For Arturo Holmes, photography fulfilled what pre-law could not

“Photography is my voice, my therapy and equally an opportunity to use my talents to motivate and inspire others.”

After photographing Newark, New Jersey, mayor Ras J. Baraka, Arturo Holmes went to Halsey Street for the “All Black Lives Matter” Community Painting Day. He spotted two volunteers dancing and painting a message of liberation. “Although it was a serious time, it wasn’t all dark and negative,” Holmes said. “In that moment, I chose to highlight the life of the cause. There were positive moments, and here’s the photo to prove it.”

Fueled by passion, determination and drive, Arturo Holmes has established himself as a leading entertainment, sports and fashion photographer in just a few short years. Now 32, the New Yorker understands that to achieve your dreams, you have to risk it all — but what else can you do when you hear the call of destiny?

Folkus is an ongoing series created with Getty Images that features Black photographers who put the focus on folks like us.

After realizing his initial career path on the pre-law track at Morgan State University was unfulfilling, Holmes had to make a decision quickly, and photography was it. He picked up a camera and taught himself how to shoot by studying on YouTube, constantly clicking the shutter and picking the minds of his “OPs” – original photographers, his mentors. Photography instantly became the perfect channel for Holmes to express his energy, intensity and lust for life. Moving at the speed of a “New York minute,” Holmes speaks rapidly. However, his focus is matched by his self-awareness. “Photography is my voice, my therapy and equally an opportunity to use my talents to motivate and inspire others to do the same,” he said.

Shortly after Holmes purchased his first camera, a few of the photos he took during the protests that occurred after the death of Freddie Gray, who died after being injured while in police custody in Baltimore, went viral. Holmes was on his way, but he wasn’t going alone. His mission is not just to succeed, but also to help those like himself and others: those who come from single-family homes with a mother doing whatever it takes to keep a roof over their heads. Now a staff entertainment photographer at Getty Images, Holmes is creating resonant photos of how we live today. Here we get to see how he went from lost to his journey of covering some of the world’s most exclusive events, including the 92nd Academy Awards, the 2021 and 2022 Met Galas, Super Bowls LIII and LIV, the MTV Video Music Awards (VMAs), and Vanity Fair.

“I grew up on Ralph Lauren,” said Arturo Holmes, a lifelong fashion lover. He photographed Gigi Hadid on the Ralph Lauren Fall 2022 Fashion Show runway at the Museum of Modern Art on March 22 in New York. “Runway is like shooting sports!”

Could you tell us about where you grew up and how that shaped your sense of identity?

I’m 32 years old, Capricorn, born in Queens, New York. I mainly grew up in Baltimore but Queens is in me as well. My story is pretty complicated, to be honest. But to keep it simple, my mother, Charlotte Thompson, raised me with her daughter, my sister Dionne Powell. They provided a lifestyle any kid would want. I grew up around art, admiring paintings and making figurines out of bread ties. My father and my biological mother weren’t really around. I didn’t get to grow up with my other siblings, so I learned from these ladies who showed interest in my well-being. I was fortunate to have the right people around me at the right time to help me see the light.

However, in college I entered my lowest point. I had no choice but to grow up, and that is when I began to have a sense of my identity. I became humbled. I listened more and made sure to ask questions for understanding and not just conversation. I learned patience. I accepted my family dynamic. Most importantly, I learned the value of time and a dollar.

“It was a surreal experience,” Arturo Holmes said of his first in-house assignment at the 92nd Academy Awards on Feb. 9, 2020, at the Dolby Theatre in Hollywood. “The pressure was real because my position was where the top image sold was from my spot, but it honestly never fazed me,” said Holmes, who photographed film directors Spike Lee (left) and Bong Joon-ho (right).
Arturo Holmes captured actor Ben Affleck (left) and singer Jennifer Lopez (right) on the red carpet for the premiere of The Last Duel at Rose Theater on Oct. 8, 2021, in New York. “I saw Ben Affleck look at me, and then they posed like this for me,” said Holmes.

One month after Arturo Holmes joined Getty Images, he learned that Charlotte Powell (right), the woman who raised him, had contracted COVID-19. She spent close to a month in a Baltimore hospital before returning home and receiving care from a nurse (left). “I was trying to use my gift behind the camera to get my mom’s spirits up,” he said. “I could tell she felt appreciated and seen. My goal was to get her on the front page of The New York Times or Baltimore Sun. Something like that.”
Arturo Holmes found a spot a few rows from the court at the 2022 NBA All-Star Game in Cleveland and photographed Giannis Antetokounmpo (left) of Team LeBron. “What makes this moment so special is not only was I able to tap back in my sportstographer eye, but I also was able to do it next to a few HBCU students who were shadowing me as a part of our NBA x Getty Images HBCU initiative,” he said.

When Arturo Holmes arrived at the 2021 Met Gala Celebrating In America: A Lexicon of Fashion on Sept. 13, 2021, he was positioned upfront, where he photographed the night’s final arrivals, rapper A$AP Rocky (left) and singer Rihanna (right). I asked them to stop for a photo,” Holmes said. “They posed for four or five snaps and the rest was history. Their photo landed a full page spot in GQ.”

Right after Arturo Holmes joined Getty, New York came to a halt as the coronavirus pandemic shut the city down. No longer able to shoot events, he searched for moments that depicted life on pause. “I saw a family walking down the street in SoHo and I wanted to capture its uniqueness,” he said of a young girl he photographed on April 24, 2020. “It was the one time you could be a young kid playing on the sidewalk and not worry about getting hit by a car — well, your parents worrying, for that matter.”

While backstage during the IN THE BLK Showcase powered by Change Fashion during New York Fashion Week: The Shows at Gallery at Spring Studios on Feb. 13, Arturo Holmes saw a model wearing House of Aama. “He was just standing there waiting and the light was hitting his skin perfectly,” he said. “I’m an emotional shooter and his eyes just spoke to me.”
Rushing to FedExField in Landover, Md., after covering an Army-Navy football game, Arturo Holmes ran to his spot on the sideline and photographed New York Giants running back Saquon Barkley break free from a tackle attempted by Washington cornerback Josh Norman on Oct. 28, 2018. “I just hoped I got something because I couldn’t tell about the framing or the focus,” he said. “This is probably my favorite photo.”
Can you speak about the lessons your family imparted on you?

As vast as my family is, I’m familiar with a few. So inherently, my family is my mentors, friends, mentees and loved ones. One thing they all have in common, though, they all showed immense belief in my passion for photography and never doubted my grind.

One moment that brought me into reality was an interview I saw of [TV host] Steve Harvey. He said to sacrifice frivolous spending and work your hardest in your 20s so that by [the] time you’re in your 30s, you’ve established yourself as a professional and by your 40s, you’re talking about retirement and/or living the life you see for yourself.

As far back as I can recall, a lot of my knowledge came from the barbershop. Without even getting a haircut, I would go there just to listen to what they had to say because I found it fascinating. Politics, sports, fashion, you name it, there was a meaningful conversation to join. There were people from all walks of life coming in for a cut and a good convo, so the knowledge truly was infinite.

Can you tell us about your mentor, Joseph C. McNeill?

Joseph C. McNeill is a person who saw me evolve from a boy to a man and is a huge reason for that. I love that man to death. He is a retired BCPS High School professor of 38 consecutive years, brother of the Omega Psi Phi Fraternity Inc. and Knights of Columbus. Joe is the only educator I know where generations of his former students still visit his home to check on him. He taught my best friend, who then introduced me to him when I was about 14 or 15. We became cool immediately. Joe was the dad/male figure I needed and deserved. He showed me what it looked like for a strong, stubborn man to admit when he’s wrong. He lives up to his fraternity’s cardinal principles of manhood, scholarship, perseverance and uplift. He’s just that guy.

If Joe didn’t come into my life, I don’t know who or where I would be. He has taught me so much directly and indirectly. When it came to photography, he saw the potential in my work and told me to see it through and trust the process. He said, ‘I see your growth and where you’re going to go. You might not see it right now, but you’re just hungry. You want it right now, but just know that you are where you need to be. Just wait for it. It’s going to come.’ Best advice I ever followed.

How did you get into photography?

I always say photography found me. I was a political science major, philosophy minor on the pre-law track at Morgan State University. My goal was to become an IP attorney or a sports agent. During my junior year, I realized this wouldn’t fulfill me. I didn’t want to waste money or have my integrity challenged. So I knew I had to figure it out fast.

In 2016, Joseph C. McNeill gave me a point-and-shoot camera. I took a photo while I was on campus, and the response I got from the people in the photo gave me chills. I realized that I had never felt that way about anything before and knew something was taking over me, seriously. It was the beginning of the semester, so once I received my tuition reimbursement, I bought my first camera, a Canon DSLR EOS SLR 1. I knew nothing about photography and went on YouTube to learn. Photography became that thing I could lose sleep over and not feel like I needed to be compensated. It ironically became my therapy.

The day after the Freddie Gray riots began, I realized I was going to pursue photography full time. I was working at Jos. A. Bank Clothiers selling suits — fellas, y’all know the ‘buy one, get one free!’ While I was assisting my clients, one of the security guards came into the store warning us not to go outside because the whole street was packed with protesters heading our way. I grabbed my camera and told my clients, ‘I’ll be right back. I gotta get this.’ Luckily they understood. My shots went viral. Those photos were published all over, including by the Baltimore Sun. The moment I saw my name under a photo, I took that [I] made it to print. It was clear this is where I wanted to take this.

How did you turn your passion for photography into a career?

Whew, I sacrificed a lot and put in a lot of effort. I lived by the credo, ‘You’re only as good as your last shot.’ I started off shooting still lifes and landscapes, but I knew I didn’t want to be a niche photographer. I decided to become either a professional sports team or a tour photographer. I reached out to big and small publications, pretty much anyone who would give me a shot. Concerts became my focus, then fashion, corporate and sports. People had to tell me to slow down because I just wanted to shoot. I would call out of work to shoot the BET Awards and not even get paid. I’d cover the Army-Navy game in Philly in the afternoon, then head to Landover, Maryland, to photograph the Washington Commanders in the evening. It took a lot of follow-up emails, IG/LinkedIn messages and fighting through the rejections.

In 2019, my friends at Disney/ABC followed me on Instagram after seeing a photo I took at a Yankees-Orioles game. Then eight months later, they reached out, told me they loved what I was doing and asked if I’d be interested in working with them. The next thing I knew, I was hanging with Rob Gronkowski, photographing him and his family in his hometown of Buffalo. A month later, I was shooting in-house for the first time — during the 92nd Oscars.

When you truly love something, you have to go all-in. Getty is the benchmark in our industry, so my motivation was to be equal or greater than what they’re producing contentwise. I never thought I’d ever see my name on the gray banner, but that would quickly change. My good brother, Aaron, introduced me to a decision-maker at Getty while we were wrapping up at the 2019 VMAs. We talked, and I signed with Getty as a stringer the next day. My first assignment was street style for New York Fashion Week. A couple of months later, I was hired as a staff entertainment photographer just a few weeks before the world shut down. If that’s not God, I don’t know what is.

How did you respond to the challenge of working during the early days of the pandemic?

I simply prayed for my freelancer friends. If I hadn’t gotten the job with Getty when I did, I wouldn’t have been able to continue to stay where I was living. I probably would have gone back to Baltimore or maybe decided photography wasn’t for me. I might have just reconsidered the military. I would have questioned everything! I was thankful and blessed.

When the pandemic began and the world shut down, we were no longer entertainment or sports photographers. We had to become photojournalists, go out there and find the story. I went to places like Times Square because there were never quiet moments like that in the city before. We had to get creative. When it felt a bit safer to go out, I tapped into a whole other perspective behind the lens. It also validated my appreciation for our news photogs. Cheers to them!

Arturo Holmes covers entertainment assignments such as annual award shows, corporate events, private parties, on-set stills, news conferences, fashion, film premieres and professional headshots for Getty Images. When he is not shooting for Getty, you can find him encouraging the youth on the world of photography, re-educating himself on his craft, enjoying a game of billiards and diligently planning for his future.

Photo by Arturo Holmes | Story text by Miss Rosen

Miss Rosen is a New York-based writer focusing on art, photography, and culture. Her work has been published in Time, Vogue, Artsy, Aperture, and Dazed, among others.