Mystery, Spies & Stockings: An Interview with Joe Carabeo
In the fall of 2004, when Taboo was a single store operation just entering toddlerhood, a VCU Photo and Film student politely inquired if I might allow him to create a documentary. I was surprised, then flattered, then wondered if I was too lazy to participate in something that might not be seen outside of a college classroom. 469,568 You Tube views, a dozen film festivals, four calendars, countless invaluable images, and one fantastic friendship have since proven I made the right decision. *Note: I urge you NOT to look for the documentary as it, through no fault of Joe Carabeo, completely mortifies me. Taboo has come such a long way and my hair is way better now.
Recently, I sat down with Joe to talk past, present, future, and fishnets. The following is a peek inside the mind of Taboo’s official photographer and videographer and one of the most creative and fantastic people I know. Enjoy.
We first met shortly after I opened the original Taboo, when you approached me about filming a documentary. What drew you to Taboo and what kind of experience with filmmaking had you had at that point?
Growing up I was always the guy with the camera, filming things, taking photos all the time, turning school projects into short films. I guess that was my high school gimmick. I always thought of a camera as a dangerous weapon. My mindset was, in the right hands it could change the world.
I had had several years of experience, from producing films in high school to teaching TV production before choosing to go to Virginia Commonwealth University for photo and film. By the time I approached you about the documentary I was on my way out of college and on a warpath, producing films left and right. I thought this documentary would be interesting even outside of the school environment, so I went for it.
We filmed the Taboo documentary during October and November of 2004. But, that wasn’t actually the first time I met you or worked with you. I don’t know if you remember this, but I actually asked to photograph you in the store a few months before that as part of a photo project, and we did. And to this day I truthfully don’t even know what happened to those images, I swear! But also the reason I knew about you at all was because I read your writing in the local RVA magazine “Chew On This” and thought you were pretty interesting.
So basically without even knowing you, or seeing you in person, I knew you as a writer and enjoyed your work. That to me that was the motivation to make a documentary of you and Taboo, to find out who is this mystery writer. I knew you had a strong honest voice, and the fact that the voice belonged to a female who owned and operated an adult store during a time when it was such a rarity, I thought it was such an interesting story. A cute girl, running a cute adult shop… it was almost impossible to resist that angle. I was so nervous to just do a cold walk in and ask if you’d be up for the project. I didn’t how what you looked like or if you were working that day. I think it worked out.
I will be totally honest–I don’t remember that first meeting, or the photos, at all! Makes me wonder what other photos of me are floating around out there. Anyway, tell me a little bit about the process of filming, editing, and promoting the Taboo documentary, and about its reception.
First off, filming was scary. Back then there wasn’t a lot reality TV like there is today. Now you see cameras everywhere. But in truth, how does it sound when I tell you, “Oh I’m gonna be hanging out and filming the girls at an adult store all day.” You can assume I would get the usual comments questioning my motives. So, aside from my girlfriend, I didn’t actually tell people that I was doing the project. I just did it. Also, there weren’t a lot of costumers who wanted to be filmed in the store back then ether. People back then weren’t open to the idea, they were still hiding the fact that porn even existed a lot of the time. So I had to get used to rejection really fast.
The interview that was woven into the entire documentary was fun to shoot because I had a whole list of questions numbered and I just asked you to guess a random number and even I didn’t know what question to expect next, even though I wrote them. I would get excited when a question like “Who’s your favorite porn star?” question pop up. Though that answer never made the final cut.
Editing the project was pretty fun. Nothing in the documentary was staged and what I found out is that you, Alison, have awesome comedic timing. It helped out so much that you were so open and giving to the project. The real challenges were what had to be cut and what the ending was going to be. I was hung up on that a whole lot. But you were the driving force. If you weren’t an amazing, unique personality, this documentary would have been dead in the water. Also, you created the environment of Taboo. It was like, inside the doors of Taboo is another world and not typically what you expect. To quote you in the documentary, you “wanted to bring porn to normal people” and you wanted to get rid of the conception that every adult store involved a “dirty guy behind a counter.” I thought that was killer. No one expected that.
I learned a lot about sticking to your guns from filming the Taboo documentary. I knew if I wanted it to be a success I had to dive right in and go 100% into it, or else, people would have been talking….
Taboo played a lot of film festivals, more than any other film that I have created so far, I feel like it connected with people. On my AstrayJ Youtube page it’s my most view filmed by an astronomical amount. It’s heading into the 500,000 views territory and moving forward everyday. Not only that, THE Kevin Smith commented about digging the documentary on Twitter and sharing it. Kevin and I even talked about the documentary in front of a live audience when he did one of his “A Night with Kevin Smith” shows in DC. It’s been ten years since I’ve released it, but people are still watching it everyday. It’s still living.
What have been some of your favorite film projects?
At this point in my film making career it’s tough to choose favorites. I can say what my least favorites are! Film production and photography is my day job and I love being able to say that, but it’s much different when I’m the owner of the project I’m working on. I would have to say that anytime its a personal project of my mine, a collaboration with a cohort, or the inspiration to the project means something dear me, those are my favorites and will always be. So, the newest one of those.
We reconnected when you did some photography for a Taboo Girls Calendar. At that point you had recently branched off from filmmaking to experiment with photography. Photography clearly came naturally to you. What drew you to photography?
Well, I never really branched off into photography technically because photography is really a big part of film making. It’s motion picture. But I’ve also always been a photographer, I’ve always had a camera and loved all types of photography and photographers from Cindy Sherman, to Ellen Von Unwerth, to David Lachapelle–design photography, street photography and photo journalism. It’s all a storytelling medium to me. We’re ether creating moments or we’re capturing them, to share or keep for ourselves.
I always had a theory that I was drawn to photography because I always thought I couldn’t draw or paint well enough. Maybe it was an act of fate elimination.
Which do you prefer: Filmmaking or photography, and why?
I don’t want to discredit my love for ether filmmaking or photography, but if I have to choose one or the other… filmmaking. Here’s why: every photo project that I’ve been really into, I eventually think, “I should have made a film from this.” And usually that’s what ends up happening. Even with the Taboo Girls Calendars, each time I’ve shot the calendar, I’ve made a small documentary film to go along with it. I just can’t stop.
These days, a lot of people know me from my photography, and that’s great! We work hard on those and millions of people SHOULD see them. The truth is, the turn around of one of my photo projects is quicker, so by quantity alone, more people in a short span will see my photography. A film I make will probably take several months, and then it can’t been seen until after its screens or gets rejected by a film festival. That process usually takes several months to maybe even a year. So I can see how it would appear that I do more photography than film, when its actually the other way around.
What have been some of your favorite photography projects?
Every. Taboo. Girls. Calendar. Because each year we try to out do the year before. Also, I do love shooting with models I frequently create with. I feel like we always push each other to the next level creatively. I’m always excited to see what we create next that can surprise people.
Working with you is incredibly comfortable. How do you keep your cool around half naked chicks?
Keep my cool? I think that’s an illusion I’ve created. I’m actually super nervous the moment right before a shoot and sometimes it shows at the beginning of the shoot. I’m always nervous about screwing up and not making something memorable. Maybe that’s why it looks like I’m keeping my cool during the shoot when half naked, or naked girls are all over the place, because I’m more focused on the technical aspect. That sounds so lame….
But really, it’s a team effort. Half naked, naked, clothed, its still about composition, lighting and lines, and maybe emotion. It all involves me saying, “okay, now REALLY arch your back this time!” and, “now there’s a waterfall, enjoy the HELL out of that waterfall!!” or even, “okay, now REALLY point your butt!” You know, for lines. For the 2015 calendar we came up with types of new phrases because we introduced liquid elements into the shoots. It was another level or ridiculous fun.
Maybe there’s an absurdity to the whole thing that I revel in, truthfully. I think it’s about letting the subject know that this isn’t some random guy behind a random camera taking your photo because you’re a random hot chick, but about us creating something and having fun doing it till we get the image that we all want. We’re all in this together. If you look bad, I look bad.
But I do take nakedness seriously. To me, that’s a lot of responsibility. If a subject is willing to go to that level for a shot, well damn, I better make that shot groundbreaking. Because really, there are no other layers to take away after that. And I try really hard to not rehash images that we’ve seen everywhere.
When you first got into filmmaking and photography, did you imagine you’d be involved in sexy subject matters? Was that a motivating factor?
I knew I would have run into it down the road somewhere… at least I hoped! But I don’t think I ever expected to be associated with it as closely like I have been in the last few years with Taboo. And I absolutely don’t mind it at all.
The truth is, working behind the camera and producing isn’t as sexy as people think it is. Its more like knowing how a magic trick works. I really enjoy when someone says that they thought something I shot was sexy. In truth, it’s like math to me now. Sexy math. I try to figure out the algebraic equation to sexy, split it with the atom of spontaneous combustion, then I snap the photo.
You know that Alfred Hitchcock movie “The 39 Steps,” the story of a wrong man and his accidental female accomplice who despise each other and end up handcuffed together and they somehow have to escape the country and prove their innocence? They have a scene in hotel room where, even though they hate each other, they have to sleep in the same bed. She has wet stocking from the chase and she has to some how take off her stockings while still being hand cuffed to the guy. And she does. It’s awesome.
So, to me sexy = mystery, spies and stockings.
How would you describe your artistic style?
Mystery, spies… and stockings?
If I could I would want everything to look like the movie Blade Runner. But I know I can’t do that all the time. So my style has become motivated by the direction of the piece and its story. But if I could, Blade Runner all the way.
You don’t only shoot sex. How do mainstream projects compare with half naked ladies?
Haha I actually have never shot sex. But, surprisingly for the mainstream projects the talking is almost the same. It’s all about motivating your subject to be where they need to be, half naked or clothed, warm or cold.
Sometimes in the mainstream projects there are half naked ladies running around too. But with fewer tattoos.
What’s your fantasy photography/film project?
I’ve always wanted to have a TV series and film it in the DC/Virginia/Maryland area. Something following a bunch of troublemakers, like the comic book “Stray Bullets” or something “Twilight Zone.” I also want to do the live action “Batman Beyond” and “Doom Patrol” movies. And also of course direct the movies to my comic books I make with Carolyn Belefski for “Curls Studio,” “Black Magic Tales,” “French Fry Club,” and “The Legettes.”
Photography-wise I’ve always wanted to shoot for Interview Magazine. It would also be awesome to be Jennifer Lawrence’s official photographer for a project. Really just to work with her in general.
What do you see in store for Joe Carabeo and Taboo? Any awesome ideas for future collaborations?
For Joe Carabeo and Taboo, I’m excited to see what we do for the next calendar. I heard its gonna be double the fun of 2015. I would love to produce more photo or film content like we’ve been doing together. Maybe a more themed calendar or photo sets for every holiday or situation, just to amp up the Taboo brand. Maybe a “Ask a Taboo Girl”, or ” Taboo Girls show you how to…” web series. I would still be interested in seeing what we’d create for a Taboo TV commercial. At one point there was a Taboo girls reality TV show idea floating around. That seems like that something I’ve sorta already been producing with the Calendar docs. It would nice to do a series that could be distributed on a channel. Imagine following the Taboo Girls to Vegas for the AVN’s. I bet they would tear that town apart.
So what happens in Vegas gets a half a million hits on You Tube? I’ll have to think about that one. Thanks for sharing with us, shooting us, and encouraging us to point our butts! A handful of copies of the 2015 Taboo Girls Get Wet Calendar shot by Joe Carabeo is still available in stores and online. Pick yours up today. We can’t wait to show you what’s in store for 2016!