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Shooting Star: Dustin Rabin

· by Tab S.

Given that the annual Polaris gala is a special invite-only affair, the only way most get a sneak peek into the event is via the telecast – or the amazingly in-the-moment photographs documenting the indelible live performances by the nominees and the droll banter of the various hosts over the years.

Those images are the work of music photographer Dustin Rabin, who has been one of Canada's leading lensmen specializing in all things rock'n'roll for the past two decades. He's been the guy capturing all the unforgettable moments of all six Polaris award ceremonies thus far, which gives him a very unique behind-the-scenes perspective on the Prize.

Dustin's shots of the Polaris galas tend to stay with us long after each event is long over – given how the action almost bursts from each frame, his photos are almost the next best thing to actually being there.

And not only does he tell a great story through pictures, but he spins a pretty good yarn through words as well. So we decided to catch up with the photographer who hangs out with the likes of Dave Grohl and Sir Richard Branson when he's not busy covering our big show.

(Have a look at some of Dustin's favourite images from this year's gala over at our Facebook gallery.)

Tabassum Siddiqui: How did you come to be the official Polaris gala photographer?

Dustin Rabin: Steve Jordan and I have known each other for about 10 years, and he approached me about shooting the first Polaris Music Prize Gala. I gladly accepted, and have been doing them ever since.

TS: As a veteran music photographer, you’re obviously comfortable shooting live performances, but what are the challenges in shooting a live gala showcase like Polaris? Is it different from a usual concert in any way?

DR: The big difference with shooting Polaris is where I can and cannot shoot from. At concerts, I’m usually down front or on stage. I can still shoot from the front of the stage at Polaris, but it’s a bit tougher because everyone is seated and the stage isn’t that high, so I don't want to be in everyone’s way. (I do a lot of crouching!) Since it’s a televised event, there’s no opportunity for me to be onstage during the performances.

TS: Can you tell me about a particularly challenging moment at any of the Polaris galas over the years in getting a tricky shot (or maybe just a ‘perfect’ one)?

DR: It’s not always easy to get to where I want to be in that room because it’s jam-packed, and I always have to be aware of the TV cameras so that I’m not some guy running through the shot.

TS: What were some of your favourite images from this year’s gala? Can you tell us a bit about why you like how they turned out?

DR: There’s a great shot of Damian standing on a table in between throws, where he spat a mint (or something) into the crowd. It looked like he was aiming for someone or something – and judging by the crowd’s reaction in the following photo, I think he hit it!

The lighting during Austra’s performance was really great, and there’s a shot I particularly like where a bright light is glowing at one of the singers' feet. It really added to the atmosphere of the song.

There was a great rock‘n'roll moment between the singer and bass player from Galaxie during their set.

And of course, Grant riding Damian’s shoulders, wearing my friend Lucky’s scooter helmet…

TS: What’s been your favourite Polaris performance over the years?

DR: I’ve been blown away by so many performances at Polaris over the years. Malajube, Black Mountain, Sarah Harmer, Tegan and Sara, Hey Rosetta, Elliott Brood, Fucked Up, Caribou, Karkwa, Patrick Watson, Final Fantasy, Shad…. Honestly, far too many to list.

TS: Does it help you get a better shot if you’re familiar with the artist or have shot photos of them before (in a non-Polaris setting)?

DR: As a general rule, yes. If it’s someone whose music I listen to regularly, or I’ve worked with them in the past, it’s easier for me to know when things are going to happen. If it’s a band that I’ve toured with, it’s even better because I also get to know how their lighting directors work.

For example, at the end of most Foo Fighters or Billy Talent shows, I feel like I shared a brain with the lighting guy the whole night, because we were so in sync. Both guys are named Dan – maybe that’s got something to do with it…

TS: As someone who’s been immersed in the Canadian music scene for many years, what are your overall thoughts about the Polaris Prize in general?

I think it’s great, because it really opens people’s ears to so much incredible music that they may not have heard before. Maybe I shouldn’t admit this, but each year there are three or four short-listers that I knew little to nothing about going into the event. By the end of the evening, I always feel fortunate to have been there because I’ve been introduced to something great.

TS: What’s the best part of getting to shoot the Polaris gala?

DR: Again, I think that the best part of being at the Polaris Gala is being introduced to incredible talent that I may not have heard before the event. It’s also really great to see the camaraderie between artists. In between performances, all the bands hang out at each other’s tables and have a good time. It’s a really cool environment.

TS: Polaris aside, you've been a successful and busy music photographer for a very long time now. How did you first get your start in becoming a music photographer?

DR: The first band I ever shot was 54-40 in 1992. I interviewed them over the phone for the school paper, and I was offered a photo pass for their show. At that point, I had no idea what I was doing. I had known a fair amount about photography since I was a kid, thanks to my Dad, but I didn’t have a clue how to shoot a concert. Over the next couple of years, I had many similar experiences where I would interview a band, then shoot their show to be able to have a unique photo to go with the article instead of the standard press shot that goes out to all the magazines.

TS: What would you say have been your career highlights to date? (We noticed a Rolling Stone cover in your email signature — that’s gotta be a big one!)

DR: Last July, I was invited to tour with Paul McCartney for a week. Even more incredible is that I found out it was Paul himself who requested me after having seen my work! Words cannot describe it… so I won’t even bother.

On the 20th anniversary of Nirvana’s Nevermind, Dave and Krist from the band and their producer Butch Vig sat down with Jon Stewart for a two-hour feature interview. I spent the afternoon documenting it, which was honestly a dream come true. I’ve known Dave for years, but I never thought I’d have the chance to photograph him with Krist. And I’ve been a huge Jon Stewart fan since since The Jon Stewart Show in 1994, so photographing them all together was quite surreal.

I think the Holy Grail of the rock & roll photographer is getting the cover of Rolling Stone magazine. A couple of years ago I had the amazing opportunity to shoot that cover with Them Crooked Vultures. What made it even more special was that it happened on my birthday.

TS: For you, what makes shooting artists and concerts so enjoyable (even after all these years of doing it)?

DR: Building personal and professional relationships with bands that I love is very exciting as a photographer and as a person. The kind of access they give me shows a tremendous amount of trust on their part. They’ve allowed me to go places and do things that so few people in my field get to do, and I recognize that every time I’m out there. I never take anything for granted, and I am always aware of how special these opportunities are. Plus, just being able to watch my favourite bands play over and over again never gets old.

TS: Any career goals left to accomplish still?

DR: Before last July, anytime I’d been asked this question, my answer was always the same: to get the chance to photograph Paul McCartney. In a weird way, [now that I've done that] no longer having an answer to this question feels pretty amazing. For about a second I thought, “Now what?” But there’s so much more out there. I look at that experience as opening the door to all the other things I want to accomplish.

TS: What’s keeping you busy these days? And what’s on tap for the coming months?

DR: I recently shot a comedy short which will be released this spring, and right now I’m working on another short film project. And of course, just a lot more photography stuff.

Check out Dustin Rabin's dynamic rock'n'roll images at DustinRabin.com, and try to keep your envy to a minimum as you follow his musical adventures via Twitter @DustinRabin.

This website is made possible with the support of Ontario Creates.

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