Cole Sprouse: Behind the Lens

The newest Global Benchsetter talks about photography, existential rage, and magical places.

by Mags Ocampo, photo by Renzo Navarro

Largely known as the serious, somber Jughead Jones of this generation, Cole Sprouse has a lot more going on for him than Netflix’s Riverdale. The archaeology graduate from NYU’s Gallatin School of Individualized Study is also a serious photographer, with work featured in L’Uomo Vogue, The Sunday Times, and W magazine, no less. Here, we get Sprouse’s two cents on his second life—the one spent behind the camera.

On beginning a career in photography

“Get the worst camera you can imagine. Get the Hello Kitty camera at the antique store—the one that has a little Hello Kitty stamp at the bottom of every film roll—and just shoot with that. Then let it inform the next camera that you get. […] I started with a very noisy digital camera and it affected how I work with grain and noise and light and everything about my entire photographic practice after.“

On finding inspiration

“I think Northern California is a place I’ve found myself returning to time and time again. [It] has a variety of landscapes that are different enough that I can consistently return and find new inspiration every single time. Places like Death Valley and the Bristlecone Pine Forest are, to me, some of the most magical, most interesting places on earth. Northern California has one of the hottest climates on earth, one of the tallest mountains on earth, the oldest trees on earth, the biggest trees on earth, some of the oldest fish—it’s a huge, huge state. I think finding these landscapes that I can sort of bury myself in a kind of sacred way is something I find tremendous peace in. The places I find myself returning to are places informed by a need for serenity or wanting to escape from a kind of more modernised world. So I find myself returning to these sort of ‘natural chapels.’”

On diversity

“For me, I don’t suppose my subjects have any kind of type. I try to keep it as varied as possible. I really don’t discriminate on who I shoot. I also think that when you’re in a position like mine where—and I wanna acknowledge this as humbly as possible, I feel very privileged—a lot of people are looking at the work you’re doing, you sort of have a moral responsibility to show the variety of life. You have a responsibility to curate existence that acknowledges that [many] people live lives very different from your own. The nature of just how many eyes are seeing it, to me at least, means I have to be shooting very many different kinds of people as sort of a public service.”

On his mini side project, @camera_duels

“That started from pure existential rage. [laughs] No, no, no. Okay, that was an idea I had when I was still working on The Suite Life. Social media wasn’t really a thing on the Disney show until pretty late in the game and I realised that Instagram would be the perfect platform for it. It started because it used to annoy me and this was a way that I could gain a little power back in the scenario while poking some fun at it in a kind of lighthearted way. And so, I started curating it as though I was really angry about it; I really wasn’t. But it was kind of therapeutic for me. It took all the strangeness of that event, you know, people sort of just taking pictures of you in the bathroom, and it made it something that could be palatable for me. When it became palatable, I kind of stopped doing it for a little bit. So now that I’m getting more and more annoyed again and my existential rage is coming back again, slowly but surely I’m gonna start doing it again.”

On choosing between two crafts

“Acting is a lot of times one of those things where you become very empowered by a certain role or character but you’re still bound by many other elements—the writing, the direction. So essentially, you are bringing to life someone else’s project. You’re essentially dancing to the beat of their drum whereas photography is very empowering in a total sense. Photography is one of those things where you have the ability to flex completely your own creative control without hindrance. For me, that’s a really therapeutic thing. For me also, when you stand behind the camera, you know what you want when you’re in front of it. In other words, I feel like the two disciplines inform each other gravely and to act as if they’re mutually exclusive is probably not the right way to think about it. I also think we’re at an age now where you can do both successfully. More than any other generation of actors in the past, so much of your success is bound within your ability to show yourself through an image set on social media and it’s given me the opportunity to illuminate how people will see my quality of imagery. I think that informs people’s understanding of me as an actor and as an artist. I don’t think it’s necessary to divide it. I also think in most cases, photography is one of those things that’s a natural catalyst for something like directing, which I think is kind of the natural progression when it comes to my two disciplines of choice.”

Special thanks to Bench