INTERVIEW: KIRSTEN MILLIRON (MILLIRON DESIGN)

Kirsten Milliron (Milliron Design)

For many in the Rochester music community, Kirsten won’t need any introduction. But for those unfamiliar with Kirsten’s reputation, let me start by saying that there is an amazing human being at work behind her many photographs and works of graphic design. Kirsten is a tremendous advocate for a peaceful, inclusive, harmonious music community, and we would like to honor her for her tireless efforts in making that dream a reality via the following interview.

1. Can you recall what it was that first inspired you to pursue a career in photography and graphic design?

The word career is really weird because I don’t actually consider what I do to be a career per say. I’ve always done lots of little artsy fartsy things growing up, and I naturally fall towards using those skill sets to help my friends. I started product photography as a favor to my Gramammy [Hi Gramammy!,] I started book publishing as a favor to a friend, I don’t even remember what got me started in graphic design as I’ve done that as long as I can remember, and concert photography was something I picked up to, you guessed it, help some friends. In this case, specifically, I wanted to shoot Mother Nature’s Son, and am still itching for a chance to shoot The Living Braindead! It’s definitely less of a career and more of a fun way to support my friends on a budget, and sometimes make a bit of cash on the side while I’m at it.

2. Do you have days when you can’t stand editing photos, and you just want to design from scratch all day?

It’s probably the opposite. I really need to get more designs made for my apparel shop, but photo editing is much more fun. It’s photo culling [the process of deleting photos that aren’t good or worth the time fixing] that’s probably the least ADHD friendly chore. On those days, I play some music, and set timers to make sure I give my eyes a break.

3. What’s your opinion on the MidJourney AI bot and other similar bots sweeping the internet? A lot of designers are angry, feeling that the bots are putting them out of work, but you seem to be

embracing MidJourney and using it to enhance your product.

Without a single exception at the time of writing this, all the artists I personally look up to and have seen voice their opinion about AI in art are absolutely for it, as am I. I’m not exactly at a show calling someone a poser for using an overdrive pedal instead of getting the sound naturally via actual volume overdrive, so why would someone grill me about wether or not an asset from one of my designs was generated versus hand-crafted? AI is a tool like anything else. Pre-MidJourney, I was still using so many tools on a day-to-day basis that someone would have called cheating even just a few years ago. Lightroom has smart masking features and auto-adjustment options. Photoshop can render light flares or simulate light leaks. What’s going to set apart artists with MidJourney and casuals with MidJourney is the knowledge and skill that an individual brings to the table. As more and more people I know continue to use AI, even just posting on their own timelines for funsies, you can really tell the difference between someone putting in a prompt and sharing the result, and an artist that is fine tuning the inputs, carefully selecting the outputs, and even then adjusting everything more in post-processing. Personally, I am super excited that this is going to provide some options for bands that are operating on a shoestring budget, as well as get more people into computer science and the arts who otherwise would not have considered these topics fun or accessible.

4. What’s your personal code of conduct for potential clients? In other words, what should bands, individuals, and other businesses or entities know BEFORE contacting you?

I think a big one for me is just respecting time. I try to help a lot of people, I have mental health issues, and I work full-time. Since I am always juggling a million things at once, the person that comes to be with more fleshed out questions and ideas and respects my space is going to get a response a lot faster than someone that’s the human equivalent of 17 open browser tabs. The easier it is for me to help you, the quicker I will do it. To give some examples, I once had someone approach me about album art.

They had no idea what they wanted, they were just told I could probably help. I sent them easily more than 5 questions to get a feel for aesthetics and maybe loosen them up a bit, and they answered precisely zero of those. On the other hand, I’ve had someone approach me asking me about photos, and one of the first things they did was apologize for how disgustingly picky they were about to be. They had a color scheme, they had a location, they had the level of CONTRAST they wanted. I’m sorry, you apologized for what? I just wanted to reach through my phone, grab their face, squish the crap out of it, and tell them I would literally die for them if they asked. So yeah, guess which one of them I was willing to work with.

5. What’s your favorite product that you’ve designed in recent memory? Why is it so special?

This one’s a toughie. I’ve got a LOT of favorites. It’s a natural downside of being an enthusiastic person, I suppose. The most recent one that struck a note would be “Deer God,” which was my first attempt at using AI generated assets. There’s a few layers to why it’s one of my favorites. Layer one, I’ve been in a bit of a rut, just kinda barely treading water as far as life in general goes, and this was one of the first designs I’ve made in months that I was actually proud of. I’m not out of the rut yet, for sure, but it is definitely the first of many footholds I have leveraged to get myself out. Layer two, I actually only had a month of MidJourney, and that was gifted to me by a very very dear friend, and as such I will always associate this piece with him and everything he means to me. Layer three, this image was so far from what I had planned, as many AI hobbyists can probably relate to. Where I was shooting for a more Princess Mononoke-inspired demi-god, MidJourney felt as though I needed a throwback to my roots, and sent me a creature that felt more like The Beast from Over The Garden Wall. Incidentally, another product I am very proud of and think of fondly is my “Beware the Beast” design. This was actually selected by Cartoon Network employees to be part of their licensed program with Redbubble [the hosting website where I sell my merchandise.] There are very few things that will yeet the imposter syndrome out of your soul than one of your favorite animations saying “Yo, we like you, and we want your art to represent us.” The overall feeling of “Deer God” is, I like to think, hopeful while surrounded by destruction and decay, which just really ties into all the bits of my life that brought me to even being able to make that design happen.

6. What are some of the most memorable concert experiences that come to mind when only considering shows you’ve taken photographs at?

Oh thank god, an easy question. A welcome break after that last one. Back to the topic of imposter syndrome, when I had applied to get a press pass for Polaris’s Rochester stop on their international tour, I was honestly half-joking. I had made a joke on my personal page about how I feel confident enough in my photography that I will no longer be getting ignored by publications, but rather I will be getting ignored by artists’ press contacts directly, thank you very much. While actually being accepted to shoot that show for both Polaris and Alpha Wolf was insanely unreal in and of itself, being in the photo pit for such energetic shows just really gives you some perspective you wouldn’t get from the main floor. From the pit you see both the artists and the crowd, or you should if you’re moving and doing your job well, and all the dynamics that are at play. Imagine being at a show and Alpha Wolf tells you to rush the stage. Now imagine being the only thing that’s BETWEEN the people and the stage. Thankfully, I wasn’t too at risk, as being a metal show-goer does give me some practice in situational awareness, which brings us to the actual most memorable concert experience in my shooting career.

I’m sure we’ve all noticed it. Something about the pandemic and lockdown just really made a lot of people think to themselves “wow, I wanna start going to concerts.” Every show I have gone to, minus local showcases, has been full of people who were clearly new to the scene. Nothing wrong with that, as everyone’s new at some point, but my lord, maybe start with NOT a hardcore show. Even at pop punk shows, I’ve seen people hugging the rails complaining about fog machines, the heat, and crowd surfers. Every hardcore show, especially, has had at least one tough guy try and start a fight because he or a friend, or even a stranger, got hit when standing too clsoe to the pit. People are jumping into these scenes with no concept of etiquette and seemingly no one more seasoned to help ease them into things, and unfortunately that can get dangerous really fast.

Which brings us back to Polaris. They’re not an extremely heavy band by any means, but they were the headliners, and every band before them [locals Destroy//Create included, check them out] brought the heat and energy. This show was full of new faces, including one group of boys I watched try to start a cute push pit during Invent//Animate and get wrecked, one guy trying to fight over a girl, who claimed she didn’t even know him mind you, getting kicked for standing too close to the pit, and many rail huggers turning around every time a pit broke out, gawking like tourists and clearly so absolutely enthralled that I’m sure I’ll run into them at even more shows in the future. All this energy, and all this new blood, is a recipe for disaster. I myself was a bundle of nerves, still convinced that when I try to enter the photo pit for Polaris, security is gonna realise I don’t work for press, or they’ll not wanna see my email granting me access, or so many things that could still go wrong and rob me of this moment. I get in the pit. I’m allowed in the pit. No one is telling me to leave the pit?? Imposter syndrome is going full force, but no one yanks me out last second when Polaris takes stage. All the anticipation in the room BOILS over, with eyes glued to the stage, crowd surfers hoisted in the air, and instruments pick up to being “Pray for Rain.”

I start snapping, just absolutely finally in work mode, but still constantly looking over my shoulder as both a hardcore vet and someone who almost got crowd rushed during Alpha Wolf. Now my biggest bit of advice, as I’ve shouted at new showgoers many many times, is to always have some sort of floating attention budgeted to security. Security is going to be the first to see a crowd surfer, or someone starting a fight and not just a pit. For those of you reading this who may not have gone to shows like this, imagine a crowd surfer being hoisted behind you, moved forward, and there’s no one there to stop their weight from crashing down on you because you yourself weren’t even paying attention. Now imagine seeing just that happen, as a crowd surfer is hoisted over a group of new showgoers that do not catch them, and you see one girl go down, smashing her face on the rails, hitting the ground, and NOT getting back up. I reach the crowd surfer shortly after security and manage to keep them from crushing the stationary body underneath them. After checking with my friends after the show, they confirmed that people noticed Polaris vocalist Jaime Hails drop to the stage floor and stop singing, but no one other than the people immediately surrounding the point of impact saw what had happened. It was an incredibly tense few minutes as the girl’s friends got her back up, and she shook off any request for medical assistance. Hails was an absolute class act and didn’t get back up from his crouched spot at the front of the stage until his fan signalled everything was okay.

That wasn’t my last time shooting a show with a major injury or close call [Diluted’s last ride, anyone?] but it was the first time I became acutely aware of what exact position I’m in, and how often I may be one of the first people to witness and respond to something like that.

7. When did you first consider yourself a “professional” or a “legit business” in the community? What led you to this milestone?

This may seem oddly specific, but November 2021, after shooting locals as they opened for VCTMS and Born A New. My first show felt like an absolute fluke, that imposter syndrome again. My second show was Mother Nature’s Son, the show I actually bought my first camera for. That also felt like a fluke. Of course I liked these photos. They’re photos of my friends! The next show, Fall Fest in Rochester which showcased locals Inherence, Aggressive Betty, ReapR, and Misery Falls, was my first metal show, and that lighting test the everlasting crap out of me. I ended up making more photos black and white than color to try and hide the grain and extreme editing. I did learn from that, and went into my fourth show, another locals showcase, with a better understanding of lighting, and I even specifically went out of my way to challenge myself to make a certain number of photos per band in color. I wanted to tear my hair out, it was that frustrating. Really glad I did it, because my understanding of concert lighting and editing skyrocketed from that one challenge alone.

Of course, I still had imposter syndrome, so I thought those color photos were just a fluke (laughs). It wasn’t until my second show where I challenged my editing and settings to be “color-worthy” that I had to accept this wasn’t a fluke. I was shooting with a Canon t7, a great camera, but not ideal for concerts at all with its slow focus and meager 3-photos-per-second burst rate. After the Born A New show though, I had to accept that I was actually now hindered by my gear, not technique, and I’m actually good enough to justify a bigger camera upgrade. I think when you get to the point where you have to move past entry-level gear to improve, you are contractually obligated to admit you are no longer an entry-level hobbyist.

8. You’ve been posting a lot about public safety and awareness of uncomfortability issues at shows lately. What is your message to those who are afraid to speak out about issues they’re having in the scene?

My message to those afraid to speak out is that there is no message. I jokingly tell everyone that I’ve struck out, socially. Strike one, born a woman. Strike two, being a card carrying member of the LGBTQ+ club. Strike three, being disabled. I’ve got quite a bit of perspective regarding the art of when to speak out and when to save the energy for a more opportune time, and really the big thing is whether you have the energy. Speaking up about something is never one and done. When you speak out, you invest more energy than some more privileged people may know of, as you now have to deal with the backlash of abusive people, well-meaning but emotionally-obtuse people with questions, fractured friendships and relationships, and I really could go on, but the point is it is an investment. For some people, the energy required to speak up isn’t as steep as others. I am, quite frankly, pretty blunt, used to trauma, and pretty good at cutting people out. Speaking truth to power for me is more of a habit than a conscious decision, but I recognize that as privilege. Some people can’t speak out because they’re still processing. Some people can’t speak out because they’re already hanging on by a thread and are trying to rest before they jostle their life lines any more than they have to.

If I were to have a message, I’d rather direct it to those who don’t have issues with the scene, or those who dismiss what they hear about the scene. People talk. It’s a fact of life, and communication is one of the ways that life of every species has sustained itself over literal millennia. As someone that other people consider safe, and this means someone who listens, who acts, who knows when to hold back, and who knows how to hold space for those who aren’t ready to act, I hear quite a bit. I hear from musicians, models, show goers, photographers, and I hear about all those people as well. If you, yourself, personally, have never heard of an issue within the scene, check yourself, and check yourself HARD. If you think things are safe, really ask yourself who the scene is safe for. If you haven’t heard of any issues, ask yourself why people don’t feel safe to talk to you about their issues. Nine times out of ten, if someone isn’t kept in the loop about who to avoid in the scene or what’s going on, they’ve been marked as either an unsafe person or someone who doesn’t listen.

To summarize; Speak up if you can, don’t beat yourself up if you can’t, and reevaluate your conduct if you don’t see anything to speak up about.

9. Would you say that most of your most valued relationships in life have been spawned from your relationship with the local music community?

100%. I think what a lot of people under-estimate is how far networking can get you. I managed to move to Rochester because I knew someone who happened to have an available room the month I could move, and I had partied with this guy once. I got into book publishing because a musician I was jamming with had a partner who wanted to get published, and I happened to be bored enough to learn how to do it. I think people approach relationships of all sorts rather backwards. You meet someone on a date and you count it as a failure if that person doesn’t seem to be a romantic match for you, and might miss out on what could be your next business partner. You get to work and refuse to talk to a terrible coworker because they’re a terrible coworker, and it turns out they aren’t compatible with this work but would have otherwise been your next best friend. I never understood it. To me a new person isn’t some categorized creature that outputs a binary of success or failure. I got to this point in my creative career because I just rode every wave thrown at me as far as I could while being my most authentic self. Besides doing wonders for my personal fulfillment, people love that authenticity. I can walk into a show and be warmly greeted by at least one person, but I only got there by going into shows on my own just ready for adventure. Taking life for a ride is gonna have its bumps and dead-ends and you’ll run into a lot of inauthentic people that wanna feed on your own energy, but that should never keep you from chugging along and filling your tour van with as many [consenting] authentic people as you can.

10. When considering “professionals” or “good people”, who are some bands or colleagues you would most readily recommend to people who are new to the Rochester music scene, but are interested in exploring it?

That is going to greatly vary based on what they want to get out of the scene, as well as their overall personality. Not everyone meshes with everyone and that’s okay. If someone was yeeted into Rochester, no safety net, no friends, no clue who any of these bands even are, my game plan would be pretty straightforward.

Step One; Go to shows. Local showcases, specifically.

Step Two; Find a band you like, ask them if they’ve got a Facebook group. If they don’t, they can probably direct you to someone who does. There are so many little micro-hubs online right now, with plenty of overlap, that it would be nearly impossible to make friends if you tried.

Step Three; Profit. The great thing about these online micro-hubs is that you’re not limited to bonding with people you met in Rochester. I’ve got friends I’ve met through local bands that live in Arizona, Kentucky, even met someone in the UK that’s become one of my dearest friends. And if that all seems kinda scary, go with the back up plan. Buy a camera, get good, and let new friends come to you.

To grab a physical copy of our October ’22 issue where you can find this interview and more, click the image below!

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