Written by: Toni Nittolo and Natalie Corey
As we come towards the end of a long month of appreciation honoring the women in our community, we have Tessa Paisan, freelance photographer and bombshell babe that is making serious headway in the music industry. We were so excited for the chance to talk to Tessa. We had an awesome opportunity to learn and celebrate the part that she plays in empowering herself and other women in the music industry.
We’ve spent too long talking about a woman who truly needs no further introduction…. Tessa Paisan.
Natalie Corey, Electric Hawk: How did you get started in photography? And how did that evolve into what you’re doing right now? How have you gotten from point A to point B?
TESSA: Firstly, I started with an interest in things like the sunset, photographing nature, and stuff like that. Then I started attending festivals when I was maybe 16 or 17, and that was just a whole new world for me that I was really immersed in and I was really interested in being a part of. I met this one girl who was a good friend of mine and I ended up living with her. She was shooting shows for music outlets and stuff like that, and I honestly had no idea how you were even able to take photos at shows. Then I reached out to a local outlet and they were like, “Yeah, sure, you can take photos for us,” or whatever. So I just started doing that for free. I was taking photos of local people in my area, just to build my portfolio.
Once I got to a good enough portfolio, I started interning with Dancing Astronaut. They definitely helped me get to know more people and I eventually started photographing for artists like Rezz, and other people like that. But it was still just an internship. Once my portfolio was to that extent, I started reaching out to people by myself. Just saying, “Hey, here’s my portfolio, this is who I’ve taken photos of…” and people started hiring me.
The first person I went on tour with was Liquid Stranger. They flew me out for a bunch of festivals with them in summer of 2018, and I got exposure to touring and traveling. And then you know, the word of mouth just kind of went around and it was just kind of like a huge snowball effect.
Toni Nittolo, Electric Hawk: You started off based in Florida, correct? Why did you move to Los Angeles? To help build your career or to have greater access to the music industry?
TESSA: When I first started taking pictures, I was in my hometown of Naples, Florida; super boring – no shows or anything there. I would have to drive three hours just to get to a decent venue. Then, I moved to Tampa for college, and there’s a bunch of venues in that area. That’s when I really got to start shooting every weekend. I definitely had been wanting to move out of Florida for some time. There’s nowhere near as much going on there.
I graduated from college in December 2018, and I wanted to move, but I felt like I didn’t have a community of people to where I could move and still have a decent amount of friends. As I kept building, LA was always on my radar. Even though I moved in the middle of the pandemic, it just kind of worked out. LA seemed like the right place to be. There’s a great airport, so you can get to a bunch of places internationally. There’s so much going on, all up and down California.
When shows do come back, I think this will still be the best location for me. Not only because of EDM but because the music industry, in general, is so prevalent here. There’ll be a lot of opportunities for me going forward. Also, Denver is a little skip across the way, so there are things happening all the time.
TN: What, to you, makes a good synergistic relationship between the photographer/videographer and the artist? What yields the most favorable creation on your side?
TESSA: The more I enjoy someone’s music, the more I feel like I can visualize and capture the general vibe. If their vibes are a bit creepy, then I want to use more darks and reds in the photos. Maybe they’re more lighthearted, and I want to do little star sprinkles and use sunset colors. In general, it’s not just me relating to and enjoying the music of who I’m working for. Although I think that’s definitely a huge portion of it.
It’s also just clicking with whoever I’m working for. I’m definitely a very outgoing person, so I click pretty well with the people that I’m working with. When I click with someone, I produce the best work. Getting to know them not just on an artist level, but on a personal level. It builds that relationship, especially as you’re touring with someone all the time. You see someone at their worst when you’re on tour. You’re waking up at like 4 am sometimes, you haven’t slept, you’re in different countries, and you just look and feel like shit. That’s a deep connection that you form. I feel like once you really start touring with someone, you form that connection and understand them on a deeper level.
NC: Are there any people you think of when you talk about that specifically? I know you mentioned Liquid Stranger. Anyone else that comes to mind that inspires specifically those things in you and your artwork?
TESSA: Definitely Rezz. She’s one of my best friends and I definitely have enjoyed her music for a long time now. It’s always super exciting whenever she shows me new stuff. I feel like her career is probably the most inspiring electronic music to me because I definitely have felt a lot of dark vibes in my life as well. And it just kind of almost helps you get through those feelings in a way. For me personally, I also just like the aesthetic that matches with that sound as well. I have a bunch of weird tattoos and shit. I just feel like it matches the visuals that I prefer the most.
TN: In relation to building your independent career – was there a turning point for you in which you realized you can break away from working through outlets/publications? When you realized you could be confident as a freelance photographer?
TESSA: A lot of fellow photographers were the ones who really helped me build my confidence of knowing that I could do it by myself. Then, when I started getting paid, I thought, “Oh, I can do this myself.”
At the same time, I always knew that I would find success with what I do because I felt so passionately about it. I think that’s an inner confidence thing that you kind of already need to have. Know that if you try and don’t give up that it’s gonna happen for you. When I was first getting started I had to email people, “Hey, I’ll be at this festival! I’m free to shoot and here are my rates.” A lot of people straight up didn’t answer. But I knew that that was going to be part of the process. Once you accept that, you find that confidence in yourself to keep trying. It’ll happen as long as you try.
NC: You said it went from being emails and not getting responses to…. ? What has it expanded into? What is your full range and what have you been doing during the pandemic?
TESSA: Yeah, I sell prints! Obviously, with the pandemic, it’s been a shit show. But I’ve kind of made up for that during all of this by selling prints. I’ve been offering photography classes as well via Zoom. I also made photo editing presets that are super helpful. I still do studio shoots here and there, but obviously, I want to be cautious with meeting people in person and whatnot.
TN: Do you often find yourself taking portraits when you’re not shooting shows, and is it something you enjoy?
TESSA: I actually love taking portraits! Especially when I get to have some sort of creative direction with it. I suppose it depends on who I’m shooting. If I’m shooting with someone I don’t know and we’re not in a creative situation, then I’m more like, “Just get that bag.” If I’m taking photos with a friend I’m comfortable with, I’d probably have a lot of fun with it. But, if we’re in a studio, and maybe I’ve designed some type of set, that’s where I shine. I did one recently where I made these cloud lamps and had colored lighting. That was awesome! Honestly, anything where there’s some type of weird artificial lighting is when I feel like I truly thrive.
TN: You have done a lot for creating your own path and career. From shooting local shows and building your portfolio, to working with Dancing Astronaut, and finally paid to work with artists. Do you have any advice for people who would like to follow a similar career path?
Tessa: The biggest piece of advice I could give (other than being a good photographer) is to just be personable. Get to know everyone you can, because you never know who you’re going to meet. That shy person next to you in the corner; you might not know who they are, but they might actually be the artist’s manager. Making those personal connections and being able to get along with someone in that way is really helpful in the long run. They’re going to trust you more, and they’re gonna want to bring you places with them.
That’s the ultimate goal, right? To go on tour because you’re getting so much work. It’s hard to get really consistent work if you’re staying in one stagnant place. So my biggest piece of advice is to just be friendly and outgoing. Also, don’t be afraid to reach out and give things a chance. The worst thing they’re going to do is say no, and then you move on and try to get work with someone else.
Finding your power through your work
NC: So Happy Women’s Month! We’re happy that you’re here and blessed to have you as a part of this industry. I know that there are a lot of women out there that look up to you. How do you think being a woman in the music industry has impacted you and your work?
TESSA: God that’s such a difficult question. I feel like it’s not an easy task. In a lot of industries, being a woman fucking sucks because you’re gonna have the lower hand of things. But I feel like as long as you can find those women who inspire you in your industry, as long as you can see someone leading the way for you, it’s really helpful to not get you down all the time. There have definitely been times where managers treat me like shit or be like, “Oh, well, you’re a woman. So I’d have to get an extra hotel room for you because we can’t just bunk.” I’ve met security guards who don’t believe that I am the photographer. And, you know, just a whole lot of bullshit.
But I honestly have never really let that get to me. I’ve been pissed and I’ve popped off on a couple of people, but I’ve never let myself feel weak about it. I don’t ever want to give a man the satisfaction of thinking that he’s controlled me, or swayed my opinion. I’m the f***ing boss bitch, and you can’t do anything about it. I just think it’s really important to have that mindset coming into any male-dominated industry. You are just as good, if not better, than the men around you. And whatever they say is just because they’re jealous little bitches.
NC: And I’m sure that lesson kind of played into your evolution into sex work? When you started did you already have your understanding that men can’t dictate and control what you do with your life?
TESSA: I think, with being a queer woman, there was a very long time where I just had zero interest in men whatsoever. Nothing they could say, or do, could affect me in any way, so I literally felt unstoppable. Now, I have a boyfriend! He’s just like me. He’s just f***ing awesome, but that’s a whole different story. There was a long point in time while I was in college discovering myself where I just didn’t give a shit about what any man thought. A lot of the music I listened to, like Megan Thee Stallion and Trina, embodied this. They’re these female rappers that were saying, fuck men, they’re gonna do these things to you, so do it right back and do it even better. And that really inspired me to be like, “Why would I ever let like a man put me down.”
When it comes to sex work, the original idea in my head was like, “Okay, I have this body, these are things that straight men desire… How can I use this to my advantage?” The first time I actually did sex work I was 19, in college, and I did camming. I was like–okay, I’m just gonna go on there, and I’m going to talk to these weirdos. If they tip me, they can see my boobs, and that’s that.
For me, it just kind of became this empowering thing. These people were going to be creepy either way. So, like, I might as well make money off of it. I took that power back into my own hands instead of allowing the male gaze to view me the way they wanted to. I took that power and created my own narrative, and I got paid to do it. So you know, sex work is something that gave me that power when I was feeling a bit low about the way that the male population perceived me.
TN: Was there ever a point in your life where you like felt differently about sex work?
TESSA: I guess the only time I didn’t feel the same about it was when I was younger. I was raised Catholic, and it was all, “conceal your body,” and I just didn’t understand it. When Miley Cyrus was popping off with “Wrecking Ball,” I was so confused. I thought, “Whoa, she’s not a feminist. She’s showing off her body.” Then people said, “No, bitch, that’s what feminism is; you can do anything you want with your body.” I just didn’t know because of the way I was raised. I was 15 at the time. That totally changed my entire frame of mind, right then and there, to who I am today. It changed how I view things. And it allowed me to take ownership over my body and the way that I’m perceived.
TN: There is still the problem of how people perceive sex workers. Have you ever had to face the negative opinions of men in the music industry as a result of the sex work that you’ve done on the side?
TESSA: Honestly, no. No one gives a shit. They literally don’t care, which is amazing. No one even batted an eye. The music industry is a very sex-positive place. Obviously, it depends on what genre you work in; if I was in Country Music, they’d probably be like “Whoa!” But I know a lot of the people who work in the industry, and they know me and my personality. No one felt differently about me. I consider myself lucky. I’m actually taking a break from OnlyFans right now, just because my brain’s been in a million places. And I’ve been writing rap music. But that’s another story for later…
NC: How has being independent and in full control of all aspects of your work, whether it’s sex work, photography, or anything in between, helped you evolve your connection with your womanhood or femininity? How has control been a big driving factor in understanding confidence and how it’s helped you feel more like the woman you want to be?
TESSA: Well, with Onlyfans, I was getting to do a lot of cosplay. where I’m not even fully nude or anything like that. The first time I did Onlyfans, I was not doing it that way. I’ve done it twice now, but the first time I started up I was just doing whatever anyone wanted you know? But I wasn’t really comfortable with it. I stopped for a while and when I restarted, I decided I don’t need to just do this to appeal to other people. I can do this my way and still profit. So when I switched over to cosplay, it really helped me explore myself. I like to dress up in a lot of different ways and try out different things, and aesthetics. And it was really nice to explore feeling comfortable in my body in different ways.
It’s the same thing with photography. I had so much control over what I was doing that it just made me feel a lot more in control of my life in general. I was creating the narrative. Practicing with self-portraits too. They help me feel more comfortable in my body, and helps me practice what it’s like on the other side of the camera. Which inevitably helps me get better as a photographer.
NC: With you being a photographer, you are more behind the scenes than a woman producer. How do you think that changes your experience as a woman in the industry?
TESSA: I think, for me, it’s a bit easier to be behind the scenes. When you’re in front of the camera, a lot of times people are thinking, “oh, she’s only booking the slot because she’s a girl.” Or because she’s “pretty” or this or that. Whereas behind the scenes, people aren’t having that thought as much. Why does it f***ing matter if I’m pretty or not? Do you know what I mean? So in a way, I think I get more of an advantage than someone who is in the spotlight.
At the same time, the number one thing I’ve experienced when I’m shooting like a male DJ is someone assuming that they’re my boyfriend. And that’s super annoying. It’s always a whole ordeal.
TN: What women have inspired you and make you feel powerful?
TESSA: Megan Thee Stallion! I’m literally in love with her. All her music is about embracing who you are, how you look, making money for yourself and being like the baddest bitch version of yourself that you can be. She’s definitely on top right now; she won a bunch of Grammy’s.
Obviously my girl, Rezz. I really look up to Isabelle because she’s never complained about stuff like this much. She brushes it aside and keeps doing what she does. She doesn’t dwell on it. There’s been a lot of men saying shit like, “Well, this male producer sounds like her, but he’s better, meh.” Like, stop it! She’s always had her original ideas and she’s always stuck to them. I think that’s something that has really inspired me; no matter what people say, she’s always followed her heart in what she does. She brushes whatever people say aside, and she keeps climbing up to the top.
There’s so many female rappers representing an empowering narrative – Saweetie and Jhené Aiko (even though she’s more R&B). I just love how that narrative has changed in rap music. It used to not be like that–women couldn’t openly talk about having sex and making a bunch of money (the way that male rappers do). It takes a lot of guts to flip the narrative that way, and take all this criticism. Of course, people are going to talk shit about how women can write similar lyrics. Men will say that it sucks no matter what, even if it sounds exactly the same.
It is just that internal misogyny that is in the industry. Maybe these men don’t even realize that they’re doing it, but they are genuinely being misogynistic. It’s just how they’re raised and then not being willing to change their way of thinking. I think men just hate to see these women taking that like ownership of their body. “Oh, I want to have sex. I want to do things that make me happy.” But they’re just not open to hearing those things because it’s coming from a woman’s perspective.
The main narrative going on here is that it’s all about reclaiming yourself. That doesn’t mean that you want to have a bunch of sex, get tattoos, etc. That could mean being a stay-at-home mom or whatever. It just means that you can take control of your body without having men decide that for you. Women should be able to do whatever they want with their lives and their bodies without the opinion of a man.Tessa Paisan
NC: What other projects do you have coming up that we can look out for?
TESSA: Well…. the end of this month, I have my first single coming out. It’s with WRECKNO and Gardella. And I’m super excited. I wasn’t planning on making rap music, but one day, my boyfriend went to the studio, he makes a bunch of rap beats and stuff because he’s a producer and I asked if I could try. And we just wrote this song. I was like, wait – this is really good.
I’ve been really enjoying writing rap music. And I just think it’s a really nice, you know almost like an emotional release. I don’t really care if it goes anywhere or not. I just have fun doing it. I’m just gonna create some rap music and hopefully it resonates with some people.
Have you heard of ashINIKKO? I have kind of similar vibes to her. Not as much singing because I can’t sing that well. But definitely just like, bad bitch vibes. And that’s what I’m going for!
My first single is coming out Friday, March 26. It’s a bisexual anthem and it’s awesome.
For every step a woman takes, a hundred others are influenced. If there is anything that we have learned from this month, it is just how lucky we are to have such a huge roster of unique, empowered, and wonderful women to look up to. In every aspect of the industry, there are women working from the bottom up to create their own path. Tessa Paisan especially, really sets an example. She creates a pathway for not only herself but also for other women who watch the work she does.
Thank you to all the women out there who inspire us not just this month but every day. Tessa Paisan and her work are a shining example of creativity and passion. We cannot wait to see where she goes next.
Looking for new music? Keep up with our weekly Spotify Playlist, Fresh Hunts. Updated every Friday with all the latest releases. Whether it’s the newest drops, all your favorite artists, some old-school, or underground…we just want you to hear it.
March is Women’s History Month. This is an opportunity to celebrate successes and acknowledge struggles women face across the world. If you’re looking to support organizations that educate on women’s health, gender/workplace equity, and more, then look here.