Sitting outside Angel City Brewery in the Arts District, Marcus Haney shakes his head in disbelief. A makeshift photo gallery is being set up by his team of interns, displaying four years of his improbable career as a concert photographer and documentary filmmaker.
The Arcadia native had nearly completed his junior year at USC in 2010 when he decided to do something that would change his life: Attend Coachella. He was broke and had no ticket, but the girl he liked at the time was heading to Indio, so he had no choice but to attend. After placing an ad on Craigslist offering a ride to whomever could paid for gas, Haney and his new pal Acid Chris hit the desert hoping to get into the festival.
Ticketless and with little prospect of getting in, Haney and his friend did the only rational thing they could do in that situation: They hid in a Port-A-Potty for hours before finally jumping the fence hours later to successfully sneak into day one of the festival.
That Saturday was the turning point in Haney’s life. He headed to Walmart, picked up some shoelaces and other essential goods to create a makeshift wristband. Haney arrived at Empire Polo Fields with a vintage camera from USC around his neck; security, taking a passing glance at the wristband and noticing the camera, assumed he was a credentialed photographer and shooed him in. Before being kicked out on the festival’s final day, Haney took hundreds of band photos and made a short film chronicling his adventure.
A few months later, Haney was given passes to Bonnaroo by the promoter in exchange for using his photos that he snapped at Coachella. Though he had a general admission wristband, he wasn’t allowed to bring his cameras into the event. With nowhere to securely leave his cameras, he snuck in again, and made another short film called Connaroo: How Broke Kids Do Bonnaroo that eventually, due to his own persistence, landed in the hands of Mumford and Sons.
Traveling and photographing his new famous friends has been a perk of the gig. But it’s also forced him to make some tough life choices, most notably when he decided to drop out of college two weeks before graduation in order to go on the 2011 Railroad Revival Tour with Mumford and Sons, Edward Sharpe and the Magnetic Zeros, and Old Crow Medicine Show.
While on that tour, Haney got his first taste of life on the road, and eventually, it became a profession. As upset as his parents were with his decision, they couldn’t help but beam when they found their son’s photos published in Rolling Stone on the day he was scheduled to graduate college.
He’s now Mumford and Sons’ official photographer. He travels with the band and took a photo for the cover of their Grammy-winning album Babel, which featured Grimm Grimm, a 67-year-old Welsh man he met after hitchhiking back from Glastonbury.
Sneaking into festivals across the globe — including again at this year’s Coachella — has come full circle. Those two short films that Haney made are now part of a larger project, No Cameras Allowed, which traces his journey from broke college student to respected photographer. Though only 26, Haney is armed with a staff of interns and is one of the most sought-after photographers in music. Haney hobnobs with rising bands like Grouplove, Young the Giant and Arcade Fire, and legends like Elton John.
Nowadays, with his stature as a renowned photographer, Haney is a couple of steps removed from his days of sneaking into festivals. But that doesn't mean he doesn't look back on those lean years with fondness, even occasionally sneaking friends in with him for the hell of it.
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“The journey I've been lucky enough to jump onto has been a pretty ridiculous one,” he says. “Just like anything, there's no telling when it will all be over. Even if it all just stopped today and I became a beach bum with nothing, I'd still count myself as the luckiest dude in the world.”
KCRW presents Marcus Haney's film No Cameras Allowed on Wed., July 23 at the Wiltern. Tickets available here.