Today we’d like to introduce you to Ruben Contreras.
Ruben, please share your story with us. How did you get to where you are today?
My dad gave me a film camera when I was in middle school. Before then, I thought photography was this mystical process. In 15 minutes my dad taught me the very basics of how the camera worked. I continued to experiment with it through high school. After each roll I got developed I would take the results to my grandfather who would go through each photo and offer critique and advice. He is an amateur photographer and was my first teacher in composition and lighting.
My dad then handed me a video camera. This is where my hobby transformed into a passion. I attended San Francisco State University to figure out what a career in film was. I continued the school route and attended the master’s program at USC with a focus on cinematography. I graduated 2014 and have been fortunate to work as a freelance cinematographer since.
Great, so let’s dig a little deeper into the story – has it been an easy path overall and if not, what were the challenges you’ve had to overcome?
Both of my parents have 9-5 government jobs. They’ve had them as long as I’ve been alive. Going into the freelance world is a complete 180 to what I was used to growing up.
It has been a steep learning curve to figure out this way of life. What I gain in the perks of a freelance life I lose in a stable and secure career. It’s such an emotional roller coaster.
The biggest struggle I’ve had as a cinematographer is managing that roller coaster. There are reminders in Instagram feeds that everyone else is doing a lot better than you. You can tell yourself it’s all a façade but it still takes its toll.
I feel that it’s something that’s not widely talked about. Very few people want to put their self-doubt on display. Especially artists who come from underrepresented communities.
There is a systemic pressure on those folks that tells them that they aren’t good enough.
That those who are successful don’t you look like them. As a result, there’s a looming sense of self-doubt. Self-care is a real thing. I’ve gotten so caught up in my career and my need to succeed that I’ve forgotten to be kind to myself. You’re bound to make mistakes and take the long route to a result. It’s absolutely crucial to forgive yourself.
Alright – so let’s talk business. Tell us about Not specified – what should we know?
I am a freelance cinematographer. The freelance world is incredibly scary; however, I love the idea that I get to choose my work. While at USC, I was able to work with different people with vastly different backgrounds. It was a great place to find out what kind of cinematographer I am and what kind of films I wanted to participate in. I love telling stories from under-represented communities. It’s a bit of a vague answer but it casts a large net for a lot of opportunities.
I believe that people are a lot more alike than we, as a whole, realize. There are very loud voices telling us that we are different, that we have to choose a side, and we must dehumanize the others. My aim, as a cinematographer, is to show that we are more alike than not without relying on stereotypes and cliché. Marginalized communities have been reduced caricatures in popular media and I’m just trying to do my part to give them an honest and truthful representation.
Is there a characteristic or quality that you feel is essential to success?
One quality I’ve always admired about those who look up to is their seemingly endless curiosity. I’ve tried to adopt that into my life and it finds its way into my work as well. Los Angeles is full of transplants from all over the world. It’s a deep well of experiences that are very different from my own.
As a cinematographer, photographing underrepresented communities is a very delicate process. It’s so easy to rely on clichés and stereotypes developed and instilled in us over centuries. I use curiosity as an engine to learn and listen to that community. My filmmaking experience is enriched and I can portray them honestly; as full and complex characters.
With curiosity, I will never be bored in my craft. It’s a lifelong pursuit of what I find interesting. My father is retiring from his government job in a month but he’s been playing guitar since high school. After playing consistently for my lifetime, I feel he’s still finding new areas of his craft to explore. It’s inspiring to see his curiosity alive and well after decades of playing. That’s what excites me. There are endless rooms to explore.