Michael Cambio Fernandez is from California’s Delta, a rural and agricultural area in the heart of the Central Valley. His love for storytelling and filmmaking began while watching movies with his mother and 5 brothers. Coming from a place where the spiritual and profane intersect, Cambios experience growing up taught him to see the magic in simplicity and the working class.
Taking a non-traditional route, Cambio carries a Masters degree in History and served 10 years as a High School Teacher in Northern California. Its during that time he began focusing on his love for filmmaking, community and Cinematography.
While simultaneously teaching, Cambio had his first breakout Film “The Burial Of Kojo” directed by Blitz Bazawule (Black Is King, The Color Purple Musical) which was acquired by Ava DuVernay’s Array Now with distribution on Netflix.
After its release Cambio was signed to Iconic Talent Agency in 2019 where he has since shot various commercials, music videos and films around the world. He earned his Union Card as a Director of Photography for Local 600 Hollywood, and was recognized by the ASC and its membership as a rising star in 2022.
Many Lumens is brought to you by Open Society Foundations.
Produced by BlackStar Projects in partnership with Rowhome Productions.
Executive Producer and Host — Maori Karmael Holmes
Producer — Kayla Lattimore
Associate Producer — Irit Reinheimer
Managing Producer — Alex Lewis
Executive Editor — John Myers
Music Supervisor — David “Lil Dave” Adams
- Theme song composed by Vijay Mohan and remixed by Lil’ Dave.
- This episode features additional music by DCee Musik.
Fried Green Tomatoes (directed by Jon Avnet,1991)
Joy Luck Club (directed by Wayne Wang, 1993)
Friday (directed by F. Gary Gray, 1995)
J Dilla (1974-2006)
Fela Kuti (1938-1997)
La Haine (directed by Mathieu Kassovitz, 1996)
City of God (directed by Fernando Meirelles and Kátia Lund, 2002)
Amores Perros (directed by Alejandro González Iñárritu, 2001)
The Burial of Kojo (directed by Blitz Bazawule, 2019)
All Praises Due; A Portrait (directed by Michael Cambio Fernandez, 2016)
Black is King (film by Beyoncé + collaborators, 2020)
Ain’t Them Bodies Saints (directed by David Lowery, 2013)
Jimi Hendrix (1942-1970)
The Accidental Getaway Driver (directed by Sing J Lee, 2023)
Richard Nichols (1959-2014)
[00:00:00] Maori Karmael Holmes: As part of their enduring commitment to justice, equity, and expression, the Open Society Foundations are proud to sponsor Many Lumens. You’re listening to Many Lumens, where we talk about and find meaning in the intersections of art, social change, and popular culture. I’m your host, Maori Karmael Holmes.
In this episode, I have the pleasure of speaking with the gifted cinematographer and filmmaker Michael “Cambio” Fernandez. Cambio’s work as a DP came into the spotlight with the breakout film, The Burial of Kojo, directed by Blitz Bazawule. After the release of the film, Cambio’s career has skyrocketed, and he has gone on to shoot various commercials, music videos, and films around the world. His most recent work includes lensing some of Beyonce’s Black Is King in 2020, and the short film If I Go Will They Miss Me, directed by Walter Thompson-Hernandez, which was a 2022 Sundance Grand Jury prize winner. Also, recently, Cambio worked with Director Sing J. Lee on his film Accidental Getaway, which was a 2023 Sundance official selection.
Cambio’s path to filmmaking has been far from traditional, having grown up in southern California’s Central Valley. He first fell in love with moving images watching films with his mother. Cambio went on to pursue a career in hip hop as a member of the Afro-Latino collective Quilomboarte, and in teaching, before deciding to pursue filmmaking full time.
I wanted to have this conversation with Cambio because of the care and attention he puts into making his images. Through his films, it is apparent that he finds magic and simplicity and uses his craft to illustrate the beauty in the mundane. Cambio joined our conversation from his home when I asked him the origins of his name.
[00:01:50] Maori Karmael Holmes: You prefer to be called Cambio although you’re given name is Michael, and so what’s the origin of this nickname?
[00:01:57] Cambio: I was born premature, so I was really small. I was small my whole life, so Cambio is another term for somebody who’s really little, somebody who’s small like a coin. I was super little until high school. My junior year in high school I grew seven inches, so I went from five three to six foot tall. I saw the world from a smaller person’s viewpoint. I had the biggest heart in the world, and then my body caught up with it finally. So Cambio has always been with me since day one, and it just kind of symbolizes somebody who’s an underdog, essentially.
[00:02:38] Maori Karmael Holmes: You grew up working class in the California Delta in a largely rural and agricultural region, and you come from a somewhat large… I think you have five siblings…
[00:002:50] Cambio: Five, yeah.
[00:02:51] Maori Karmael Holmes: …Afro-Mexican family. Can you describe the type of setting of your early years and how it shaped your work ethic today?
[00:02:59] Cambio: It’s a largely unknown part of California. Everyone’s relationship to California usually is Los Angeles and Bay Area, but the majority of California is the Central Valley. It’s the middle of it. It’s only two hours north of LA. It’s not the furthest away, so I always had a relationship to Los Angeles. In fact, a lot of our neighbors and a lot of the community that I grew up with, it was people that came from Compton or South Central that were being gentrified at the time, and they could afford to live in the Central Valley. So it’s just working class, man. 70% of the residents are from the south and had made that historical migration. My father worked in the cotton fields out there. He grew up in an area called Cottonwood out there, in the middle of the cuts. They’re still very historical Black communities that are still there. Bakersfield is one of them on the east side and south side of that region. Bakersfield is the most known place, and really it’s Porterville and Delano and Arvin, Wasco, all these smaller towns that actually, it’s probably more of a representation of who I am and where I’m from.
[00:04:14] Maori Karmael Holmes: I grew up in Los Angeles and have not been around a lot of Central American folks, regardless of their actual identity, who outwardly identify as being of Afro or Black background. And so I’m very curious for you, how did you come to being very loud about that identity? Is that something your parents drilled in you? Is that something that happened in college? Where did those politics come from?
[00:04:42] Cambio: I think it’s a little bit of both maybe, right? I think my dad’s comfortability with his – is still really interested in having conversations with him. Maybe it’s from being with my family in the south that’s there physically, how we look and how we may not fit in a traditional Mexican family. And that curiosity is always kind of like, what is the history? Come to find out my grandfather was in World War II. We’re starting to find documents and it’s just leading to other stuff and other questions, and also I’m not so ashamed of it. So within our communities, there’s also a grip of internalized racism. Racism that exists. There’s still massive Black communities in Mexico, in Latin America in general. And when I started traveling, I was like, “Oh, there’s other people like me.” You know what I’m saying? I went to New York and I was in the borough, I was like, “Wow, there’s other people like me. That’s so beautiful.” Straight up Black Dominicans busting out Spanish, and in California you don’t really see that too much. Especially where I grew up. Definitely don’t see that. It’s not until I started to travel that I was like, “Okay, this is something that is really important to me. It’s my background and I should be embracing it and not running from it like we’re taught to do.”
[00:06:15] Maori Karmael Holmes: Thank you for sharing that.
[00:06:16] Cambio: Of course.
[00:06:18] Maori Karmael Holmes: What passions or interests did you have in grade school and what did you think you were going to do as an adult? What lit you up?
[00:06:26] Cambio: Honestly, I wanted to be in the NBA. That was my dream. That was my goal. I worked hard at that. I played in high school. I think when I was younger, that was it. ’90s baby. Everywhere we went when we moved around, I could make friends real quick, jump on the court. I have a big family, a lot of brothers that play as well, my father plays, so that was our thing. Photography wasn’t really something that I even knew was even a possibility. My dad took photos and he was really good, too. He was an amateur dad photographer.
[00:07:01] Maori Karmael Holmes: A dad photographer?
[00:07:07] Cambio: Yeah, the dad photographer. You know what I’m saying? Sit your kids on the car photographer and take those photos. I think now they’re a little bit more popularized, but I was like, “Man, my dad was shooting that type of photo way back in the day.” Beautiful portraits, and I didn’t get it. When I first started doing photography and stuff, I was like, “I like this type of artsy, crazy lights, soft lights, street photography,” and my father was just like, “Just put the person there. It’s beautiful on the couch.” He was actually really good.
[00:07:38] Maori Karmael Holmes: When did you become interested in photography yourself?
[00:07:42] Cambio: In college. The rap, I think that’s what started it, for sure. Bocafloja, the other rapper of the group that I was in, it’s called Quilomboarte, and it was a few of us. We shot music videos, art films, poetry stuff. He wrote a play, all kinds of different artistic stuff. And he was based out of Mexico City and New York, so that was the first time I started traveling and through him I was able to really start seeing the world. We went to Cuba, we went all over Latin America, and it was the first time that I really started to see filmmaking. I started picking up a camera to document him and the work that we were doing, telling our own story. So it was a different trajectory than what you would say is a traditional film journey, you know?
[00:08:36] Maori Karmael Holmes: Yeah. I read that you used to watch films with your mother and your brothers, and I’m curious if there was a film that maybe in hindsight was a spark for you to think you could become a filmmaker.
[00:08:48] Cambio: Man, my mother, every Friday she’s like, “You’re not allowed to be out here in these streets. Every Friday we’re going to go pick a movie and we’re going to rent four movies,” and on Friday and Saturday we would watch them. I think that process of just hanging out with my mother and watching Fried Green Tomatoes and Joy Luck Club, my mother was watching, I wouldn’t even say indie, but things I would’ve never seen. Because in the ’90s it was a whole other situation going on with the Friday movement. We would watch those too. My dad was all about the action packed stuff. I still feel like until I shoot the most action packed movie, he’s going to be like, “You haven’t really done it yet.” You know what I’m saying? But my mom, she supports the indie movement that I’m on right now and God bless her because I didn’t realize at the time, “Oh, I want to be a filmmaker. This is what I want to do.” I think I just appreciated the stories in that. Yeah.
[00:09:54] Maori Karmael Holmes: You later went to San Jose State for a master’s in history, and I’m curious what led you to pursue this degree. What was your plan at the time?
[00:10:04] Cambio: The first job I had out of college, I was a middle school teacher, and with a master’s stipend, you can get paid a little bit more. So I think the path that I was on, I was rapping, I was teaching, and I like learning. I think I’m a fast learner. I like knowledge and just being around other people. I love the environment of other academics, scholars, artists, activists. I missed it, so I went back to school just to get back into that. I think I’m still kind of like that. To this day I’m always like, man, I want to go back and just sit in that a classroom and have a conversation about a book or write a five-page essay on why I shot this.
[00:10:56] Maori Karmael Holmes: We can give you some assignments if you’d like.
[00:11:00] Cambio: I’m still curious in that world of learning and I’m like, what if I go back and do a doctorate program? I’m like, man, that’s OD. I’m doing the most. I need to chill out.
[00:11:14] Maori Karmael Holmes: What was your area of history that you studied, and I’m curious how that interest in history intersects with your practice as a DP now?
[00:11:23] Cambio: I think the way I view the world, the way I see things, I studied Black and brown history starting in the US and then of course across the diaspora. Emphasis on Afro-Latino studies and the history from Mexico to Southern United States, and particularly that relationship. So in a graduate degree you get to study exactly how did that happen, how did this community come together, and then how did it spread? And me being who I am, it was like, “I just want to study where I’m from,” and it has informed how I shoot, how I go into communities, who I am as a person, where I’m from. All that is really informative of the softness and the care and the love and the spiritual parts to it of how I engage in this practice of cinematography.
[00:12:33] Maori Karmael Holmes: You worked as a high school photography teacher for over a decade before entering or having a commercial creative practice. And in other interviews you’ve described the gifts you’ve gleaned from serving as a teacher and how that shows up in your DPing. I think a lot about how teaching means being in a constant state of learning, and I’m curious, how has your practice shifted since you’ve stopped teaching?
[00:13:00] Cambio: Man, that’s a great question. I think that’s why I always want to go back to being in community because I don’t want to stop learning. And like you said, when you’re teaching, you’re always learning, man. You have to adjust. The community is shifting, the time is shifting, so you’re always in a constant state of learning and growing and expanding, and there’s this constant state of reflection and action. It’s beautiful and you grow with it and leaving it, I feel like I have to go find it. And on my own, you don’t necessarily get that on film sets. Film sets could be backwards and dated, but I think that on film sets, I’m still trying to find that learning and that love and where I can fulfill that.
[00:13:50] Maori Karmael Holmes: Towards the start of your career, you traveled and photographed with the Quilomboarte Collective, made up of rappers and filmmakers from Latin America and Europe. You talked about this as a crash course in learning filmmaking-
[00:14:07] Cambio: Yes.
[00:14:07] Maori Karmael Holmes:… And you went through Mexico, Cuba, the DR, countries in Europe, countries in West Africa, and thinking about all those countries, when I saw them in a list, it made me think a bit about Third Cinema and imperatives from that time to shift our aesthetic perspective to center what we now call the Global South. And I was curious, how did that experience train how you use your lens?
[00:14:33] Cambio: I think it’s perspective. So for example, I feel like film is catching up to where music has kind of been. Now that we have access to certain cameras and lenses, and like I said, I feel like I’m one of the first generations of that filmmaking that started with a certain type of camera and then started expanding the world. So in music, the way J Dilla would sample something, and I feel like the way I want to lens up and the way I see and filmmaking is kind of like, well, how did Dilla make a beat? He took this song, took a little piece of it, took that song, took the drums from this, sampled it with a little bit of machine, dirtied it up maybe a little bit. Or the way Fela was, and Blitz and I always talk about this, but the way Fela Kuti, for example, would wait five minutes before you hear any voice. You know what I’m saying? Just like hella long. And I’m like, “Oh, film could do that too.” There’s no need to hit in the first 10 minutes, like they say, or what is traditional, you know?
[00:15:53] Maori Karmael Holmes: Yeah.
[00:15:53] Cambio: I think that was more informative to the way I lens up. I would see films like La Haine from France and I’d be like, “Man, we could do this?” City of God, “What? We could do this?” And so you start seeing these films and even Amores Perros, that early on film stuff, I was like, “Wow, this is possible.” So I want to make films the way Fela or Dilla, or I would always say sometimes I want to trap that shit out. I like that too. Current shit, you know what I’m saying? I like the way Kendrick or a Cardi B and all that.I want this to hit like Cardi hits in a song, and I’ll say that on set directly. I’ll be like, “This frame should hit like this, like that, and this frame should hit little softer, like a little mellowed out beat and a hot 16 super bars.” “This frame is not super bars. This frame is just one word. It’s a hook.” So that’s the way I kind of view it. I think a little bit more. Musicians I feel have already been doing it, and now we’re catching up to that and I feel like it’s beautiful.
[00:17:19] Maori Karmael Holmes: Speaking of love and hip hop, you and Blitz, as you mentioned, have known each other for a really long time, and a few years ago he approached you about working on The Burial of Kojo, and as a result, you took a lot of personal resources invested to make this film happen.
[00:17:39] Cambio: Yes.
[00:00:00] Maori Karmael Holmes: What about that script or Blitz himself inspired you to take such a big leap?
[00:17:45] Cambio: I was shooting at the time with the Quilombo crew. I’m Muslim, so I went with a friend of mine to Senegal. So I was chilling with the Sufis out there praying and with my brother Mohammed Yahya, we was out there in Medina Baye, and I was shooting. I had full access to the community and the masjid. We was praying and we shooting and I made a piece called All Praises Do and Blitz and I had been communicating through hip hop, watching each other’s videos. We were always like, “Yo, check out my visual.” He was like, “Yo, check out my visual,” because we were both doing kind of similar things, except he’s an amazing musician. Good god. Blitz is like, oh my god. At first with The Burial, he sent me the script and he was like, “Just read it. I just want you to be there with me in whatever capacity. I just want you to be there with me.” And I was like, “Cool, whatever. I’ll be there with you, you know what I’m saying? I can take pictures, I can do whatever you need.” So Blitz saw that thing that I did in Senegal, and I’m always like “Alhamdulillah man, God is good” because he saw the piece and he was like, “Yo, why don’t you just shoot it?” I was like, “Of course. I’ll be honored to shoot it.” So I took the same camera and the same lens that I did in the Sufi community, took that same setup and I was like, “I got it already. Let’s go do this,” and we got it in.
[00:19:31] Maori Karmael Holmes: We had him do director’s commentary for the film-
[00:19:35] Cambio: Wow.
[00:19:35] Maori Karmael Holmes:… At the last festival before the pandemic.
[00:19:38] Cambio: Yeah.
[00:19:39] Maori Karmael Holmes: I remember he shared all of the hand drawn… What do you call those? My brain right now. But the reference… What do you call those?
[00:19:48] Cambio: Yeah, yeah, I know what you’re talking about. Storyboards.
[00:19:50] Maori Karmael Holmes: Storyboards, yeah.
[00:19:51] Cambio: Yeah, yeah.
[00:19:52] Maori Karmael Holmes: And so he had shared those with us and I was like, “So not only are you this incredible musician, this director, this writer, but then you can draw,” and I was like, “The storyboards were art themselves.”
[00:20:03] Cambio: So good, man.
[00:20:03] Maori Karmael Holmes: Yeah, Kurosawa level.
[00:20:08] Cambio: Man. My brother, he’s out of this world.
[00:20:11] Maori Karmael Holmes: Yeah.
[00:20:12] Cambio: And legit out of this world. So like I said, I was blessed. We’re both aliens and it was like two aliens straight up coming together and just clicking at the right time.
[00:20:27] Maori Karmael Holmes: There was something I was thinking about — At BlackStar, our motto is, “By indie means necessary,” and I know that that’s how y’all shot this film.
[00:20:35] Cambio: Yes.
[00:20:35] Maori Karmael Holmes: And I was curious, is there any moment, a fantastic moment or a hard moment that you want to share that is just something that you hold close?
[00:20:46] Cambio: I have this one story, we were stuck in a hotel because they hadn’t made the payment. There was no money, so we were stuck. We couldn’t leave this hotel. They’re like, “Y’all not leaving until you pay us.”
[00:20:58] Maori Karmael Holmes: “Y’all got to wash dishes and clean the floors.”
[00:21:01] Cambio: So the crew was stuck at the hotel for three days.
[00:21:03] Maori Karmael Holmes: Oh, whoa.
[00:21:05] Cambio: In the middle of the shoot, like, “Y’all not going nowhere.”
[00:21:09] Maori Karmael Holmes: Wow.
[00:21:09] Cambio: And our amazing producer, you could see him hustling, trying to get it and him and Blitz. And I remember Blitz, before the film started, he showed me a bank receipt and it was negative. He was like, “I took everything,” and that dude called it. It was so crazy thinking about it. In Blitz fashion, he’s like, “Just watch. We’re about to change our whole lives.”
[00:21:37] Maori Karmael Holmes: Wow.
[00:21:37] Cambio: You know what I’m saying? And I was in a rap community. I was like, “I’ve heard that a few times.” “This song is about to hit,” and I still think it’s amazing. I still think about that to this day, how he just busted that out and was like, “This is about to change our lives. Forget this. I want us to remember this bank note. There’s zero money. I’m broke now. Negative.” He took his advance Sony money, everything, and went all in. I, as a teacher, busted my credit cards, all done. Family’s like, “What are you doing?” I’m like, “I don’t know, but I think it’s the right thing to do.”
[00:22:21] Maori Karmael Holmes: Yeah. Wow. You’re Muslim.
[00:22:25] Cambio: Yes.
[00:22:25] Maori Karmael Holmes: And I know that spirituality is a core tenant of how you move through the world. Were you religious growing up?
[00:22:32] Cambio: I think I would say spiritual. I think my father’s extremely spiritual. He’s always been into that. My mom’s actually Catholic, so I’ve always had that. I went to catechism. I was baptized Catholic. My dad at some point in his life was a preacher. To say spiritual is probably downplaying it a little bit, but he was a Christian preacher when he was young, fresh out of high school. That’s what he did for a while. So it’s always kind of been there. And spirituality, the way you treat people, the way you are, that was always our family’s, the way we moved.
[00:23:18] Maori Karmael Holmes: Yeah.
[00:23:18] Cambio: For me personally, I would find myself in these places and they’re all Muslim and Islam, they say, “Allah invites you.” It’s an invitation. And so I was like, “I’ll take the invitation,” and then took my shahada and converted to Islam. And I think that, for me, even when I had the meeting after Burial of Kojo started doing well and I was approached by some agencies, that was at the center of my conversation. It was like, I’m Muslim first. Before anything else. That’s how I operate. That’s how I introduce myself in the world.
[00:24:03] Maori Karmael Holmes: Yeah. Can you talk a little bit about how your personal politics show up in the projects that you choose to work on?
[00:24:13] Cambio: I think social justice, anti-racist, like anti-whack shit. You know what I’m saying? Like, don’t be whack.
[00:24:21] Maori Karmael Holmes: Yeah.
[00:24:22] Cambio: That’s how it shows up. Hard nos, this is something I’m not comfortable with doing. There’s a lot of those. I don’t even step onto the set. Stuff that I’m like, No, I don’t want to partake in that. I don’t want to perpetuate this kind of injustice or this kind of played out thing happening, way of shooting that’s happening. I don’t want to perpetuate it. So no, sorry. And I think that’s become a beautiful thing is just being able to tell people, “I’m good.” Before you even show up to set, be like, “You’re not going to have access to me or my heart on this project.”
[00:25:04] Maori Karmael Holmes: You are listening to Many Lumens. We’ll be back after a short break.
[00:25:11] Midroll: Seen is a journal of film and visual culture focused on Black, Brown, and Indigenous communities globally. Subscribe today and receive two beautifully designed issues a year featuring essays, reviews, interviews, and more from critics, artists, and other luminaries of color. Learn more at seen.blackstarfest.org.
[00:25:33] Maori Karmael Holmes: You’re listening to Many Lumens. And now back to our interview with Michael Cambio Fernandez.
[00:25:39] Maori Karmael Holmes: So in addition to your parents and Malcolm X, what shaped your politics?
[00:25:46] Cambio: Where I’m from, who I am, growing up in extreme poverty, being a working class family. I think that’s first and foremost, not forgetting that and understanding that and coming from that. Knowing what it feels like to have incarcerated family, and also, my mom was born in the US, not in the hospital, but on the border in Texas, so she never had papers. And so being undocumented and not getting that passport until a year ago. So the fact that my mom was called an alien when she was younger and being an undocumented unseen person has informed that directly. The way we moved. I’m a ghost because… I always say that. The proximity of the people, I don’t want everybody knowing all my business all the time. And not because I’m just a quiet guy, but also because I was raised like, “Don’t give them your address. Don’t give them this. Don’t let them know where you live. Don’t tell them where you’re from.” When part of your family’s the unseen community, you kind of grow up living in a certain type of way, not talking too much. I’m not going to tell the teacher this and this and that about my family. And that’s just where we’re from. When you’re from that, you’re always raised to be like, “Why are you asking so many questions?” I always tell people on set, they be asking you hella questions. I’m like, “Yo, are you miced, bro? Why are you asking me so many questions?”
[00:27:21] Maori Karmael Holmes: Who wants to know?
[00:27:22] Cambio: I’ll be like, “Who wants to know?” I’ll be like, “You want to know my address?” I was like, “Why, bro?” But yeah, I think that politicized me just naturally.
[00:27:34] Maori Karmael Holmes: Yeah. So with your on the road, DIY film school, how is it that you settled on being a cinematographer out of all of the other things? I imagine you were producing, you were directing.
[00:27:44] Cambio: Yes.
[00:27:45] Maori Karmael Holmes: You were doing all the things. How did being a cinematographer be the one you settled on?
[00:27:51] Cambio: I think yeah, you’re right because when you’re shooting your own stuff, you’re kind of writing, directing, editing, shooting, everything. All of the above. And then cinematography, I started shooting the commercials. They’re like, “Oh, we have somebody coloring. We have an editor, we have all this for you,” And I was like, “Huh?” I was like, “I’m not involved in…” They’re like, “Unless you want to be involved.” I was like, “Oh, shit.” I didn’t even know that was something you didn’t do. So coming from that world taught me a lot of bit about each one. But cinematography, man, making images, I think that’s where my heart’s at. I like every aspect of it. I like how you’re learning and growing, otherwise you’ll become stagnant and whack. It’s a job I feel like you have to grow. You can’t say static shooting the same type of thing. You have to grow and evolve, and you learn things every day about, there’s other master technicians and what they do in their field. So for the gaffers, they’re masters at what they do. The grip side, building stuff. I’m like, “Yo, how did you build? Okay, that’s amazing.” And so I’m constantly learning, evolving. Or you might learn from a camera operator that’s opping for you on that day. You’re like, “Whoa, that’s a good move.” It’s just a means in which to be constantly evolving and learning. You can’t work with a Christian Epps and not be learning every second of when you’re on set. On Black is King, I just remember when we shot that I was like, “Yo, that’s a great way of doing it.” We would lay the foundation, both of us together and be like, “Okay, this is kind of the idea,” and then he would just go in and just masterfully just be like, boom, boom, boom, boom, boom, boom. And so I like the aspect of where I’m at now with that.
[00:30:11] Maori Karmael Holmes: Yeah. Who are some of your influences? Maybe visual artists, photographers, other DPs? I mean, I would be curious if it’s Malik Saeed or Bradford Young, but who are some other folks?
[00:30:28] Cambio: Yeah, I obviously like Bradford, man. I think Sean. Him and Sean, I look up to them and what they’re doing. Sean was one of my first mentors when I stepped into the game. Brad, even on a spiritual tip, Salam Alaikum, first and foremost. And I think the journey that he’s on with stepping into directing now is a beautiful thing and showing us like, oh, I get it. I get it. And I see that. And then Malik Saeed and we share the same gaffer and the stories that I hear. But even photography-wise, I think Rinko Kawachi, Japanese photographer, soft. She shoots her family, she shoots nature. That’s probably who I lean towards the most right now. I think of where I’m at with the softness and the tenderness and the way she sees her family in the world is something that I’m like. And another photographer, Japanese photographer, Lieko Shiga is amazing. Same thing. Softer, magic realism. So beautiful. Rinko will shoot her baby’s eyes. Really nice, and I’m in love with that right now. I think with where I’m at in my life I think softness, and that’s kind of what I’ve been drawn to recently beauty-wise or just what I’m inspired by right now. It’s like, how do I get there?
[00:32:21] Maori Karmael Holmes: Yeah.
[00:32:22] Cambio: I’m trying to find that. I’m to search for that softness always, because we use such heavy, aggressive tools to shoot. It’s so aggressive, man. The big old… It’s just so aggressive. And then it’s like, how do you tone that down? How do you soften that? You can soften you, the way approach, the footprint, but there’s just something about that. I’m trying to figure that out. How do you soften the aggressive nature of filming?
[00:32:59] Maori Karmael Holmes: Yeah.
[00:32:59] Cambio: I don’t know. The machines are so massive. By the time everyone puts their stuff on… I’m having this internal fight all the time with how aggressive and big they are, and built out. And when you show up with somebody, “Okay, now be natural,” and it’s a little kid, seven year old kid. They’re like, “Huh?” So anytime I can find in photography… Noah Davis? Oh my God. Wow. Man, God bless him. Yeah, Noah Davis, man. If I could paint, if I could do one image in my whole career, he did one painting. If I could make a film like he just did one painting, I’ll be happy. That’s it. Just trying to find that. Noah Davis, Rinko, that’s it for me right now. That’s kind of where I’m at.
[00:34:04] Maori Karmael Holmes: Yeah. Thank you. In the bubble, at least that I’m in, we’ve talked a lot about the need for specialized lenses or film stock or possibly even cameras that might be able to truly capture the range and diversity of Black and brown skin. I first remember hearing Arthur Jafa talk about this. He called it Chaka Chrome.
[00:34:29] Cambio: That’s good.
[00:34:29] Maori Karmael Holmes: Yeah, it’s great. And of course Bradford Young is actively working on this. I was curious if you have any interest in the technology of capturing images and what are your thoughts on these possibilities. Or do you enjoy the challenge of making do with what you have? Which of course is the mother of invention.
[00:34:48] Cambio: Yeah. I think a little bit of both. I think technically it’s tinkering, exploring. I would say trapping out what already exists. That’s always a term that I really love to use because it’s what the mainstream doesn’t really like or I’m like, “Okay, y’all don’t mess with this?” This is what I like. I’m going to trap out this machine that probably wasn’t made for us to shoot with and be a part of and let me tinker with it same way as somebody took their NPC or whatever and started just like, “Oh, you get these drums, bro? You hear that?” And so technically I feel like we’re in that space now as filmmakers. Like, “Oh, you can push the stock like this or pull it or try this with this camera on this red camera on this ARRI sensor. I want to push it to 3,200,” or, “I’m going to pull it. I’m going to add crazy indie on the film and then I’m going to push it, push the stock eight and it’s going to be under, but it’s okay.” Like Ain’t Them Bodies Saints, the Brad and Christian thing, what they did with that. The technicality of that. But I feel like it’s just somebody hitting that board and just making that beat and the way Fela… It’s all coming together. So for me it’s like similarly, I’m going to trick out this lens and I’m going to make something. That’s what we’ve always done, with everything, and we’re going to make it better. I was on a project recently and I’m really blind in one eye, so the way I use the eyepiece is with my different eye, and so I’m tucked into the camera. I’m not able to see the way it’s made for. I’m able to see a certain type of way, kind of like a blind DP. But I’m always like, “That’s okay.” It’s not traditional, the way I carry it, the way I hold. It’s not traditional, but Jimi Hendrix played the guitar upside down.
[00:37:09] Maori Karmael Holmes: Yeah.
[00:37:10] Cambio: There’s no right or wrong way to do this shit. I don’t care. When you’re telling me is not traditional or the way you’re supposed to do it, the way you’re supposed to hold a camera, the way you’re supposed to rig it out, I don’t want to hear none of that. Now we’re learning and we’re making our own films, and y’all are following us because we’re set in the way and I can see it. We make a film and then now there’s like 500 that are going to look exactly the same, but you can’t duplicate the love and the spirit that we have in this.
[00:37:48] Maori Karmael Holmes: Yeah.
[00:37:48] Cambio: It’s impossible.
[00:37:51] Maori Karmael Holmes: Speaking of that, what would you tell folks who want to become DPs? What’s your common advice in terms of what they should study or how?
[00:38:03] Cambio: First, I always tell them, “What’s your voice? Who are you as a person first? What do you want to say?” Because I feel like as a DP or cinematographer, we have something to say. It evolves, but I’m always like, “Just have a unique perspective.” Have your perspective. If you have that and if you have a voice, then anything you shoot will be you. If you want to be a cinematographer or a DP, shoot your family. That’s the first thing I ask. Just have a voice. Say something. And I feel like I’ve always had my own voice. I have a very strong voice in the way I view things, and in the beginning it was really hard for me. People was like, “What are you doing? It doesn’t really make sense,” but now it’s doing well. I’m able to make a living from that. But that’s my advice. Pick up anything and have a voice in the way you view the world and you’ll be all right. You’ll figure all the other stuff because the technicality stuff comes. You got to be brave and just say, “Whatever. I can shoot whatever.” Somebody was like, “Have you shot on this camera, Alexa 35?” And I was like, “Sure.” Literally, I was like, “Okay, sure. I’ve done it.” I have more confidence. I know that what I want to shoot. I can learn the technical stuff on the day. And that’s how I did it. That’s how I started it. It was like, “You can’t teach me heart, but you can teach me the technicality.” It doesn’t work the other way around. You can be the most technical person on earth. You can know everything about the camera and be whack when it comes to making and making films, just with music, just with anything else. Just because you watch basketball and you’re really good at picking apart the game don’t mean that you could hoop. So just because you know every film on earth and you’re like, “Oh, I know every film on Criterion.” That’s cool. I watch the Lakers too. It don’t mean that I’m LeBron James. So that’s important to understand.
[00:40:38] Maori Karmael Holmes: Yeah. It seems like you have a film coming up with the director Sing J. Lee, the Accidental Getaway. And I was just curious if you could tell us a little bit about that film and if you know when it comes out.
[00:40:52] Cambio: Yeah, it premiered at Sundance last year and he won Best Director for it, so I’m really happy for him. The film did well. When the world going to see it? I don’t know. I thought it last year. It depends on distribution I guess, and all that stuff. I don’t know all the politics of that side of it, but it did well. Like I said, he got the award for it, and I was blessed to be a part of the project. We shot it in Little Saigon in Orange County with the real Vietnamese community. It’s in Vietnamese, the film, and we shot it like that. It was a dope journey and process to be invited to shoot something that’s unseen and people have kind of forgotten these stories.
[00:41:46] Maori Karmael Holmes: Yeah. You and Blitz worked on a section of Beyonce’s Black is King and I can only imagine what kind of experience that was. How did it come to pass that you all were selected for that project?
[00:42:03] Cambio: It was right after Burial of Kojo. The story is that she saw Burial of Kojo and they were looking for somebody to help piece together the stuff they’ve already shot. They wanted somebody from the continent to write and shoot it, so Blitz’s name came up. This is according to what he told me. And he did. He took what they had shot and then was like, “Okay.” He wrote the in-betweens, he wrote the flying kid through space, all this stuff. Started writing like how Blitz does in a day. And then from there, storyboarded it, presented it. They were like, “Go shoot it.” We ended up going to South Africa and shooting a big part of it, and then after that, we actually went and shot pickups for the film with Beyonce here in LA for a week. So we shot both. We shot LA scenes with the in-between story parts, all kind of connecting it together, and then the flying boy through space and all that dope stuff. And then we also shot all the other scenes for parts of music videos. We have a little scene in Brown-Skinned Girl. We have a little scene in the other music videos with her. So that was dope, actually being a part of different music videos. It wasn’t just one part. It was like, “Okay, cool. We’re going to touch up this, touch up that,” and we have pieces in all of it.
[00:43:32] Maori Karmael Holmes: Oh, cool.
[00:43:33] Cambio: Yeah, it was really nice to be a part of that and the different things that other people have worked on, and to also contribute to those pieces as well. And for me, in the commercial space, it was a jump off for me because once you shoot the queen of earth, it’s like, “Oh, you can shoot this.”
[00:43:56] Maori Karmael Holmes: Yeah.
[00:43:57] Cambio: “Okay, cool. You can shoot this commercial.” “Okay, cool. He knows how to do this.” And up until that, I was having difficulty getting a certain type of commercial, but once I shot her, it was like, game over.
[00:44:10] Maori Karmael Holmes: What did Lizzo call her? The artist of our time?
[00:44:13] Cambio: Yes. Man, it’s really real though. They always say it like that, but as soon as I really did shoot that, the career just skyrocketed. In that a certain space, right?
[00:44:29] Maori Karmael Holmes: Yeah.
[00:44:30] Cambio: But it does, man. And I was like, “Oh, it really is true, man.” So I’m grateful that Blitz brought me off for that. For shooting Burial of Kojo with him, I think he was like, “I want you to shoot Black is King with me,” and I really appreciate him for doing that. He didn’t have to do that.
[00:44:51] Maori Karmael Holmes: Yeah.
[00:44:52] Cambio: He could have went out and hired whoever to shoot that, but he brought me along and man, I’ll always be grateful that he did that for me. It helped change my career.
[00:45:02] Maori Karmael Holmes: I wanted to make some space to talk about your partner, Dina Naser.
[00:45:06] Cambio: Yes.
[00:45:07] Maori Karmael Holmes: Who I know a little bit from her days at the Arab American Film Festival.
[00:45:11] Cambio: Yes.
[00:45:11] Maori Karmael Holmes: And I believe she’s now creative director for Netflix’s Middle East and North African efforts.
[00:45:18] Cambio: Yes, she is.
[00:45:18] Maori Karmael Holmes: Yeah.
[00:45:18] Cambio: Yeah, she is.
[00:45:18] Maori Karmael Holmes: How did you all meet?
[00:45:21] Cambio: Through a mutual friend’s music group called The Reminders. Amazing. The most amazing rap marriage duo on earth. They were touring. I used to film them. I met them through Quilomboarte, and they were on tour with Hieroglyphics. I think it was Chali 2na Tuna and Hieroglyphics at the time. And they’re Muslim. They’re Muslim rappers. They’re not Muslim rappers, they’re rappers that are Muslim.
[00:45:53] Maori Karmael Holmes: Yeah.
[00:45:54] Cambio: I should frame it that way. And she was behind the stage. The community’s small. In Islam, it’s you start knowing everybody and stuff. And so she was there backstage and I was like, “Whoa, who’s that?” And I was filming at the time. I didn’t really say nothing at the time. It was way long time ago. And then I think we started chatting kind of little by little, and at the time she was involved in film as well. So I’d send her some of the short stuff I was working on and she would give advice, like, “Hey, maybe write some of this.” But that’s how we met. And now she’s epically doing her own thing. She was there from when Burial of Kojo kicked off and all of that stuff started to happen. She was calling it, she was like, “Don’t worry. Allah got you.” Yeah, we had our kitab soon after. And yeah, it’s been a journey. And God bless her because also, her career too is amazing. She went to Howard Law School and did the USC thing, and it’s now at Netflix doing her thing and running big old programs. I’m just the DP.
[00:47:22] Maori Karmael Holmes: For whom do you create work?
[00:47:30] Cambio: The ego would tell me to be like, “Oh, you do it for the spiritual world,” and all this stuff. That’s true too. I think that’s important. I think I do it in this selfish interest to find the truth, find God, find creation, what it means. I’m curious. I don’t know, man, that’s a good question. I don’t know who I make this for. Hopefully the community that we actually are part of and shoot. I can say, with hopefully all honesty, that on some projects, I really do. We really, really do that with certain films. We make it for the people. When I was making music, it’s like, “Oh, this is for the people.” This is for the consciousness. This is for the hunger for consciousness. It’s for the hunger, for knowledge. So in filmmaking, I guess it’s kind of similar, it’s this is for people that are interested and for the unseen and for the unheard, and the people that don’t have access, they can look and be like Cambio. He’s from the exact same place and he did it like this. And so the traditional method is like, “Oh, you don’t have to do it like this. You could pop the trunk.” And that’s who really it should be for. That community. Like in LA, for example, it’s a shame there’s no pathway for kids to go from straight from elementary school to film and being so close proximity to film and yet have zero access to it.
[00:49:29] Maori Karmael Holmes: Yeah.
[00:49:30] Cambio: That’s whack. That’s the wackest shit ever. You’re telling me you can’t put a high school class that’s like, if you’re a freshman, by the time you’re a senior and you take a gaffer A or camera or producer or writing or line producing or-
[00:49:46] Maori Karmael Holmes: Right.
[00:49:47] Cambio:…A promotion, all the aspects of film, they don’t have classes that lead to a straight, foregoing $100,000 film school?
[00:49:56] Maori Karmael Holmes: Right.
[00:49:58] Cambio: Come on. So that definitely is a part of who I shoot for. God is definitely a part of why I shoot, and then myself in search of the image.
[00:50:12] Maori Karmael Holmes: Thank you.
[00:50:13] Cambio: Yeah.
[00:50:15] Maori Karmael Holmes: Thank you so much.
[00:50:17] Cambio: Yes, yes, yes.
[00:50:18] Maori Karmael Holmes: Yeah.
[00:50:19] Cambio: Yes, yes, of course. Thanks for having me. I appreciate it.
[00:50:26] Maori Karmael Holmes: It’s now time for our brand new segment, Ask Maori, where you, our audience, is given the chance to ask me, Maori Karmael Holmes:, about navigating the film world, artistic practice, traveling, tips and tricks for picking a festival outfit, or anything else you would like to ask. Here’s this week’s question.
[00:50:51] Mariam Dembele: Sidney asks, “Who do you consider a huge mentor to you? How did you meet them and cultivate that relationship?”
[00:51:00] Maori Karmael Holmes: And this is an interesting question for me because I have not felt like I had a single mentor. Doing the interview with Cambio this season, he’s someone who was interested in a lot of different things and pursued them eagerly. I have similarly pursued a lot of different things eagerly, and that’s made me feel like there wasn’t necessarily one mentor in particular that I could look up to. But there are people in my life who have embraced me and helped to push me forward by making space for me. One of those people is Denise Brown, currently executive director of the Leeway Foundation. Another one is Richard Nichols. He was the manager for The Roots forever until he passed, and he is just the architect of a lot of other musical moments and many things. He made space for me and saw something and welcomed me into a particular moment in Philadelphia and helped me to have room to test out some ideas and develop some skills. And then I also think about, it was fortunate for me that in both undergrad and grad, I was matched with the geniuses that are Bernice Johnson Reagon, when I was at American University, and Michelle Parkerson at Temple University, and I didn’t know that they were geniuses. I was just the Black person that they assigned to these Black professors. But they both are just incredible artists and teachers and cultural workers who absolutely shifted how I see myself and see the world at large. I think the cultivating piece is something I’ve been thinking about currently, how to keep in touch with people generally. It’s one that is hard. So I think back in the day, I would just make sure to send people emails and that they knew what was going on and trying to go to their things as much as inviting them to mine. But yeah, I think cultivating requires staying in contact and not having that contact always be about asking for a letter of recommendation or for a favor, but really having a relationship. So that’s something I’m still working on.
[00:53:32] Maori Karmael Holmes: To keep up with more of Michael Cambio Fernandez’s work, you can follow him on Instagram @cambio_was_here, and Twitter @cambiowashere. This season of Many Lumens is brought to you by Open Society Foundations. It is produced by BlackStar Projects in partnership with Rowhome Productions.
The host and executive producer of Many Lumens is me, Maori Karmael Holmes:. This episode was produced by Kayla Lattimore. Associate producers are Irit Reinheimer and Zoe Gregs. Managing producer is Alex Lewis. Executive editor is John Myers. Justin Berger is our final mix and mastering engineer. Our music supervisor is David “Lil Dave” Adams. Our theme song was composed by Vijay Mohan and remixed by Lil Dave. This episode features music by DC music.
If you’ve liked what you’ve heard so far this season, please leave us a review on Apple Podcast and let us know what you think of the show. Many Lumens will be back in the fall with more episodes.
Sending you light, and see you next time.