Senny Mau | photo by Miguel Elias

Feeling Music through Senny Mau’s Photographs by Daniel Makagon

Jun 03, 2021

Part of the Seeing the Scene Series

Photography has not only been a tool for Senny Mau to document a variety of punk rock and indie rock bands but also an avenue to build community. Senny curates shows, works on community photography projects, and has been a key contact for other music photographers who want to bring their work to San Francisco. Senny’s explicit discussion about using music and photography as conduits to make friends and facilitate interactions with other people can be a template for other punks who want to find entry points into local scenes. And Senny highlights how the photography process facilitates forms of self-discovery.

Gulch | photo by Senny Mau

Daniel: How did you get into punk? What was the entry point for you?

Senny: I started getting into alternative music in middle school, at a time when you’re just trying to fit in. It’s kind of strange, because as a first generation Asian American, you have two cultures, but you are just finding your way. You have to decide what’s for you and what’s not. I get jealous sometimes when people say, “Oh, my dad got me into this.” That’s a huge part that I missed. I think that being lost and feeling disconnected in middle school really drew me to more alternative rock music. I grew up in Vacaville, which is a small town outside San Francisco. It’s not too far or too rural, but it’s still strange. [Laughs]

Daniel: I assume like many people, your entry point into alternative music was probably something a bit more mainstream but then you learned about other kinds of bands. Can you talk about what you tend to listen to and shoot now and how you got to this point?

Dangers | photo by Senny Mau

Senny: I like to photograph hardcore shows, and also indie rock and post-rock. But I entered via Blink 182, Green Day, that whole genre of mainstream pop punk. Then it became emo and melodic hardcore. Then when I came out of high school, I started going to school in San Francisco. I went to shows and made friends who were more interested in hardcore. Things like Bane, Terror, and youth crew hardcore bands. A friend of mine from home was like, “Why are you listening to this sad emo stuff? You should listen to this.” [Laughs] I tried it, really liked it, and went to shows all the time.

From there, it’s been wild. I really like straight edge hardcore and also really like skramz. Now I’m a little bit more mellowed out [laughs] and I’m also back to indie rock and back to pop punk and not feeling as silly about it. Pop punk is weird because it changes so frequently. I don’t know if it’s the same as when I first started listening to it years ago.

Daniel: I think the spectrum of pop punk bands is way greater than how people who aren’t fans describe this subgenre. People outside that subgenre are going to think Fat or Epitaph, but there is much more of a sonic spectrum, with different styles, bands, labels. Yeah. Can you talk about your history with photography and then share a bit about starting to shoot at shows?

Senny: Punk and photography kind of showed up hand in hand. I got a camera in middle school as well, and it was one of those point and shoot digital cameras. That was when I started making friends and hanging out because I wasn’t really allowed to do that. I spent a lot of time at home with my family. So, it wasn’t until around this time that I felt drawn to a group, like a family or a tribe. The friends that I was making liked going out to see bands, and I had never done that. But you know, you’re a kid and go out, you bring your camera along. “This is really cool.”

And things kept going from there. I didn’t go that frequently, but I enjoyed it. I have pictures from every show that I went to—um, before my hard drives crashed. I would post them on the internet and share them with people, and people would be stoked. They were garbage [laughs], but eventually I got better. I went to school for photography and have improved a lot since then.

Turnstile | photo by Senny Mau

Daniel: You took photo classes in high school? Or are you referring to art school, post-high school?

Senny: I took one class in high school, a film class. But I went to school for photography in San Francisco.

Daniel: You said that you shot every show you went to, but I assume early on, your photos function to document memories for yourself. At what point do you transition into making photos because you want to document shows more generally?

Senny: Yeah, it was just for memory for a long time and then after high school I started going to more shows because I was no longer living at home and parentally controlled. [Laughs] I was at college and living in San Francisco. I feel like someone who is alternative and into punk, but I still have this tradition of listening to mom and dad in my head. This might be cultural, or it might not be. I moved out, started going to school, started hanging out more. And every time I would go to a show, if it was a small gig, I’d bring my camera.

Then eventually I was like, “Maybe I could do this for a living. I just want to do more of this.” I took my pictures, some of them were good and some of them probably were not that good, and applied for this web blog that I liked at the time, fifteenminutemedia. I just cold-called them: “Hey, this is my portfolio. If you ever need a photographer, let me know.” They were like, “Yeah, sure. You got it.” I started to shoot for them, which was awesome. I went from shooting in venues like Gilman, where they let you bring your camera, to the Fillmore and the Regency Ballroom, the kind of venue you have to have a pass to be let in shows. Since then, I’ve done photos for SF Weekly, our city’s alt weekly, VICE Mexico, and other places. It’s been interesting.

Daniel: Aesthetically, what are you trying to do when you make a photograph? Does the space where you shoot alter your goals?

Senny: As a photographer my goals are to be able to display the musicians as reflected in their music. If they’re an indie band in a really nice theater then I want to keep in mind the vibe and feeling of the music. I want what their music sounds like to show up in the photograph that you’re looking at. Versus if I was photographing American Nightmare, I want the photograph to look like something else, grimier. It helps because the venues are always different. But if they were playing the Filmore then I want to think about how I can make their musical style and my photography style fit into each other in that space.

Lemuria | photo by Senny Mau

Daniel: You said you went to school for photography. What did you learn about photography more generally that you bring to your music photography?

Senny: I was able to control flash and lights a lot better. I don’t know if I have one particular style. I think my style changes based on the music that I’m photographing. But I like to capture the emotion of a person playing music no matter who it is. That would be a goal.

Daniel: Are you strictly focused on the band, or do you try to document what’s happening at that show more generally?

Senny: I generally like to photograph the bands only. Sometimes, because I have a lot of friends in music, then I’ll take a picture of them if I see them. They’ll probably never see it again [laughs] but I like to do that. I also really enjoy behind the scenes photographs of bands. I think the intimacy and closeness of the relationship between a photographer and a musician is really sacred. It’s kind of a very special relationship. I don’t have too many of them but… I’m kind of scared of people a little bit [laughs].

Daniel: I spoke with Courtney Coles and Erica Lauren Perez about To The Front. I know you’re involved. Can you talk a bit about working with a collective and other projects or collectives in which you participate?

Senny: To The Front reached out to me a few years ago because they were looking for a space in San Francisco to do a show. At the time I was curating more frequently so I did know a lot of resources for them. I don’t know if anything was big enough because San Francisco is so small and space is so expensive. It didn’t work out, but hopefully it will someday. But I love their mission.

Being a woman in music is so tough because music is so male-dominated. Photography is also male dominated. Having a space where women can shine is very nice. To be surrounded by like-minded photographers that like similar-ish music, that support each other, is really cool. To The Front has been extremely supportive of me. I’ve been working on this kind of mutual aid, camera kit giveaway where I’m giving away camera kits and giving away five classes to artists. They can learn film photography, and photography as a whole. The knowledge is interchangeable. I think To The Front has been the most helpful with resource sharing, and I feel extremely supported by them.

Daniel: Can you talk a bit more about the shows you curated?

Gallery for Broken Hearts

Senny: I still do a little, but not too much. For a few years I was doing the Gallery for Broken Hearts, and that’s a show that would happen on Valentine’s Day. It was an art show that you and your friends can go to if you didn’t have a partner to hang out with. The show itself was for artists who were healing from relationships, which didn’t have to be romantic. It could be self or family or friendship. The theme is basically healing. So, it was Valentine’s Day and people would come by to an opening reception. Some people in relationships would stop by to say hi and then go do their thing. Other people would come with their friends, and they would enjoy the show, hang out, have drinks, eat food, whatever we were doing at that specific show. It was cool because people came up to me and said, “This is great. If I didn’t know about this, I probably would be home watching Netflix right now.” That was really nice to hear because I had spent a lot of days like that and a day like Valentine’s Day that’s nothing but also holds so much.

I started it because I had been dating at the time but wasn’t sure what I was doing, and the person I was seeing was in the middle of ghosting me. Or I don’t know what they were doing, so I needed to focus my energy on something else instead of what this person was doing and how they were being not so great. You know, “Let me create something that I could do on this day; that I could be doing with my friends on this day.” And so I curated that show, which I think was 2016. I’ve done three of them.

Primal Rite | photo by Senny Mau

Daniel: Can you talk about the spaces for these shows and a bit about the ways you made use of the space in each place related to displaying the work?

Senny: The first one was in two shipping containers, so there wasn’t too much space. The second and third shows were at this non-profit called Code and Canvas. They were really kind to me and donated their space, which is everything because artist spaces are so expensive and limited. The shipping container was a little bit harder because the space was extremely limited. But I basically wanted to start on both ends. Imagine going into a space and starting off in one spot, and you want to make sure the show flows and tells, not necessarily a story, but the feelings are the same. But when there is a change, that needs to be taken into account, whether that’s a dramatic change or a soft change. There is art that can be used to help with a dramatic stop or to create a transition to a different feeling. It’s also different and tough because some spaces… not every wall is a good wall or a wall that holds artwork well. So, it was difficult. You want to see correlation in other people’s artwork and put them next to each other. If work from two people complements each other then maybe they should go together. Or if they’re “talking to each other,” maybe they should be next to each other.

Daniel: That’s really informative. You’ve been active with online outlets and then the embodied tradition of sharing art in space.

Senny: I have also done zines and published a small book as well. I also did this zine called Body Image that was images and personal essays. Other than that, it’s mostly photozines. It was all my photos. I guess I’m really self-absorbed. [Laughs]

Daniel: That’s way more common than group photozines.

Senny: It’s really hard to organize people. I want to and I try to, but it’s tough. So, I put out three zines and a book.

Daniel: Can you talk a bit more about your book?

Senny: I had been shooting a lot and I also was learning how to get a portfolio together in school, so I decided on a hundred page book. The photos are both color and black and white. Initially the book was to help me get work, which it did. It’s a collection of photographs that I took between 2010 and 2013. I was doing a lot of growing and a lot of self-discovery. The book helped me navigate the music industry more professionally as well as helped me become a little less shy. I met a lot of people and made a lot of friends while creating the book, some of whom I still talk to today. In school I learned to sequence photography portfolios. You want to start and finish strong and have a little kick in the middle in between some of the more subtle stuff. But looking back at the book now, I noticed that maybe my emotions got the best of me with some of my favorite bands. Growing!

Joyce Manor | photo by Senny Mau

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