Hip-Hop's Best Kept Secret: A Legendary Shot of Steven Sandoval
A moan followed by a grunt or two filled the receiving end of the phone.
The sound of a bed creaking along with an exasperated sigh indicated that the night had been a long one for Steven Sandoval. And it was about to get longer.
It was 11:43 p.m., and Sandoval had just returned home from a friend's baby shower. However, the 22-year-old was not only in attendance to guess genders and rub bellies, but rather to take pictures for the intimate event.
Now he was finally home, enjoying the comfortability of his bed as he took advantage of what would soon be a short-lived moment of solidarity. For in only a mere two hours and 17 minutes, he would be back on the road again. This time, to shoot for a party hosted by DJ Bobby Trends.
Part of the popular hip-hop and R&B radio station, Hot 97, Bobby Trends and his Shake the Block team headline events from city to city, including night clubs, strip clubs, and concerts. As a personal photographer for Trends, Sandoval routinely gets a taste of life in the fast lane, capturing up close and personal shots of today's most prominent artists, partying with voluptuous vixens dancing under strobe lights, and gaining VIP access to coveted high-profile celebrity events.
Hip-hop artist Desiigner. [Credit]: Sandoval
Rapper A Boogie performing at a concert. [Credit]: Sandoval
DJ Bobby Trends and rapper Flipp Dinero. [Credit]: Sandoval
Hip-hop artist Fat Joe. [Credit]: Sandoval
Rapper French Montana. [Credit]: Sandoval
Rapper Jim Jones in a deli. [Credit]: Sandoval
Dancers at Mamajuana Cafe. Photo by Sandoval.
Before hip-hop's biggest stars like Desiigner and A Boogie were gracing his camera lens, however, photography was the furthest thing from Sandoval's mind.
Born in Mount Kisco, NY, a cozy suburb nestled in Northern Westchester County, Sandoval was an avid football player, taking up the sport at the age of eight and playing all throughout his high school years.
"Football was my first love," Sandoval confided. "I honestly didn't even think of being a photographer. Ever."
However, as fate would have it, the 22-year-old stumbled upon his new love while spending time with an old one.
"When I was dating this girl, I was chilling at her crib and I saw she had a nice Nikon on her shelf," Sandoval said. "I thought it looked [cool] and she let me have it. From there, I just had it with me all the time."
A businessman at heart, the Westchester native earned his Associate's degree in Business Administration. Armed with a new camera and a business acumen, Sandoval saw a lucrative opportunity.
"I'm a businessman before everything," Sandoval said candidly. "I knew how to sell to people, and in the business world, [beauty]sells. So I knew that if I took pictures of pretty girls, it would catch attention."
After the laughter and blushing subsided, Sandoval explained that while he took one photography class to teach him the basics, he was self-taught, taking what he learned from the session out on the field.
And so began the budding photographer's freelance career, taking pictures of local beauties in nature reserves or busty, lingerie-clad women ensconced in linen sheets. As Sandoval predicted, people indeed took notice, and business began booming.
While Sandoval was perfecting his newfound craft, he was also already notorious for hosting parties around the Westchester area, enabling the young photographer to gain valuable connections along the way.
"Before photography, I was already popular from throwing parties in Westchester," Sandoval said, "so I was able to gain connections and got invited to events to take pictures."
One event gave Sandoval his first taste of celebrity thanks to a friend of a friend.
"I was with my boy who was a D-1 football player at the time, and he had a friend who was in public relations," he said. "His friend was having a PR event for [rapper] 50 Cent, one of his clients."
"So the PR guy asked my friend if he knew someone who took pictures and he offered me," Sandoval continued. "Then we took it from there."
BET's 50 Central Premier Party not only celebrated the launch of the rapper's new late-night comedy series at the time, but it also provided Sandoval with his first celebrity shot.
Though the physical strain of nightlife started to take a toll on the young photographer-"I almost died driving a few times getting used to the lifestyle"-Sandoval continued to push himself, strengthening his portfolio with pictures of hazy performances and intricate headshots of the music industry's top elite.
Then, in March 2018, opportunity knocked and Sandoval opened the door.
"[DJ] Bobby Trends posted on his Instagram that he was looking for a photographer, and my boy tagged me in his post under his comments," Sandoval began, "I [direct messaged] him as soon as I got the notification on my phone. I thought it was too late because there were like 600 comments on his post. But he responded in two minutes."
What impressed the DJ the most, aside from Sandoval's resume, was his boldness.
"I asked him for his number," the 22-year-old said, "and that's what stood out to him the most. None of the people who applied for the spot asked him for his number."
Since then, Sandoval has been a part of DJ Bobby Trends' Shake the Block team for over a year.
Working for Trends keeps Sandoval booked for most of his weekends, traveling with the team everywhere from New York City to "the middle of nowhere." According to Sandoval, the biggest event he has worked at with Shake the Block is Summer Jam, hip-hop's most anticipated summer concert.
Country star Billy Ray Cyrus at Summer Jam 2019. Photo by Sandoval.
DJ Bobby Trends at Summer Jam 2019. Photo by Sandoval.
Rapper A Boogie performing at Summer Jam 2018. Photo by Sandoval.
Rapper PnB Rock performing at Summer Jam 2018. Photo by Sandoval.
Hip-hop artist Trippie Redd performing at Summer Jam 2019. Photo by Sandoval.
Although being with DJ Bobby Trends has allowed Sandoval to take power shots of some of the biggest names in the music industry, many of his killer candids derived from his extreme work-ethic and a supreme force Sandoval dubbed "the divine power of me."
With a smirk and a mischievous gleam in his eye, the young photographer revealed one effect of his greatness.
"I assisted Johnny Nunez at some celebrity events while working with Trends. [Nunez] is one of the first hip-hop photographers, a legend," Sandoval began. "He saw me at a T-Pain concert and gave me his number. Then he showed me his phone and there was an email from [singer] The Weeknd's team about [rapper] Nav's album release party."
"He invited me to go," he continued, "but the night of the event he told me it was getting tight at the door."
Here is where Sandoval worked his "powers."
"I saw on Instagram that my friend was working at the club they were having the event at. I asked her if she could get me in and she did. The Weeknd didn't even show up, but Nav and Lil Uzi were there so I got to chill and take pictures of them," Sandoval said.
"Lil Uzi even [direct messaged] me asking for the photo I took of them," the photographer continued. "That was a turning point in my career. It just goes to show that if you continue to be yourself, more people gravitate towards you."
Rap stars Nav and Lil Uzi at singer The Weeknd's album release party. [Credit]: Sandoval
Hip-hop artist Nav. Photo by Sandoval.
Not only did Lil Uzi reach out to Sandoval, but the prodigy also caught the attention of another rap mogul. Upon seeing Sandoval's concert photo of him, rapper Meek Mill not only reposted the photo on his own Instagram account, but he also tagged the young photographer in the post (@shotbyss_) and currently follows him back.
Imagine being able to hang out with your favorite celebrities and actually get paid for doing so. The dreams of most of the world are a reality for Sandoval, and while he does enjoy being around Grammy Award nominees, the 22-year-old said that the energy surrounding the atmosphere of every event is one of his favorite parts of being a celebrity photographer.
"The energy is just dope," Sandoval said. "You can really see the impact [celebrities] have and I love being able to experience both sides of it. Sure, I get to chill with celebrities, take pictures, party and I get the VIP treatment, but my favorite part of it all is just the energy and the concerts."
For the first time that evening, a solemn look fell across Sandoval's face as he continued.
"When I see artists really give off this energy and the look on people's faces when they get so into it... I love capturing those little moments, the history of that moment. I just want to be a part of history."
Although Sandoval never considered photography as his profession, he developed an innate ability for the craft, his passion evident within each moment of life he has produced.
Sandoval is so passionate, in fact, that he almost "lost a limb" in an attempt to get the right cord for his laptop to submit his content before the deadline, according to Sandoval's cousin, George Sandoval.
George described his relationship with Sandoval as relatively close. He also said the young photographer could be stubborn, especially when it came to his work.
"Steven, man, he's ahead of his time," George said. "He's passionate about his craft and hard-headed which means when he's working on something, you better believe he's not going to stop til' the job is done."
George first discovered his cousin's celebrity endeavors with DJ Bobby Trends last year after seeing a post on Sandoval's Instagram. Upon earning a spot with Shake the Block, George said that the only part of Sandoval's character that changed was his motivation.
"I think the biggest part of Steven that has changed since working with Trends is his motivation," George began. "This new come up of his really forced him to expand his horizons and boundaries when it came to being a photographer, and he demonstrates that clearly in his work."
Having connections to celebrities may have its perks, but it also comes with a downside. According to George, Sandoval has encountered many people who will do anything for clout.
"How have people changed? A lot," George stated matter-of-factly. "From what I can tell, I know people definitely just want to hang out with him for the clout he has on his name. I've seen people message him trying to get into events with him who wouldn't even go to a gas station with him before."
Aside from clout-chasers, however, George said that other people primarily reach out to Sandoval for collaborations and other business inquiries, a factor that George said only shows how quickly the young photographer is leveling up his reputation.
While George has not been to any of the events his cousin has invited him to, he commended Sandoval for his work ethic, stating that even professional paparazzi would be envious of his content.
"This kid is meeting some of the hottest artists in the game right now, getting the pictures paparazzi would kill for," George exclaimed. "He's as passionate for his craft as anyone could be, and he worked hard to be where he is now."
Despite Sandoval's rapid success, the young photographer asserted that he was "not satisfied" just yet with his budding career.
"Not being satisfied motivates me to do more," Sandoval said. "My family thinks [my job] is cool but they know I can do bigger things. My friends hype me up, but it's the same, they know what's up. They all push me as much as they can."
"It's up to me to get stuff done," the 22-year-old continued, "I believe in energy a lot, so I surround myself with people who are doing stuff. I feel like I'll stay comfortable and complacent if I don't. That drains you."
At first glance, Sandoval's prominent sharp jawline, magnetic blue eyes, and a mass of soft, curly black hair atop his head instantly exuded what one would describe as a typical ladies' man. However, women are not on the photographer's agenda for success.
A small laugh escaped before he spoke.
"Sometimes I work so much I don't really have time for the ladies," Sandoval said. "I try to focus on myself, which is why I'm not big into relationships right now. I already did that. I feel like I'm too young and I have a lot of stuff going on. I wasted a bunch of time with that stuff before, I need to get stable."
"No disrespect to all the good girls out there," he chuckled. "And I'm not saying I have to be rich before I find someone either, some females can level you out. But I feel like you have to find yourself first."
Last Saturday, Sandoval was at rapper Pop Smoke's concert at The Chance Theatre in Poughkeepsie, NY with DJ Bobby Trends and Shake the Block. Pop Smoke is hip-hop's newest rap sensation, with the newcomer releasing hits such as "Welcome to the Party" and "Dior."
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With Sandoval right on stage with the rap star, Bobby Trends, and his posse, it is no surprise the budding photographer has dealt with jealousy in his past, sometimes from those in his field.
"There was a photographer in my town who was nice at first until I started blowing up. He kept saying I took his limelight, that he was supposed to be doing what I was doing," the 22-year-old shook his head. "That was the most jealous comment I ever heard. I even [included] him in on an opportunity and he messed it up for himself, which only showed that I was naturally just better than him."
"I never hate like that. If people don't see the value in me, it's their loss," Sandoval said adamantly. "I put it out into the universe that I'm going to be someone. I'm going to be a legend. Even [rapper] Fat Joe told me that. I don't trip over things like that because I know who I am."
As for the clout-chasers, Sandoval's emphasis on energy allows him to see through transparent attempts at earning his friendship for the sake of his affiliation with the music industry.
"Yeah, people show me way more love," Sandoval snorted indignantly. "Since I'm big on energy, I can see right through that. Now, I appreciate when people genuinely show me love, don't get it twisted, but some people I can just see through. But I'm always cordial and I'll go along with it."
Every successful businessman needs a plan for the future, and Sandoval is no stranger to having strategic long and short-term goals. Desiring to one day build his own media company, Sandoval said he wants to continue learning more about videography, noting that after getting his Associate's in Business, he originally went back to school for video production. However, he ceased his studies because he felt he was "wasting time."
"I just stopped because I felt I was wasting my time. Even my counselor told me I was wasting my time because of the stuff I was already doing," Sandoval said. "I already knew what I wanted to do. I want to be a boss and college is not going to teach me how to be a boss. I don't want to work for someone else. I want to work for myself."
They say that fame changes people, and it is no mystery that some of Sandoval's famous muses have rubbed off some of their status on him. Yet, the Westchester native has his ways of staying grounded, disregarding the fame factor.
"I don't consider myself having fame at all," he said dismissively. "I stay grounded by my brother and my close friends, and I emphasize close. It's like they say, I know I can do better."
The celebrity photographer continued, "It really is time to step up. I'm never satisfied. I don't have my house yet, I don't have my [Lamborghini] yet, my mom doesn't have her house yet. You gotta keep pushing."
What is the key to success? Hard-work? Dedication? A strong sense of willpower? For Sandoval, it is a combination of all three.
"[You have to] get out there. Bust your ass off every time, not just sometimes. A closed mouth never gets fed. Some people get too complacent, but you have to know your worth. That's key," Sandoval flashed an all-knowing smile.
Behind every photo is a photographer skilled in the art of capturing life's most memorable moments.
Behind every photo shot by Steven Sandoval, however, is a legend.