Karl Shakur matched with Liisi LaFontaine on Christmas Day (Hinge, if you’re wondering.) They were living in LA and struck up a conversation that seemed to promise something more. The only snag? After their initial exchange, Liisi didn’t message him again. She just forgot. “It was Christmas!”
Square Mile Conversations
Karl Shakur and Liisi LaFontaine might be the coolest couple on the planet
One is a travel photographer with more than half a million Instagram followers and counting. The other is the star of Moulin Rouge!, the West End’s hottest show. Meet Karl Shakur and Liisi LaFontaine
Photography by Karl Shakur | Assisted by Marcel Flores
A few months later, she had started following Karl on Instagram without any recollection of their digital encounter. She liked what she saw – there’s a reason the travel photographer has nearly 600,000 followers. “Everything was a feast for the eyes,” recalled Liisi. “I didn’t just look at it once and keep scrolling. I was staring at it, looking at all the different components.”
One day, Liisi was scrolling through her past Hinge matches and recognised the handsome photographer from Instagram. She messaged, he responded, they got dinner and the rest is history – and also present and future.
Regular Square Mile readers will recognise Liisi from her profile a couple of issues back as the star of Moulin Rouge! – the stupendously successful West End musical adapted from Baz Luhrmann’s iconic film. She plays Santine, the beautiful, doomed courtesan who steals the heart of gauche poet Christian (and most of the audience).
During our interview, she mentioned her travel photographer boyfriend. As soon as we saw his Instagram – one of the most visually luscious pages on the internet, a cornucopia of colour and style – we knew we had to feature him. So we did – and we asked Liisi to act as our interviewer. Enjoy!
Liisi LAFontaine: How did you first get into photography?
Karl Shakur: Is there a life before photography?
Liisi LAFontaine Apparently not!
Karl Shakur I feel like I was born camera in hand, ready to go. Born as a 17-year-old man with the camera in my hand. That’s what happened.
Liisi LAFontaine: I don’t think that’s true. Where were you born?
Karl Shakur: I was born in Greenville, South Carolina while my parents were on vacation in the US. It’s a very small town in South Carolina. So I’d spend a lot of my summers visiting small towns around the US and also London as well, which is partly what sparked my desire for travel.
I’ve always been someone who has had like a restless feel, someone who wanted to get out and see more. It’s just my character. That’s kind of like the guy I was growing up.
Liisi LAFontaine So after Carolina…?
Karl Shakur: I moved to Nigeria. And then I lived in Nigeria for a few years and moved back for college.
Liisi LAFontaine: Where’d you go to college?
Karl Shakur: Kansas State University. And I’d say that is probably singlehandedly the most important reason that I got drawn to travel – because Kansas is one of the most boring places on the planet. You didn’t hear it from me first, and you won’t hear it from me last!
So on the weekends, after class on Friday evening, I’d pack my bags and drive 17 hours to the Grand Canyon, 12 hours to Colorado, 14 hours to Wyoming to the mountains to just get out of campus and see the world. I’d have to do the whole trip again on Sunday night just to make it in time for class on Monday morning. I’d do that maybe twice a month for at least my three, four last years in college.
Liisi LAFontaine: So he was studying architecture. He went to school, has this full Master’s in architecture. And I feel like that’s a big reason why your pictures look the way they do. They’re so symmetrical. You really know how to fill the space and how to balance the colour and light and all that good stuff. So it’s definitely helped you. And ultimately, if we build a house it’ll really help me as well! So that’s all that matters. Tell me about how you developed your creative process?
Karl Shakur: It has always been a hodgepodge of, like, looking at other people’s styles, other people’s creative processes, self taught myself on YouTube and just trying to make stuff work together. The idea usually sparks from seeing something on the internet – either seeing an image or seeing a short clip or seeing a movie scene that I want to recreate.
Liisi LAFontaine: Or hearing a song?
Karl Shakur: Ooh yeah, that’s a new one. Hearing like a pattern in a song that I think could pair well with some visuals and then seeking out to get those visuals. Sometimes I try to get those visuals from scratch – where I have this idea and I have to travel to some place and make that thing happen from scratch. And sometimes I already have this stuff sitting somewhere on my hard drive and it just makes me rush to the computer and click something together.
Liisi LAFontaine: What is your favourite place that you’ve ever been? Hard question.
Karl Shakur: Ooh. Well for this question specifically, I have various answers depending on who’s asking. First, I’ll start with my true, true favourite answer. It’s between two places: Bali in Indonesia and the Amalfi coast in Italy.
Liisi LAFontaine: Where all these pictures are from!
Karl Shakur: Yeah. Bali, because travelling there is incredibly, incredibly cheap. It was one of the cheapest places I’ve ever been to, especially for world class views and world class vibes. I spent a month there and I spent less than 300 bucks total for living, eating expenses, travel expenses, everything. I spent less than 300 bucks for a month, which is wild.
Drinks, nights outs, food, and that’s even on the high end. So it really helped me as a younger artist when I really wanted to spend my time doing stuff and didn’t wanna spend as much money. Bali really has a special place in my heart. Two whole summers I spent there. And then the Amalfi coast because, oh my God – every single corner, every single frame, every single view, every single vista looks like a postcard.
Liisi LAFontaine: Yeah, it’s pretty ridiculous.
Karl Shakur: You’re living in a colourful Italian postcard. I guess the pasta is kind of good, too.
Liisi LAFontaine: The food, oh my God. Literally every, every corner. So what’s your favourite place that we’ve been together? The Amalfi coast obviously is just ridiculous, but I think either Cabo or Mallorca is what I would say.
Karl Shakur: Really? Over the Amalfi coast?
Liisi LAFontaine: Yeah.
Karl Shakur: Over the Amalfi coast?
Liisi LAFontaine: Yeah. The Amalfi coast – the views and the food were unbelievable. But when it came to getting around, I was stressed the entire time. It’s just literally a city built into a cliff.
And so you’re winding around these little tiny roads, blind corners, full buses coming on the other side of the road, Vespas weaving in and out. I literally did not take a breath until we got from Point A to Point B, which is usually 30 minutes.]
Karl Shakur: On the other side of that, I’m the one who’s driving. So I feel in control of the vehicle. So I’m just like, whoah around these corners, crazy. These classic cars, having a fucking blast.
Liisi LAFontaine: Having a blast until…
Karl Shakur: Until I have a blast! You know what I mean?
Liisi LAFontaine: Yeah. But I feel like Mallorca – that place where we went, where we walked down and it was just that cove, that tiny little fishing house. And then you walk through that little thing and you went to a whole other cove. The food there was also unbelievable.
It’s less touristy, you know? We went not during peak season, so it was pretty quiet. And then Cabo is like a Mexican version of LA, is what it feels like, but that’s a very expensive trip. It’s not a cheap place to visit at all.
Karl Shakur: No, not at all.
Liisi LAFontaine: How are you learning to balance work and life? I feel like this is something we’ve been talking about a lot.
Karl Shakur: This is a very big question because I feel like it’s impossible to tell where I am in this process of learning. I’ve definitely not learned it yet. But I feel like what it is, is creating time for what needs to be done. Differentiating between when it’s time to work and when it’s not.
Because I’m self-employed, and because a lot of the places that I go to have fun are the places that I go to work, I find it incredibly difficult to differentiate the two. And that is a situation that can affect the people who are on the trip with you. It can affect the people on the trip because they think, ‘oh, are you working? Are you having fun?’
Liisi LAFontaine: Well, I also think working for you is fun. Working for you is a form of escape and you’re good at it. And it’s colourful and it’s pictures, you’re taking amazing photographs and videos in these beautiful places. Even when you’re working hard, there’s still an element of fun to it – which a lot of people can’t necessarily say.
I think we’re both lucky in that sense. We’re in career fields that other people would definitely define as fun, comparative to most career fields. It doesn’t mean it’s not hard work. It doesn’t mean it’s not exhausting. But I think that the balance is also really hard to figure out when you’re in your twenties cos you’re still trying to figure out just how to be an adult and how to balance.
Like, home stuff – cleaning your house and making sure your laundry’s done and your bills are paid. On top of working all the time and on top of trying to create a social life or maintaining your relationship or keeping up with your family – and for you, your family is so far away. So there’s just so many layers to it.
Karl Shakur: I think maybe the most vital thing for me recently has been defining what a trip is. So telling myself: this is the amount of work I’m gonna do on this trip. This is the goal of the trip. It’s the goal of the trip to relax, to refresh, to revitalize myself.
Then I try my best to change my camera from like a big DSLR setup to a more point and shoot, carry a camera around kind of vibe. And if it’s a ‘shoot-shoot’, if it’s a work shoot, then I focus more on working.
But differentiating it before you go on the trip helps to remind yourself: okay, this is the kind of personality, this is the kind of attitude that I need to be assuming over the course of the next couple of days.
Liisi LAFontaine: It’s hard for, I think, anyone else to really understand that. Because even me, who sees you work all the time, for me trips are breaks and vacations and getting away from my work and my life. And for you, going on trips is your work in life. So it’s a very interesting little thing because people take pictures on holiday.
We’re naturally gonna still take pictures on our vacations, but the quality and the level and the time and the setup and lighting and making sure everything is very different than what most people do on vacation. For sure.
Who are three people who inspire you? Three people you want to emulate in some way? They don’t all have to be photographers.
Karl Shakur: Well, one of them is a photographer. His name is Slim Aarons, he’s a photographer that was popular in the 1960s and the 1970s and his work has inspired a lot of my work. Wow, this is tough. I might need some time to think about this.
OK, second person I’d say is Anthony Bourdain for the amount of work he’s done for authentic travel and actually experiencing a place through food and culture. That’s somebody that I definitely want to emulate. You know, when he comes to telling stories of different parts of the world.
And then lastly, my mum, honestly – for her tenacity and her ability to keep up with old friends and to glue the family together. It takes a lot of work.
That’s something that you do as well. Very, very good at keeping up with people. Keeping up with high school friends, college friends, and making sure you’re part of people’s lives at different stages of their lives so that the connection and strength is built. Those are definitely the things that I am striving for right now.
Liisi LAFontaine: I love that, baby. Okay. Give me five words to describe yourself or five words to describe your photography style.
Karl Shakur: Adventurous. Definitely a little sporadic, not sporadic. What’s the word I’m looking for?
Liisi LAFontaine: Spontaneous.
Karl Shakur: Spontaneous. Adventurous, spontaneous – they go together like bread and butter. Happy, very happy. I feel like I’m genuinely a very easy laugher. I find it very easy to laugh at different stuff.
Even if it’s a smaller joke that we made at the beginning of the night, I’ll be cracking up at it over the next couple of hours. Very, very easy to laugh. That was four. Maybe a little bit particular, maybe a little bit particular.
Liisi LAFontaine: I would say…
Karl Shakur: I like things the way that I like things and I like them like that. For example, I don’t like a tomato on a burger. Why would you put a juicy little veggie on a burger? I’ll take a jalapeno, sure. But tomato? Too soft, too sloppy, too squishy. Gonna mess up the vibe.
I also like my beds made in the morning. When the beds are already made when you get in at night, it’s nice.
Liisi LAFontaine: But that’s not that particular…
Karl Shakur: I like my shirts perfectly creased. Ironed. I get very, very particular about the level of iron on my shirt.
Liisi LAFontaine: He almost threw a fit in Rome cos he couldn’t get an iron. He was like, ‘I need an iron! We can’t go out! I can’t wear this shirt! It’s not ironed!’
And definitely in your work as well. We were just on a trip with other photographers. Karl is always setting up the shot. He’ll be, like, ‘a little to the left, a little to the right.’ This is the shot I want!
I’ll ask a question about the two of us. How do you think our careers work together? It’s often difficult for two artists to be in a relationship together.
Karl Shakur: Really? Is that a thing?
Liisi LAFontaine: Yes, baby. Are you being sarcastic?
Karl Shakur: I’m not being sarcastic. Is that a thing?
Liisi LAFontaine: Yes! That’s why all these celebrity couples break up. So there’s always drama and people writing albums about other songwriters. It’s egos. There’s too much ego. Feel like that’s one of our biggest issues…
Karl Shakur: Say it one more time.
Liisi LAFontaine: The question is – how do our careers work together or fit together? When it comes to the balance between our careers and our relationship, I feel like there’s a lot of things that work together. I am not a model, but I do love a good pic.
I’m comfortable in being the centre of attention and being the subject of things, you know? That would be much different than if I was like, ‘please, no don’t, I don’t want the camera.’
Also when I need images or vibes or stuff I can always go to you. If you need to shoot ‘couple content’ or anything like that, if you need a model…
Karl Shakur: I think maybe the biggest thing is when you find a groove and you’re able to collaborate on certain things. Remember that time we were sitting in your living room and we taking that photo with the sun lamp?
It was so nice. When you hit, like, a little boost spot, when you get it right, it feels so nice and it helps to boost the vibe. You give me ideas to make me a better artist and I feel like I can give you ideas to add to your stuff as well.
It just gives you a different perspective that you can depend on that is valid, because you know the person’s taste and you know where everything’s coming from. So I’m truly like, can you gimme insight, gimme feedback? I’m truly considering what it is that you tell me because I trust your taste.
Liisi LAFontaine: Yeah. And we have similar tastes, for sure. We like similar things and music and styles and movies and stuff. But it’s definitely still a balancing act, as we were talking about before, of trying to balance the bigness of both of our lives and careers, and also celebrate each other and help each other where we can and be in each other’s stuff but also not make it work all the time, you know? It’s very layered.
Okay. And lastly, what would you say to people wanting to get into the photography or influencer space?
Karl Shakur: I get this question very frequently.
Liisi LAFontaine: I’m sure.
Karl Shakur: I’d say consistency. Consistency is your friend. Whatever it is that you want to do, have consistency and regularity be the vehicle of getting that across. So if what you want to do is paint, and to be known on social media for painting, you just need to paint and paint again and paint again and paint often.
Get your images of your paintings out there, videos of your paintings out there, and do it at a very consistent level because the growth is very parabolic. It’s very, very slow in the beginning of the grand process, but the more you do stuff and the more you get stuff out there, the more you’re able to grow in the future. And when you eventually hit that one thing, it’ll retroactively boost all the other stuff that you’ve done.
So consistency, consistency, whatever it is. Putting stuff out there at a consistent level will help get you out there. That I’d say is probably the single most important thing when it comes to building an online presence.
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Liisi LAFontaine: Thank you so much for your time today. What a treat to have you in the studio.
Karl Shakur: It is insane that we made this happen. I’m editing these photos at the same time.
Liisi LAFontaine: Yeah. Truly as we speak, the pictures are being touched up. This photo set, we really wanted to kind of just encompass the feeling of an Italian summer. Give a little black luxury, you know, put a little brownness into it.
Karl Shakur: Yes, yes.
Liisi LAFontaine: Capture like all the things that people love about Italy: the stunning coastlines, specifically the Amalfi coast, and these beautiful old cars and gorgeous Vespas, romantic night-time moments.
My favourite thing about Karl’s photography is that it really transports you. You look at the picture and you feel like you’re there. I’m looking at these photos now and I can literally feel the sun on my skin. So hopefully this shoot does that for the readers as well.
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Follow Karl Shakur on Instagram: @karl_shakur and Liisi LaFontaine: @liisilafontaine. Liisi stars in Moulin Rouge! The Musical at the Piccadilly Theatre. moulinrougemusical.co.uk