The Artful Eye of Photographer Eric Espino
It's been my good fortune to converse with so many wonderful artists and extraordinary thinkers. While working on Netflix's Concrete Cowboy, starring Idris Elba, by sheer chance I met Eric Espino, a photographer from Bed-Stuy, Brooklyn, one of the toughest neighborhoods in NYC then. Eric and his team shot the gallery photos of the film's stars so that my company, Greenlight Creative, could design the artwork.
What I like about Eric is his ability to be so positive and encouraging. Be it shooting celebrity portraits, directing short films, or giving back to his community, his heart, humanity and compassion are always on display.
In addition to commercial campaigns for H&M, the New York Yankees and NYC & Co., his work as a photographer has won him the Commissioner Award for the NFL 100th Photography campaign. And with the Super Bowl around the corner, it seemed like the perfect time to check in and see how he's doing.
Tami Shelly: This weekend is the Super Bowl. As the award-winning director of photography for the NFL's 100th Photography Campaign, you must have a unique creative perspective on what works during the commercial breaks. Will you be watching the game, and creatively what will you be looking for in the commercials?
Eric Espino: I'll be watching the game this year from the sidelines! I'm on a working contract for this Super Bowl and this will be my fifth one. In the commercials, I look for the comedic timing, the story, and the message that's trying to be summed up in a 30-second spot. It's fascinating how much creative work goes into this. My dream is to direct a Super Bowl halftime commercial in the future.
Have you always wanted to be a photographer?
I always read the blue book Britannica encyclopedias when I was a child. This opened my mind to a new world. My imagination ran wild and this all inspired me to be an archeologist.
You came up in a rough environment. Did that impact your creativity?
As I got older, I realized that my environment had a major impact on my creativity. The crime, drugs, sirens, screams, gunshots and natural ambiance of '80s Bed-Stuy (Do or Die) Brooklyn, molded me into someone who was afraid to go outside. This led me to play video games, watch TV, draw and read. Not an ideal way of getting inspired, but this is what it was at that time. A personal project in the works this year will be based on this. Stay tuned!
Who or what introduced you to photography?
My mom was always great at making house decor, and my father always wanted to be an architect, although they did not pursue their passions any further. Their creative dreams influenced my creativity. The Britannica encyclopedias are what introduced me to photography. The illustrations of things from around the world made me realize how much more the world had to offer other than the four walls I was living in.
Is there a person you idolized early on?
Harry Houdini. His theatrics and storytelling through escape tricks captivated me. Oddly enough, his first name weas actually Erik. Want to know something even stranger? The photo studio where my career started was Houdini's first film lab! My studio is now based here and I'm glad to be surrounded by Houdini's magical spirit.
Why open your own company instead of the security of a 9-5 job?
Because the security of a 9-5 job is not secure! I wanted to have my freedom from the everyday corporate stress.
What do you wish you had known before opening your business?
I wish I had known the business of doing business, legalese, and dealing with contracts. Thankfully I had/have great people around me who are entrepreneurs that help guide me along the way.
How do you manage running a company and being the primary creative?
I have a great team who I can rely on at any moment. We all complement each other's skill sets and will step up to the plate when needed.
How do you approach a new project?
I approach new projects by looking at the end result first. What are the deliverables? Is it a 20-minute short film or a commercial? Print, web or social media? This helps me assess how the team and I will layout the groundwork to get there. Once hired, we create a project management flow that will contain timelines and progress reports of how things are going. The client is involved with every step of the process to ensure things are going as planned from conception to initiation to completion.
How did you learn to embrace risk-taking?
I learned to stop being afraid. When I was a teenager, I joined a theater program called My Voice Theater. We learned the art of improv-ing, voice projection and performing on stage amongst your friends. This was the first big risk that changed me forever; it made me fearless.
Your media company does still and motion shoots. Do you have a preference?
I honestly love them both equally. I love the ability to tell stories in both forms.
What's unique about your approach?
What is unique about my approach is that I bring my film skills to the photo world and vice versa. For example, I have a still shoot coming up in which I created a pre-vis for the art director to review and give feedback. This saves time on shoot date from major changes, which saves costs on overall production.
My main strength as a creative person is that I never walk into a project with the "I" attitude. A creative project is a collective of ideas from everyone involved. Every person on set is acknowledged and thanked for their input into the project.
What do you love about your job?
I love that I get to create with teams who have a creative drive and will put their hearts into it.
There's so much humanity in your work. It's not surprising that your company supports so many charitable endeavors. Why is that important to you?
I believe in never forgetting where you came from. I love donating my creative ability to causes that matter. It's imperative to be that change in the world you want to see. You never know how devoting your time to something that matters to you can change your life or someone else's.
Do you look for these projects, or do the organizations come to you?
Most of the organizations I work with are referred. If there's a movement or charity that I feel strongly about, I will reach out to them in hopes of creating content to push their narrative forward.
During the height of the Covid-19 pandemic, you worked as a patient transporter at Elmhurst Hospital. What did you learn from that experience?
The most horrific thing I saw were patients taking their last breath. Amongst the chaos of machines beeping and nurses trying to help, I saw a clear plastic bag with the patient's property in it. It contained some clothing and a phone. Some patients came into the hospital with nothing but their phone, which just kept ringing. This made me realize the most important thing: What am I leaving behind in this world once I'm gone? What will my legacy be? It taught me to put time with family first because that's the most important thing when it's your time to go.
What's your favorite photograph you've ever taken?
One of the favorite creative projects that I've ever worked on was the NFL 100th commercial portraits—so good that it got published! My favorite photograph that I ever took was of "The Bodega Kids" from my project "La Bodega—The Lost Soul of a Neighborhood."
What advice would you give others starting a business or pursuing a creative field?
You are in a field that is constantly changing. Remember that you are a lifelong student. Learning the business side of anything is one of the most important things to know.
What used to be your biggest weaknesses?
Thinking that I wasn't good enough.
What are you most proud of?
Never letting those cloudy skies block my sun-rays. :-)
What's your perfect Sunday afternoon look like?
Spending time with my wife and son, eating pizza while watching Monsters Inc. 12 times in a row.