David and Lena Kaptein are a husband and wife team who have one thing in common, and that is taking risks. David left his chemical engineering job in New York. Lena was supposed to start university in Sweden. As fate would have it, they both decided to pursue a modeling career and met in Paris, in a club off of Champs-Élysées. That sealed the deal and open up the door to their whole visual world. David now takes professional headshots for celebrities, actors, actresses, and all types of professional people while Lena is a professional makeup artist for celebrities. They talk about their background and where they are now with all the amazing work they do with celebrities behind the camera and limelight. They share that once you get your foot in the door, a lot of things can open up.
David Kaptein takes professional headshots for celebrities, actors, actresses and all types of professional people. His wife, Lena Kaptein, is a professional makeup artist for celebrities. David and Lena had been all around the world for their modeling careers. They have a bunch of amazing life experiences and it was a real pleasure getting their life stories and how destiny has led them to the path they’re on now.
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A Visual World with David and Lena Kaptein
Please welcome, David and Lena Kaptein. How are you?
We’re good. We’re great.
Every time I come here, it’s like a movie star. You make headshots so much fun. I love what you do. Lena, you were telling me some amazing stories last time I was here. I want to get a little background on where you are from and all the amazing work you do with actors and everything like that. Lena, where are you from?
I’m from Stockholm, Sweden. That’s where I grew up.
What was it like growing up in Stockholm?
I didn’t know anything else, so it was great. That was great, very different from other countries, obviously. I came to New York in 1984 to start modeling, which was like a whole new world for me opened up.
Did you got discovered in Stockholm and then they brought you over here?
You can call it discovered. There were some affiliates with the modeling agencies in Sweden. I was on a dance floor and they came up, approached me, and sponsored me and flew me to New York to meet Eileen Ford. I honestly told her the truth because growing up in Sweden you were surrounded with tall, beautiful people. I never saw myself being a model. Long story short, she set me up with some test shoots me and I was blown away. Those pictures were me. I realized quick on that makeup was a beautiful thing that can transform anybody into looking a lot better.
Were you doing any makeup at the time?
No, I was into sports. I grew up skiing and playing basketball. I was a sports girl so I wore maybe a little concealer and Mascara. I don’t even know if you know what that is, but it’s very minimal, so when somebody do my makeup for the first time, it was like a transformation in my eyes. I also learned that good lighting was very important. I saw some bad pictures of myself and I said, “I can be a model.” It’s very encouraging.
David, where are you from? I’m from good old Clifton, New Jersey. Not too far from where you live.
That’s not what he told me when I met him in Paris.
A little background on me. I went to Clifton school system, and then I went and played football at Cornell. I was a chemical engineer there. That was torturous.
He was trying to brag about that too. I had no idea what Cornell. In Sweden we heard of Princeton, Yale, Harvard, and he’s like, “It’s a really good school,” so I said to him, “Why are you modeling then if you’re that smart.”
My roommate at that school was very artsy. He was a musician. He was a very much into fashion. Back in those days, I won’t mention the year, it’s quite a long time ago, he said, “Look at these guys on GQ. They’re traveling the world and it’s amazing. Imagine this lifestyle.” He went right after college and started pursuing modeling. I worked as an engineer in New York City, quite miserable to be honest with you, and he was living the high life.
He was just going all around the world? Did you get in touch with him?
Visual World: Explore what it is that you want.
Yeah, he called me up, “I’m in Paris.” I said, “Maybe he’s got something here that sounds interesting.” I was young, I didn’t have any ties to anything. No mortgage, no kids, no family, so that was a little crazy and I said, “I don’t like what I’m doing, and what he’s doing sounds a lot more interesting.”
I think the twenties is for exploring. Say what you want to do because you’re going to spend the rest of your life doing something you’re going to be miserable, and I don’t think so. No. I tell my kids that, explore what it is that you want, to try different things, and nothing is always going to be that easy, but maybe worth your while.
I also believe a lot in Kismet or fate or whatever you want to call it, because my number one choice was to go to Princeton and I told them the wrong thing when they were recruiting me so they didn’t put me on the must enlist.
What did you tell them?
I said I’d probably go there, and they wanted to hear, “Hands down. You’re my only choice,” then you get on the list and you are in. That didn’t happen, I go to Cornell instead, and my roommate is this artsy guy and he gets me interested in this modeling thing. I get into it. I worked in New York for a little bit and then I went to Europe and who do I meet? Three, four weeks later, I meet my future wife, so everything happens for a reason.
We both have one thing in common. You have to be a little bit of a risk taker in life. I was supposed to start university in Sweden when I got approached to start modeling. They wanted me to come August first, I was supposed to start school in September, and I said, “Okay, I’ll go.” I went by myself to New York City. I didn’t know what I was getting myself involved in. David left the safety of having a great job as a chemical engineer, trying something that have no promises or anything.
You were probably scared too. You guys don’t really have any experience.
People don’t see the backside of modeling or what it takes to make it. It’s not all easy.
Is it intimidating being on your first set with no experience or anything like that?
I’m sure it’s like any job when you show up and you don’t know what you’re doing, you fake it a little bit. I’ll never forget my first shoot in Germany. It was a catalog shoot in Hamburg and there were four other guys in the dressing room. Thank God they didn’t ask me to go in first on set. The other guy went in first on set, it was for suits and I was like, “I’m going to grab a cup of coffee,” mosey it to the studio, and I just watched what he did. It’s not like rocket science, but it’s not chiropractic where you can hurt someone if you don’t know where the nerves are. The nerves are all relative.
I would always pray that the makeup artist is good. I’ll be the first model in the studio. It’s probably great for an assistant. I remember one time, I came to the studio and I was early, a young kid came up, and he was like, “Are you the makeup artist?” I was like, “No. Do I look like that?” I would watch the models too. For guys, there are not many moves. For women, there’s a lot more moves on set. I would see this girl, she was all liquid, she was unbelievable. I was like, “I’m going to go home right now,’ but you learn quick.
Were you on the same shoot when you met? How did that work?
We met in Paris in a club off of Champs-Élysées, it was called L’Atmosphère. It was where all the celebrities, Stephanie of Monaco, all the celebrities and playboys and models are all there. We were there. I was requested as a model to show up on the weekends there and play that game. It’s little underground. This is how Swedes imitate Americans. It was really loud. That was the male models and one of the guys was David.
What happened was I was broke. So many young guys going here were broke, but we’re crazy. I went to Europe with $2,000 in my pocket and I said, “I’m going to make this last as long as I can, and when it’s done I’ll come home with my tail between my legs,” but things worked out right away. It was crazy serendipitous to get all these jobs but I hit the ground running. I was still in that mindset where I’m living on baguettes and croissants. I didn’t get any checks yet, so I was still nervous. A drink at a club like that was $20 or something. We’re not drinking it. We would have one or two or three or maybe four before we went so we’d be good for the night.
My roommate who now teaches Dentistry at USC, he’s a big dentist in Beverly Hills. He was my roommate and we went into this club together, we go downstairs, we walked by the bar, and this is another thing with serendipity. I walked by her and I see this face. I walked past. My roommate Brandon was ahead of me and I said, “Brandon, did you see that?” He says, “What are you telling me for?” He put the pressure on me. I had to turn right around and I had to ask her to strike up a conversation. She blew me off and then she went out on the dance floor. I was star struck and I said to my other friend, “Look at that girl on the dance floor.” He goes, “Stop, you’ll never get her.” I have played football, baseball, I’m very competitive. I was like, “Really?” That was the start of the quest, and believe me, she was not an easy person. She was working very much and it was hard for me to wiggle my way in there. Eventually, I melted her heart.
We just had a great time. A new model, I had roommates, everything was so focused on me, my book, my skin. I have to go to take care of myself. When we started hanging out getting to know each other, he cooked, he came up and started cooking. He was like, “Let’s go traveling.” We had it set up with agencies in other countries. I was like, “I can have a normal life doing this.” David probably looked at this more like a business.
It’s probably a little bit stressing for you too.
Yeah. He went to the gym a lot, so I was annoyed at first. I played a lot of sports but I haven’t trained for a couple of years and then I figured if I’m going to date this guy, I have to go to the gym. My roommate needed to lose weight. She’s like, “Please come with me. I don’t want to go myself,” so I went and I’m pretty competitive too. There was the ‘80s aerobics. I was like, “Fine, I’ll sign up.” I borrowed his shorts and shirt, they wore the thongs and tights and I was, “Let’s do this.” I was exhausted. I couldn’t even follow her and then I was like, “I’ll be back tomorrow. I’m going to get better at this.” We incorporated that too, which was good. It takes care of your health and keep your mind straight. We eat right. He used to cook for me every night.
How long were you in Europe for?
Five straight years. We lived in Paris, Hamburg, Munich, Milan, Zurich, Stockholm.
That must have been an amazing experience, especially for you coming from America.
It was great. Lena, she could speak French. She could speak English. She had much more advantage. I was a complete fish out of water. To go to Europe and not know one word of French, French was the worst one to get by in. In Italy they were much friendlier. It was tough when I moved to Paris, I couldn’t speak anything. It’s a miracle that I stuck it out. I was so homesick. Even though you live in Paris, which is the most beautiful city in the world, it was hard.
I probably would have quit the business if I didn’t meet David sooner because we did it together, we traveled, and we made it more like part of our lives. We weren’t models, 24/7. That was great. We traveled in the States too because I wanted to see more of America. We went from Seattle, San Francisco, Los Angeles, and then we get set up with agencies everywhere, Chicago, Miami.
How does that work? Do you have to contact an agency and then you fly over there or you just went and then you show up?
You can either or actually. It’s far better to plan because then they can start promoting your pictures. We were crazy. We just had so much faith. I think back to that sometimes now, if I get frustrated or something, something new, I start to have faith. Everything takes time. It’s not going to happen unless you pursue it. I almost quit before I got started because it took me three months before I got my first job. I had borrowed money from my parents. I was in New York and then they flew me to Munich to start modeling there. My wallet was thin and then I got a huge job and it just come out of nowhere. I was like, “What? How did that happen?” Nothing makes sense, you just got to hold on to that faith.
It all falls into place eventually.
Faith is a huge part of the formula of success.
I feel like if you research something too much it almost deters you away from doing it.
He’s a big researcher. I’m the crazy person. Somebody says, “Who can take on this project?” I’ll be the one like, “I’ll do it,” and I’ll just dive into it. He’d be like, “I’ll do it but I need a week to research and figure it all out.” When we started doing photography, it was pretty much me forcing him to start taking my pictures because I was frustrated with the other photographers out there in New York to get my new pictures. He didn’t study photography. We knew a lot from being on set as models, seeing how to set up lighting and all that. I came home one day and I was like, “I have three, four girls scheduled and they’re going to pay you.” He was like, “Are you nuts?”
That’s how you got behind the camera?
It started a little earlier in Europe. A friend of ours bought a camera and he influenced me to buy a camera because Lena had shot him with his own camera and then we thought, “Maybe we could do the same thing. We could play around with the camera,” and it was very much hit or miss, but you learn on set like Lena said. With other photographers, they would tell me, “You should try this, that.” It was like an on-the-job training. By the time we got here, I think I was good enough where I was getting great work for Lena with her pictures. That’s when her friends saw the pictures, then we started shooting her friends. A lot of these models aren’t signed with one agent, they are freelance models, so they have two or three agents. They go into New York, show two or three agents the pictures, “Who took these pictures?” It grows like a cottage industry over the years that just kept growing and growing. Then we shot some young actors in New York who turned out to be superstars now.
I saw that one picture. You had a Michael B. Jordan.
We shot him a few times over the years. One time, we were watching the Academy Awards, this was two years ago, and Kristen Bell and Michael B. Jordan are making an award presentation because they have big movies out, Frozen and Fruitvale Station. They came out together to present an award, and Linda grabs her phone, “David, look we took both their head shots when they’re teenagers in New York and now look at them, now they’re superstars.” It’s very exciting.
You did mention, especially today, everything is very visual. I would imagine somebody saw their headshot and it helped them out with their success. In a way, you were part of that.
Definitely. I don’t know how much you know about the acting world, but it’s odd because the headshot has nothing to do with your skill as an actor. It’s a huge bottleneck for you to get called in for casting. If you have a bad headshot, they think you’re unprofessional. “You can’t even get that part of it right?” That has nothing to do with your talent. If you have a great headshot, then they’ll say, “He’s done that at least right. Now let’s see what he or she can do as an actor.” The headshot won’t get you the job most of the time but it will definitely get you in the door. A good headshot will get you in the door, and then you follow through with your talent.
Especially now, everything is so visual and people on their phones are flicking through pictures and images. Something that stands out, people are going to look at. Most actors and models are the worst business people too. I learned that when I worked with Ford Models because they were considered back then the top agents, it was Ford, Elite, Wilhelmina. They ran that like a true business, the leaders. We as models, if you didn’t have new pictures, you’re coming out in magazines or campaigns, you have it go, “Here’s the list of photographers, we need more pictures. We need to promote you. You are the product.” It was an investment. I would call it investment. People look at is as, “I don’t want to spend money.” I almost laugh when people call, “How much do you charge?” I would pay $20,000 for a good headshot if I knew I was going to book a big movie and become a movie star. You can’t nickel and dime, it’s a career. I think about how much money we’ve spent on our kid’s college education, and people are like, “I don’t want to spend more than $500 on a headshot.” Why? It’s all about the money. You have to look at it as something that’s going to open up so many doors for you. What team are you hiring for you to do this?
Visual World: A good headshot will get you in the door and then you follow through with your talent.
I have a question for you. Has the industry completely changed because you have these Instagram models now and everybody’s got their own camera? A lot of people have a good camera now. Has that changed the way things had been going on?
One thing I can say, David can talk about the cameras, but I think people are better in front of the camera because they do a lot of selfies. They’re used to taking their own pictures. Some people think they are photographers because they can take a photo with phones, a lot of times they are amazing, but there’s so much more to it. It’s like studying lighting for a movie, where it’s so intricate. Lighting is key, and of course makeup.
I would say that there are so many new cameras out and there are digital little iPhone cameras and they’d take cool pictures, but that doesn’t make anybody a photographer. I’ve seen a lot of great Instagram photos and iPhone photos. If I were shopping around for someone that I wanted to shoot a landscape architectural thing, I would go to somebody’s website that that’s all they do. I would go to somebody who’s that’s their specialty. In terms of acting headshots, it’s a specialty. It’s not so much the technical of a camera and a lens, anybody can do that, it’s about 85% psychology. How you pull expressions out of the actor is more of the talent of an acting headshot photographer.
Anybody can say, “I’m a photographer,” and basically they are, they own a camera, but are you versed on how to light cinematically? Are you versed at how to pose an actor or a model? Do you know how to light a face? Do you know how to thin a face? There’s so much to it that I don’t even mind that there’s so many people that send their images to an agency because it just corroborates with them that, “You better go to David.” You’re only competing with yourself in any business. When you start thinking you’re competing with the world, it’s silly. You can only say to yourself, “How can I improve myself at what I do?” That*’s what you can control. I can’t control you, I can’t control Lena, but you can only control how you think and how you respond and how you plan your career or your life or how you raise your kids. I don’t worry about who else is out there. A lot of times you collaborate with other people and you gain so much inspiration from a Facebook group of photography or an Instagram group. The new age is great for the learning curve. I love it.
That’s how I met you because I was at the bank talking to Jonathan and he was showing me all these great pictures, he has a great camera, and I was like, “Do you do head shots?” He was like, “No, I don’t do headshots, but I know this guy. That’s what he does, he specializes in it, and he’s very good at what he does.” I said, “Perfect,” then I met you. When people think they’re taking head shots, it’s just “I’ll go in front of the camera and take a picture.” I got my makeup done here, I was upstairs and you’re telling me that all the faces to make, and if it wasn’t for you it wouldn’t have been a good headshot because I don’t know what I’m doing. You were telling me to position these certain ways, make this face.
It’s so subtle. I compare a good headshot to a good meal. You can have an okay meal, but then there’s a difference where it was like, “This is gourmet.” Same thing is with a headshot. It’s makeup, hair, that has to be on point, if it’s too much, too heavy, or something is wrong with the makeup or hair. That goes for men too. If I did too much on the man, he’s going to look weird. Same for women, if the hair is not right or something is not right on the face, no one’s going to like the way they look. Then obviously the angles are huge. No person has two symmetrical sides to their face, so we always say open face is usually where you part your hair.
75% of the people’s better side is their left side.
David and I also model. We have ongoing modeling careers so we know all the models face. There’s a lot of model face.
If you’re like me and you have a few double chins, you want to lean out a little bit more and chin down a little bit. That gives you a much better jaw line. You don’t want to slouch your shoulders; you want to sit straight up if you’re sitting. If you’re standing, it’s even stronger, especially for a guy.
For women, always turn a little bit angle. You want to always have a little angle. Your face, your shoulder, you don’t want to square at the camera because it looks very stiff. It can make you look big. There are a lot of little tricks.
Lena, you’re obviously a model. When did you start doing makeup?
I realized that my model pictures to me look different than me waking up in the morning. I was actually very insecure. Especially in Paris when I worked there, I was fascinated with how some of the makeup artists were so amazing in how they transformed my face but looking natural because I didn’t like wearing makeup. I hate it when it was heavy. The best makeup artists I would study what they did. I would go to the makeup stores in Paris, buy brushes and makeup and my roommates thought I was nuts. They’re like, “Why do you want to wear makeup?” They couldn’t wait to take it off. I was like, “You need it. I don’t have flawless skin. I have blotchy skin; I don’t look like a model when I don’t wear it.” I learned the little tricks so to look natural with makeup.
When we started, when we started shooting, how long as it been now?
Twenty years? 25?
I didn’t want to hire make-up artists for two reasons. First of all, I thought it’ll be inconvenient to have to have somebody on call all the time. We set up a studio in our house because we had younger kids and I always hated to go to these big, wide studios and feeling intimidated and nervous. I was so nervous as I was. I want to have this homey feeling, relaxed, chill. I’m going to do the makeup because I just had so many bad experiences, probably more bad than good with makeup, where they put too much on, so I said to David, “I’m going to handle this.” I should probably thank the first 100victims in my makeup chair, but I always learned less is more, and then I always looked at my work afterwards. Then the word of mouth, people started requesting me, models, actors. Other makeup artists heard of me and now I’m full-time makeup artist.
When you have a shoot, do you do your own makeup?
I do. I’ve been in commercials now as a celebrity makeup artist giving my testimonial on products. If I go on camera now and somebody else did it and I don’t like it, I’ll think, “She doesn’t look too good.”
Do you have anything vice versa, where you’ll be on the set and the model is like, “No, I’m going to do my own.”
I’ve had that and I can totally relate to that because I know the pain or the worries about, “Is it going to be a good day or a bad day?”I do all the scheduling for our shoots, so some people say, “What if I do my own makeup?” I totally understand that because I like to do my own unless I know who the makeup artist is. The first thing I say is, “If you look at David’s work, if you like what you see on the other actors or models, I’m the makeup artist.” It’s always a collaborative effort when I do what I do because I meet people for the first time. If there’s certain things that they wanted me to do more or less of, I totally listen to them. I have no ego. You can’t have an ego. You want people to feel their best before they go on camera.
The only thing I’d warn people about if they do their own make up is what products do you use? Because he shoots with flash and flash, if there are certain particles in the makeup, it can look white. Also if the makeup is not to your satisfaction, it’s not fair for David’s to have to re-shoot it because you didn’t like your hair and makeup. It’s a lot of stress, I admit. When I go on camera having done my own makeup, it’s stressful because I was like, “Am I shiny? Is my hair right?” Ideally you have somebody doing your makeup. If I was on camera all the time, I would definitely have my own makeup artist, because there are so many good ones out there.
What are you doing now? I find it fascinating that you are a team and you have developed something that you both can do and shine at. What is it exactly that you are doing now? Because sometimes the whole day I’m on a set in New York City, can’t meet up today. We’ll do another day. What exactly are you doing now?
We have the home studio that we shoot the model portfolio shots and the acting head shots that’s out here. I have all my lights here for all that stuff set up for that. The stuff we do outside of studio, Lena can speak for herself for her clients, but I shoot a lot of commercial sets and I’ve been in a lot of commercials, believe it or not. I did a lot of infomercials, over 150 commercials. Probably the biggest one was Snuggie, if you remember.
That is the difference, like opposite attract. I would never do that, but he was so perfect for it. He’s such a goofy, good-looking guy. He was the perfect character. Actually, you created that character.
A lot of those production companies are in New Jersey. Almost 70% or 80% of those infomercials you see on TV are probably filmed around here by only a few production crews, so I got to know a lot of them as an “actor.” I was shooting as a photographer all that time, so some of these places had stills photographers taking pictures of the product shots or what they’re doing on set with the cookware or whatever the product is. Once in awhile the guy couldn’t make it and you got to raise your hand, “I can fill in,” so I started doing a lot of that and now I do quite a bit of that. I’m on a lot of commercial sets where I’m shooting the stills, which is great. I love working with the crews so that’s a lot of fun. Then there are other corporate clients I have or look books for catalogs and stuff like that. Lena has a bunch of corporate clients she can talk about.
We worked togethe*r. I have a consulting business too where I help people break into modeling or acting. David is helping me out with that one too, especially for actors. He’s got a lot of materials and knowledge about that. He constantly watches tutorials, so you would think he’s like an actor. He’s so into learning, which is great. I watched my makeup tutorials too. I help people break into the business because a lot of people want to obviously do this and this is all I know. I’d never made it to go back to Sweden to start my university or college degree.
Are you coaching them on how to get through it, or are you sending them in the right direction, contacting agencies?
I have a little system put together where I help them pick out the shots from the shoot that we did to set up as a presentation to agents. I have a list of agents that I recommend and that I know and then **I have them with the follow through when they hopefully get callbacks. I train girls in the runway, if they get signed with agencies locally here there’s a lot of work. They can work for Bloomingdale’s; I still do runway shows as a model too, so I am still modeling. I’m the oldest model in the runway now, I model with my daughter Emma. We do a lot of that sometimes. I teach girls runaway, I teach girls how to come to a fashion show with their hair and makeup. I feel like I have a PhD in modeling and makeup and this whole entertainment industry. It’s a small little business or family I would say. Once you get your foot in the door, a lot of things can open up.
To have someone like you help that they can go even further.
I can’t guarantee people anything. That’s how people with internet now they can Google agencies, they can do this on their own but it’s a quick process I put people through and I think I’m worth it. I would hire somebody like me.
You probably didn’t have this luxury. You probably wished you had somebody like this helping you when you were starting out.
Absolutely. I was bouncing around, I lost a lot of time and a lot of frustration. I probably could have started working a lot much sooner if I had somebody helping me do this. As a makeup artist, a lot of actors and models started talking about me. I started doing makeup for different companies and did celebrities for five years. If Justin Bieber is listening to this, you have to contact me because remember I cut your hair when you were fifteen years old. My son Eric and Justin were the same age, so I gave him Eric’s haircut.
Where did you cut his hair? Around here?
He was performing at the US Open. It was Arthur Ashe Kids’ Day and he was one of the young performers. Nobody knew of him unless you were a YouTube follower. He needed a haircut and I was like, “Okay.” We were three makeup artists there. I met him and we hit it off. I spoke French to him because he’s French Canadian. I cut his hair in a conference room at the stadium, it was open stadium, no mirrors, nothing. He totally trusted me. His managers are actually, “Are you okay with this Justin?” He’s like, “She’s chill. I trust her,” so that was fun. That was five years I worked with a celebrity makeup artist that the hired me for the Tony Awards, America’s Got Talent, and all these great shows. That was an unbelievable experience. I had so much fun. After five years, for me it was time to move. I do a lot of corporate now too, which I like because the hours allowed because I like to go to the gym, I like to have a family life too. I love what I do.
Visual World: It’s not the laughter moment, it’s the after laughter moment where the glowing is still there.
You just got that down to a science. That’s amazing. Where can people find you on the Internet, websites, social media, and all that stuff?
My Instagram is @David Kaptein. My website is David Kaptein. Those are my two major platforms because they are visual. I have my Facebook page, but that’s not my photography page. Those are the two main places you can find me.
I’m @LenaKaptein on Instagram and LenaKapteinMakeup.com. We’re trying to keep up with the social media, but it’s hard when you’re so busy. We work a lot. We work sometimes seven days a week, extremely busy.
It’s something you got to keep up on too because when you drop off, it’s almost gets a little weird.**
You got to commit to a social platform. If you just dabble in and go once every three months, they’re going to go, “He hasn’t done anything in three months.” Whichever ones you picked to do, be consistent with it.
You have to be an entertainer. Entertain your followers.
You have to have consistent content and commit to it and have engaging stuff.
Thank you so much. I appreciate it. That was awesome.
Thanks for having us.
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