Knowing Your Worth and Leaving a Legacy
Each month, over on Instagram, I chat one-on-one with talented creative professionals across various industries and communities to engage in uplifting conversations around creativity, entrepreneurship, mental health, and how we can show up in our work as our authentic selves.
Today I want to share highlights from my conversation with my friend Ernesto Guadalupe @_ernestog_, a cinematographer and editor based in New York City. Ernesto is a highly talented visionary who has lent his eyes to some of the most notable brands and media powerhouses in the industry, such as MTV, Apple, Complex, and Ralph Lauren. He is a champion of the people and a proud advocate for workers' rights within his field and he generously shares his time mentoring creatives of color.
In this conversation, Ernesto and I talk about the impact of being a mentor and how to leave a legacy through our art.
Lo Harris: Tell us a bit more about yourself, your work and how long you've been doing this.
Ernesto Guadalupe: I've been a DP (director of photography) and editor for my entire adult life. I started shooting and editing music videos when I was in college. Right after my freshman year in college I starred in a really bad low budget independent film. My cousin was in it. He was a supporting actor and the lead role sort of really reflected my real life. So he wanted me to audition for it. And I wasn't even thinking about doing anything like that, let alone pursue a career in post production and production. I was just always interested in technology since I was a little kid. But I acted in this film and during the course of production, I was just watching the DP and watching the director and I was just like, I can do that.
So I went back to school the next year and I was a sophomore and I enrolled in as many film classes as I could. And I wasn't quite in film school yet. So I got a jump on my credits. But once I fully immersed in that learning track, I just never turned back. During the summers I would come home and I was part of a production company with my uncle and a couple of my friends and we did a lot of low budget rap videos. After I graduated, I ended up working for brands like MTV. My first real professional video gig was at a marketing agency that worked with G-Unit. So 50 Cent and ThisIs50.com and all of the stuff that they were doing from like 2006 to 2008 I was a part of and that was my first proper professional video gig.
From there I worked on a lot of music content for nine or 10 years. And from there I went into working in fashion for a few years for brands like Ralph Lauren and Nautica. But I always had a burning desire to do really meaningful video production work. So I decided I wanted to shoot and edit documentaries. So I sought out employment at a news network. So I went on the rounds with ABC News and I went to Vice and everywhere to try to get a gig doing exactly what I'm doing now at NBC.
LH: What challenges did you experience while learning your craft and was there ever a moment while you were in school where you questioned whether film was right for you? And if so, like, how did you tackle those feelings?
EG: The greatest barrier to entry into this lifestyle choice was at first money. This career, a creative lifestyle costs a lot of money, more money than you would ever really anticipate. You’re spending money on materials, administrative costs, equipment, learning. It never stops. Since I graduated college, I have bought countless cameras, lenses, photo paper, printers, office spaces, liability insurance. I’ve been doing this 21 years now and it's like, Is this ever going to be easy or cheap?
I think the second serious barrier to entry is your commitment and the time it's going to take. This isn't a get-rich-quick scheme. This is a real commitment. You are going to spend a lot of time mostly getting better and making a lot of mistakes. And quite frankly, that's where the actual money is – in what you learn, what you can acquire and then how do you apply that to the rest of your career moving forward.
Social media, I think, does some creatives a disservice. Everything looks easy. But there's a lot of failure that goes on and there's a lot of doubt. There's a lot of trepidation. There's a lot of mistakes. How do you apply what you learned from those mistakes?
LH: If you had to do it all over, would you have gone to film school, or would you have tried to do it all on your own? Do you have any thoughts about the pros and cons of being self taught in your industry?
EG: I graduated with a four-year degree in film school, but I'm a very big advocate of YouTube University. I’m on my doctorate of YouTube University. I watch it every day learning new stuff, and that's mostly because I'm inspired by the industry but I'm also inspired by my peers. I'm a big fan of the work that people around me do. And I've always been constantly absorbing information that I feel like makes me better. And I also felt that same way while I was in school. So I see the merits and the downside to both.
To be frank, I tried to drop out of college right before I was in film school. Right after I acted in that film my freshman year, I was not going back to school. But my grandma gave me the whole “You're about to be the first person in this family to graduate from a private white institution” and all that stuff that Black people my age who go to school hear. And that wasn't moving the needle for me. I just was disillusioned with school itself. I went back because it was what she wanted.
While I was in school I was not the model student. I was bordering on failing out of school. I used to get in a lot of trouble. But one of my OGs who was a film student wanted me to be a PA on his senior film. Brilliant dude, his name is Rob Neil. He's a film producer now and lives in Canada. He sat me in his car was like, “Yo, if you play your cards right, you know, you can do it for the rest of your life.” I never had anyone tell me what I was capable of. I was always told what I can't do and what I'm not good at and what I'll never be. So for somebody that I'm not related to that only knows me for partying and smoking weed around campus, he sat down and put the battery in my back and that was the first time where that thing snapped inside of me. And I was like, I have to change the way that I'm thinking in order to acquire the things that I want and the life that I want.
LH: When you were coming up as a filmmaker, did you have any Black mentors to look up to?
EG: When I was coming up, I didn't personally know any Black people who were professional video editors and professional cinematographers. There were Black grips. There were Black producers here and there. But the people that were doing the things that I wanted to do, to this day, have mostly middle-aged white men.
I was inspired by OGs that I felt were just so far beyond my reach. I used to study the cinematography of Ernest Dickerson. I watched Juice a million times. I would study music video directors and cinematographers. I watched everything Malik Sayeed made. I watched everything Hype Williams made. I wanted to be that but those dudes weren’t in my circumference.
When you're behind the scenes, you realize how really white it is. And then I realized it's a concerted effort to keep most of us from those positions of power and positions of authority. They'll find the one. And there’s this idea that there is very little space at the top for Black DPs and editors but there's so much space. It’s going to take us to sort of usher that change, and it's going to take the industry at large. It's not just going to be one person who is gonna take down the door. Bradford Young is here. Jordan Peele is here. Issa Rae is here. But there are so many more of us.
LH: What do you think are some tangible things that current creatives, particularly within the Black creative community, can do to start making this change?
Honestly, I am strangely optimistic in this era. I believe wholeheartedly that we are currently in the middle of a second Black Renaissance. I feel like we are in the middle of what was happening in the 20s and the 30s. And a lot of that movement… our great grandparents or great great grandparents faced the same sort of like pitfalls. It was born out of equal parts fear of the unknown, and I have nothing to lose, we have nothing to lose as a community, so let's do the best we can do collectively.
It takes pressure from a lot of us at the same time. It ain't gonna be just one of us. It ain’t gonna be five of us. It's gonna be like 100 of us attacking that dam from different angles to open the floodgates. And I think that has been happening on a collective level for the last five or six years.
LH: You always go out of your way to mentor and to provide guidance to young Black talent with openness, respect and humility. Can you talk about the necessity of mentorship and inter-generational collaboration, especially with respect to creatives of color?
EG: When I was coming up, there were literally no other immediately accessible black DPs and editors that I could go talk to. So, by virtue of there not being anybody that I could just sort of kick it with and get to some sort of understanding, I wanted to be the OG that I didn't have.
LH: I asked you if you had any significant power statement to live by and one of those phrases was “I work for the people.” Can you talk about what this statement means and how it relates to your lasting legacy as an artist?
EG: What I mean by I work for the people is I want to be an example and I'm willing to usher in new talent when I can. And I try my best to be an advocate for people to grow and move forward and progress. I want to be selfless. Yeah, of course, I want to work and make money but the real legacy I want to leave behind is a vast and varied body of work and the number of lives that I was able to touch through that work. Not just the end user. I want to touch the people who I've created with, like the producers, the gaffers and graphic designers, down to the craft people, the makeup artists, the hairstylists. I want every single one of my collaborators to understand that this art that we're all creating is created by people and is created from the thoughts, desires and wishes of a collective force of creative people. And I think we owe it to ourselves to take care of each other in elevating our artistic endeavors. We owe it to ourselves, and we owe it to the next man and the next woman who's helping us along in that endeavor.