PDN Photo of the Day

Natalie Keyssar on Documenting a Rising Instagram Star

Photojournalist Natalie Keyssar has covered everything from anti-government clashes in Venezuela to social unrest in Ferguson, Missouri, but her 2018 PDN Photo Annual award-winning story covering Instagram celebrity Chyna (@chythegreatest—now 1.2 million followers strong) opened the door to a more intimate form of storytelling. Here, Keyssar explains how she got the assignment and what factors she took into account while documenting a young rising star.

PDN’s Photo Annual is now open for entries for 2019. Visit www.pdnphotoannual.com to learn more and enter.

PDN: Your work was honored as the best of Photojournalismin 2018. Congratulations! How did this assignment come about and how long did you spend with Chyna to get the story?

Natalie Keyssar: Thanks so much! This was a very last-minute assignment. Zara Katz, a wonderful editor and producer who I met because of our shared interest in issues of incarceration (she co-runs the incredible project Everyday Incarceration which does a ton of very important work) contacted me for this chapter of Her America for Lifetime. She had this beautiful vision of an all-female team showing life in America, and she knows that one of my favorite things in the world is to shoot youth culture and dance. She asked me to hop on a plane the very next morning because she’d just found out that Chyna was having a birthday party; it was the perfect time to capture her chapter of the project. I was only in Atlanta shooting for three days, but they were fun, action-packed days.

PDN: Can you describe what the actual assignment was from Lifetime? Were there certain elements of Chyna’s life that you wanted to capture?

NK: Zara and I had a great chat about what was important to the producers in the story and what we wanted to focus on. Chyna represents an intersection of all kinds of cultures in our society. She became an Instagram icon for her dance videos, and has a huge and growing fan base. She’s part of a generation that’s always on their phone: part performer, part living online, part normal, sometimes shy. She’s a teenage girl who is also starting to take dance more and more seriously and thinking about how to turn being “Instagram famous” into a career with the help of her management team. We wanted to get a feel of the convergence of normal high school girl, with Instagram star and, of course, the omnipresence of the phone.

PDN: How did you approach Chyna? Was there anything that helped you integrate yourself into her life and get her to open up to you?

NK: Chyna is a sweetheart, so her, her family and her team made me feel really welcomed from the start. Like with any new subject, I chatted with her and made sure she felt like she could set boundaries if she needed to. I also gave her an idea of what we were trying to capture. It was also helpful, as always, to hang around all day every day, because that gives folks time to get used to you. But really, a story like this when you’re dealing with someone who lives their life very publicly online is easy regarding access. Chyna and her family were very kind and open about letting me capture the real life behind the scenes.

PDN: Do you have a favorite frame from the series? What makes this photograph stand out to you?

NK: I love the one in the car on the way to her birthday with the sequin reflections all around Chyna because both the subject and the light look so beautiful. My very favorite shot is when Chyna is hugging her mom while she’s taking out her hair. It was an intimate moment and it really shows the side of Chyna that’s still a very young girl, even if she’s becoming a young woman in many parts of her life.

PDN: What was the hardest part about producing this body of work and how did you overcome it?

NK: Honestly, so much of my work is about very difficult social issues, so getting to work on a fun story like this one, for such a great client and project… it’s hard for me to think of this as anything other than a dream assignment. It was certainly a very short period of time to capture many different facets of the story. From Chyna’s birthday party, to her rehearsals, to her home life, to her recording sessions—it was packed, and I knew I had to try to nail each scene in under 72 hours, but luckily everything was pretty visual and the only thing I really had to sacrifice was sleep.

PDN: What’s next for you? Are you continuing to work on this series?

NK: I’m currently back in Latin America working on some assignments related to migration and some ongoing long-term projects. No plans to continue this assignment for now, but I do hope I get to shoot Chyna again someday—I have a feeling she’s going to do big things in her life.


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