, did you find the most interesting and why?
BJ Papas: At those New York hardcore Sunday matinees they had a bunch of bands, and I’d shoot just anything in the beginning. Then it just became about the type of music and what I liked. I mostly like to shoot bands that I liked. Later on when I was working for magazines, you could tell the type of bands the magazines wanted because I’d never heard of them before. I guess they were new and upcoming bands.
I found that if I got hired to shoot a band I never heard before, I just wouldn’t get the same feeling out of the pictures as when I really liked the band and was familiar with their music. I don’t know if it shows to anyone else but it showed to me. I’ve had to shoot some bands where I’m thinking, hopefully these come out. You’re thinking about the technical part but you just don’t really want to be there because the music’s just not good. It takes the fun out of it.
The genre of music that I primarily shot that I loved was New York hardcore. Then when I was getting pretty serious about shooting, I was trying to broaden my horizons. So I started working in coat-check at the Ritz [in 1988] where bigger bands would play other than at CB’s. Within two years they promoted me to staff photographer so I could shoot whatever bands were playing there.
PKM: At that point were you selling your photos to magazines?
BJ Papas: My first assignment for Guitar World was the guitar players of Bad Brains, Cro-Mags and Sick of It All in 1990. I worked a lot for Guitar World and then I also started working for Spin in 1994. Mazzy Star was my first assignment for Spin. She played in the dark, only lit by a single black light. It was so difficult to get an image! I thought for sure it was my first and last job for them. But for some reason they continued to hire me. Those were my regular ones, but I freelanced. For my first assignment for Thrasher magazine, I shot Nine Inch Nails in 1989.
I started working in coat-check at the Ritz [in 1988] where bigger bands would play other than at CB’s. Within two years they promoted me to staff photographer so I could shoot whatever bands were playing there.
PKM: A common impression of the hardcore scene is that it was primarily young white guys with very few women. So if that’s true, did you feel that you fit in?
BJ Papas: I was always kind of a tomboy, so I never really thought that. Obviously it was mainly boys. There were African Americans, like a couple of friends of ours like Big Charlie, Troy and some other band members, but it was mostly white boys. There weren’t that many girls, but I hung out with a lot of girls. There were girls in the scene who were contributing to the scene … girls who put out fanzines, and girls who made videos, and other photographers who were girls. And girls who just danced in support of the bands.
But it was a problem. Being a girl photographer in that kind of music was unusual. Luckily my name is BJ, so no one really thought that I was girl. When it came to people actually hiring me or calling me for photos, it was very much a surprise when people asked for me on the phone and found out that I was a girl. To this day, many people tell me they didn’t know I was a girl. They always thought I was a guy. I mean, how many girls were shooting in the pit at a hardcore show to get those kinds of photos?
PKM: So in that way, it was an advantage to have your name?
BJ Papas: Oh yeah! At the time I realized that, for once, my name came in handy. Cause I didn’t think they’d be hiring if they knew …
PKM: Are there photographs of yours that you particularly like or that mean something special to you?
BJ Papas: I did a photograph of Joe Strummer; it’s one of the ones that I like. It’s an interesting story because it’s a real shot, it’s not posed or anything. Joe Strummer was doing a bunch of press for a new record coming out, so I shot him for Guitar World but I wanted to shoot more of him. They said ‘if you want to wait until he’s done with everything else, he’ll give you another session’. So afterwards we went to a bar called the Soho Bar to get a drink and take some pictures. It was that time in New York when the smoking ban in bars first went into effect. So I was sitting across from Joe and he lit a cigarette and the bartender came over to him and told him there was no smoking allowed. And Joe flipped the waiter off and lit his cigarette. And I just took pictures of the whole thing. Just typical Joe Strummer in punk rock style. I know a lot of people like that image, but I don’t think they know the story behind it.
PKM: That attitude really comes across. Not having met him, I’ve wondered with him how much was his public persona and how much was truly authentic.
BJ Papas: I hung out with Joe a bit and I would say he was a gentleman. If someone asked me one word to describe Joe Strummer I would say “gentleman.” He was a gentleman in every manner, in the way he spoke and answered questions. Which is kind of the opposite of flipping the finger in a bar. (laughs)
PKM: I also like your photo of Mike Ness putting on makeup.
BJ Papas: That was in 2004. He was playing at the Wiltern and I was backstage. He said ‘I have to get ready to go onstage’ so I asked if it was cool if I took pictures and he said ‘yeah.’
PKM: What led you to move to Los Angeles?
BJ Papas: I moved to L.A. because a lot of bands that were blowing up were in L.A. – Rancid, Green Day, Offspring, that genre of music. I worked for a Japanese magazine, Warped Japan, and they would fly me out to L.A. to shoot these shows. And there were a lot more of those outdoor Lollapalooza-style shows out here. So I was coming out here a lot to shoot these bands, and whenever I was out here I’d go to record companies and I’d hear that I should move to L.A. because there’d be so much more work for me out here. I was trying to further my career.
At that point I had a studio in New York City and I was shooting, but bands didn’t have the money to pay for the studio rental. I could shoot a band in the studio, but the record company wouldn’t give me the money for it, so it was still always a struggle to pay the rent.
It felt like all of the L.A. bands were more successful than the New York bands, so I thought that maybe if I moved out here there might be more work for me. I moved here in 2001. But then I found out – maybe it was a combination of the record industry lying to me and not being so lucrative with decreasing record sales and the music industry changing – I wasn’t making money working after I moved here. Unfortunately, I had a rough time of it.
If someone asked me one word to describe Joe Strummer I would say “gentleman.” He was a gentleman in every manner, in the way he spoke and answered questions.
I met an L.A. photographer and I told her my story and how frustrated I was. I asked her how she survived out here as a photographer because to me it seemed kind of hopeless. She told me her story was the same thing in reverse. Every time she would go to New York, a record company would say ‘let’s go to lunch’ and then she’d get work. So she was working in New York but living in L.A. Then she moved to New York, and when she called the record companies, they wouldn’t have time for her because she lived in New York. She realized the trick was to move back to L.A. and keep the New York clients.
You know when you’re visiting someone and they always make time for you because they know there’s only a short time you’re around? That was the trick.
PKM: Are you still shooting any live stuff today?
BJ Papas: I’m just shooting live and I’m just shooting my friends and bands that I like. I’m not selling them anywhere. So I’m just shooting, to get back into the game, the things that I love. Mostly my friends.
PKM: What projects are you involved now?
BJ Papas: I had some knee surgeries, so I decided to start going through my old images to make a book. It’s really time-consuming going through negatives and slides and getting them scanned and trying to figure out what should go in there. I’m not quite sure the exact direction I’m going, but it’s probably going to be the ’80s and ’90s and probably a mixture of bands, hardcore and other bands, that I shot and images I like. I just want to do the book so all of my friends can have a sort of yearbook of what we lived, you know. My goal is before we die to have a yearbook!
To this day, many people tell me they didn’t know I was a girl. They always thought I was a guy. I mean, how many girls were shooting in the pit at a hardcore show to get those kinds of photos?
PKM: Are you still in early stages of this project?
BJ Papas: (Laughs) Yes, I’m in the early stages. I never would’ve dreamed that it’s this time-consuming. Most of the images were at my mom’s house, so I had to get the images back. Every time I’d go to New York, I’d bring some images back with me. But it’s never ending – every time I go home, I find more stuff and it’s a lot to go through.
PKM: That’s a lot of work! Is there anything else you’re involved in today?
BJ Papas: Right now, I’m working on a project with Element Skateboards and Bad Brains that will come out in the fall of 2020.
Also, a recent highlight was that I was invited to shoot Rancid at Madison Square Garden, opening for the Misfits [on October 19]. I was thrilled and honored for this opportunity to see my friends play at this legendary venue. And also for the opportunity to shoot the other opening act, the Damned, one of my all-time favorite bands. I couldn’t be more proud of them! What an amazing night!
One of the most exciting things for me has been to watch the bands I have known and shot for years find worldwide recognition and success and still remain true to those of us who have been there since the beginning.
PKM: Do you sell any of your old photos?
BJ Papas: When I put stuff up on social media, a lot of time people ask if it’s for sale. Then I sell it to them. But I need to work a little better at the business part of this, so I’m hoping when the book comes out there could be a gallery show and then the images would be available.
I guess there’s been a resurgence … maybe it’s because of the 30-to-40-year anniversaries of some of these bands … they’re now asking me for photos.
PKM: So you have a lot of friends from that period that you’re still in touch with.
BJ Papas: That’s the amazing thing. I was in New York a couple of months ago and I hadn’t been there in quite a while. And it’s just so amazing to me that all these friends I’ve made are friends for life. They found out I was in New York and they were calling me and asking me to go to shows. And it was just so nice and welcoming. You kind of think you’re out of sight, out of mind, and that wasn’t the case, you know. Through this scene I made so many good friends for life.
One of the most exciting things for me has been to watch the bands I have known and shot for years find worldwide recognition and success and still remain true to those of us who have been there since the beginning.
Raybeez (drummer Ray Barbieri) Memorial Hardcore Benefit Show, CBGB, 1997, with Agnostic Front: